Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Today's Topic Is My Garden - Oh, Deer!

First of all, a shoutout to old friend Vincent Eaton for sending me this photo, which he took the other day while walking through one of the forests in the Brussels area. Vincent is a talented storyteller in word, image, and performance media, so when I heard on Facebook that he'd been out taking photos in a bluebell wood I jumped on the chance to get one of those photos for myself. It's on my computer desktop right now, reminding me of one of the many reasons I loved Belgium.

Springtime here in the Midwest is a rather rougher-round-the-edges affair. The melting of several months' accumulation of snow tends to reveal much damage to lawns, shrubs, and anything else that wasn't safely underground. We've just pulled through a particularly nasty winter, and I'm lamenting several plants that were there but now aren't. There have been some astonishing survivals, though. A few weeks ago I cleared the leaves from a bed of astilbes, and looked at dismay at the shriveled root clumps that had heaved out of the ground as it froze and had lain exposed to the bitter cold for heaven knows how long. I stomped them roughly back into the dirt, thinking all the while of the plants I would use to replace them when, as I assumed, they would fail to grow. Well, they're still standing, thrusting up red-green shoots in defiance of everything an Illinois winter could chuck at them.

Springtime also means that the yearly battle with another suburban scourge, the white-tailed deer, has begun. In the winter I sort of give up, and this year's victim is a small maple tree whose bark has been shredded to provide Bambi's breakfast and which will probably not recover. If it shows any signs of sprouting from the base, I will move it elsewhere as a reward.

Now that spring is here, the deer have taken to plodding regularly and arrogantly through my yard to sample the smorgasbord that I, and nature, have kindly provided for them. They are particularly fond of a certain type of hosta (I call them "salad hostas" for that reason), shooting stars, daylilies, and trilliums. I do try to grow things that they don't like, but the shooting stars and trilliums are woodland natives that pop up by themselves, and hostas and daylilies are such useful workhorses as they actually seem to like the insane temperature spread of the Chicago year (-10 degrees Fahrenheit to over 100) and never fail to flower if not nibbled to the ground.

My weapon of choice is a handheld sprayer and a bottle or two of Liquid Fence. This stuff is made out of garlic and rotten eggs, and that's exactly what it smells like. Fortunately deer have very sensitive noses and they can smell it for weeks after the pong has faded away from our senses, which takes just a few hours. So I apply it every so often to my poor chewed plants, and presto! suddenly I have a tuft of green where before I'd just seen a few ragged ends. Unfortunately the trilliums are everywhere and I don't usually get round to spraying them before they get chomped at least once.

Deer also bring another delight: fat brown ticks that carry Lyme disease! I remember once last spring I was sitting here at my computer after a few hours in the garden, and absentmindedly scratched the back of my neck..... EWWWWW! There was a wriggling brown tick, bloated with my blood, between my thumb and forefinger. When they're caught they wiggle all their legs like crazy, and as they're quite large they look like a demented spider. I carefully inspected the little beast to see if its mouthparts were still attached and NOT buried in my skin, and then took great pleasure in flushing it down the loo. Ick.

And then there's buckthorn... and poison ivy... and poison oak... and poison sumac... the former three make regular appearances in my yard and have to be ruthlessly suppressed with Roundup. Poison ivy and poison oak are native plants and can't be helped, but buckthorn could be eliminated if everyone would cooperate. Sadly, many of my neighbors actually like their properties being surrounded by a shady thicket of buckthorn because it "provides privacy" at no cost. One of my neighbors, though, has cottoned on to the fact that my buckthorn-free wood looks so much nicer than theirs and is filled with wildflowers whose seeds lay dormant under the buckthorn's shade for many years. So he is beginning his own anti-buckthorn campaign, and I will provide him with plenty of transplants to get his new-look yard started.

So gardeners in the Chicago suburbs have to be a tough breed! Despite all this, my garden looks quite decent right now. And by my estimate we have about two weeks left before the mosquitos hatch out in droves and make a liberal spraying with Off a necessary precursor to yardwork. Then it will get too hot to garden, and eventually too hot for the mosquitos. But the Japanese beetles will love the heat... and my plants... Oh this is just too depressing. Vincent, count your blessings as you work in your Belgian garden. Rain and blackfly are nothing compared to what I have to contend with here!