The Winter Wildlife Wonderland In Our Own Back Yard
I recently heard from a reader who feeds all sort of wild animals, including raccoons. She noted that while I have written about promoting bird and bee habitat, I seem less friendly to larger critters. As a gardener, I am indeed a bit ambivalent about animals in the garden, wild or otherwise. I too enjoy seeing wild creatures (admittedly especially birds), but sharing my garden with wildlife can be a little challenging. Do they really need to take one bite of each ear of corn or apple? Must they denude every lower tree limb, casually mashing the perennials underfoot as they do?
With critters all around, I sometimes feel like a Disney character, especially when deer herds and large raccoon families wander through the yard. If I warble out a little ditty, will a bird come flying to alight on my finger? What would I do if it did?
I do plant with birds in mind, notably natives that flower and fruit. Oregon grape (Mahonia) species come in several sizes, from creepers to tall shrubs. They have fragrant flowers in late winter and spring and plump fruit from summer into winter, and the glossy evergreen leaves are too prickly to attract deer. Disease-resistant wild roses offer flowers for bees (and me) and bright hips for birds, and again are not deer favorites.
In the past, I spent a lot of time trying to protect my plants from hungry or destructive creatures. I fenced, I put out water-spraying devices, I threaded sticks with string and nasty smelling laundry softening papers. I even encouraged the males in my family to whizz long the garden’s edges (male predator urine is a powerful dis-incentive for deer and many small mammals).
The Lazy Way…
These days, I’m older, more tired, and more tolerant. I rarely even bait for slugs anymore, instead replacing delicious plants with less tasty ones. Now that all the remaining lawn is at the bottom of a long slope, much removed from the house, I don’t really care when raccoons dig for grubs. (Though really, if they would just learn to replace their divots, their digging wouldn’t even show.)
Because their table manners are so awful, deer are probably the least welcome here, though I no longer try to discourage them. After all, they were here first, and their habitat is indeed shrinking fast. The other day I drove past a wooded area that is being cleared for new houses and saw a puzzled looking deer wandering through the stumps, probably wondering where her own home went.
Last week, I noticed that my pile of composting dairy manure looked freshly rumpled. I wondered for a minute if it was being used by a neighbor, then realized that indeed it was: the neighborhood deer were making cozy sleeping nests in the warm manure. Awww.
While I am not about to start actively feeding raccoons and deer, I do find coexistence easier than ever. I do more planting of deer-resistant plants and less fencing, spraying, or otherwise repelling. Tasty, soft-leaved shrubs get replaced with beautiful, colorful barberries, whose sharp spines help keep them intact. Spireas don’t seem high on the deer list either, and I love the vivid foliage colors they offer, from gold or chartreuse to tawny orange and copper.
Deer Resistant, Anyway…
Nobody seems interested in eating hardy herbs with scented foliage, from lavender and rosemary to thyme, sage, and hyssop. Rhododendrons and azaleas are rarely damaged, and heathers and heaths remain untouched year after year. Heavenly bamboo (Nandina) is another favorite of mine that deer ignore, as they do California lilac (Ceanothus). At this point, I’m pretty happy to live and let live. But I still won’t feed those dratted raccoons!