Animals always win in the tulips-versus-deer battle
It is a sad fact of gardening life in deer country that deer eat tulips.They don’t just eat them; they relish them more than anything else in my border except aquilegias (columbines). A columbine will regrow and still flower, but a tulip, once clipped of its growing point, doesn’t get another chance until next year. And chances are, next year the deer will come looking for it again. So, unless you have a deer fence, forget tulips.For years we laboriously strung soft mesh fencing around my border every fall and took it down again in late spring, when we hoped the deer had migrated back up the mountain. Part of the fence was neatly supported by the deck posts and the remainder by 10-feet-long, three-quarter-inch iron plumbing pipe stuck into pipe sleeves planted in the ground at intervals along the steep, uneven terrain; not pretty but it worked. One year I decided to straighten the fence. The pipes were moved into more or less straight lines and the netting strung as usual. That’s when I discovered that deer, like people taking the same route to work every day, follow established trails, and that my soft fence presented a barrier only in the sense that the solid white line on the highway does. One night we were awakened by a terrible racket. When we investigated, we found ripped and tangled netting trailing to the street and iron pipe bent into a 90-degree “L” where it met the sleeve. We guessed that a buck ambled right into that unexpected fence and got his rack tangled, then charged off down the hill in surprise and terror. I had no idea deer could make such awful heartrending sounds. Was it hurt? It couldn’t be asbad as a car collision could it? The fence was restored to its old location; no deer was ever unwittingly trapped again.When I finally relinquished the fence, I thought I was giving up a beautiful border, too. I always knew that the tradeoff for masses of beautiful tulips was an ugly, obtrusive fence, yet I was astonished at how much better the garden looked without it. The tulips were particularly glorious that year: hundreds of multi-colored small specie or wild tulips among the narcissus (daffodils), a few “Red Emperors” with black anthers in a golden throated red cup, and especially Tulipa “Red Shine,” an elegantly curving tulip with pointed petals (lily-flowered type) that blooms for a long time in late spring. It glows like stained glass in certain light and I never get tired of it.I couldn’t believe the deer hadn’t devoured them before they even bloomed. Were they restrained by a virtual fence where the actual one had been for so many years? We made plans to visit our families back east but I just hated the thought of leaving my beautiful border with its miraculous tulips. No worries, the day before our trip every single “Red Shine” flower was decapitated! None of the other juicy plants was browsed, apart from a few that were crushed under foot. The timing couldn’t have been better; I left home without a qualm.I believe the deer make a special trip or two for tulips, the way I might go berry picking, but the whole border is a salad bar. Were my tulips planted in neat rows, I expect they would have disappeared permanently by now, but as they are cunningly distributed among the juicy herbaceous plants and shrubs there are always a few that escape, enough to satisfy my cravingand put a spark in the border.Why do deer love tulips? For all I know, tulips contribute some vital but scarce enzyme or nutrient to the deer diet. On the other hand they could be junk food or worse. Am I am harming the deer by planting tulips? I wish I knew. I do know that starving Dutch people during the World War II got sick from eating tulip bulbs.Newcomers to the neighborhood tell me about the tricks they use to keep deer away from their gardens. I try to be gentle and not laugh too hard. “Well, it didn’t work for me,” I tell them, knowing that it won’t work long for them either. Eventually, a deer will get sidetracked and come upon the previously undiscovered treats. “Hey everyone! I found this great new place to eat,” one deer says to the others. So much for the soap, the human hair, the big cat urine, even the expensive repellents. I’ve tried them all.But hey, try them for yourself; maybe you’ll have better luck.Anna gardens in Basalt with her husband, Gerry, and dog, Maggie. She plans to plant more tulip bulbs to share with the deer. She’d love to hear from you at email@example.com.
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