Deadly Days In The Garden

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Dealing with Deer and Other Pests In Victorian Times

I recently attended a delightful Victorian festival in Port Townsend, Washington. I delivered several gardening talks to beautifully garbed audiences, male and female, decked out in marvelous clothes appropriate to various Victorian periods. I was not in period costume myself, but deeply enjoyed the chance to talk a bit about one of my favorite periods in garden history.

One of my talks was about Victorian pest controls, notably with respect to deer. Interestingly, in Victorian times, deer were as often preserved as deterred. Because much of England was still forested, there was plenty of habitat and food gardens were usually walled, which served to keep deer out.

Darling, Dainty Deer??

In fact, deer parks were a common adjunct to a sweeping country estate, and many a family seat was graced by a herd of particularly pretty deer, which were often fed during hard winters and late springs. Gamekeepers carefully tended deer, along with the birds that Victorian gentlemen found so entertaining to shoot. Gamekeepers spent a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to foil the poachers who wanted to feed their hungry families. Old folk songs like The Keeper Would A-Hunting Go suggest that at times, the keepers were as hungry as the poachers.

However, Victorian gardeners struggled wit garden pests, just as we do today, and their pest controls were direct and simple. During the mid- to late Victorian period, a boatload of toxins were developed, giving them an almost incredible arsenal of deadly poisons to play with. Indeed, the lethal ingredients found in typical garden sheds inspired several generations of murderers as well as mystery writers.

Deadly Mysteries

Pharmacies sold poisons in glass bottles marked “poison” with no other identification, making “mistakes” dead simple. Anyone could buy arsenic or strychnine for killing rats and mice, then absent mindedly use it to remove a nagging spouse. You could buy half an ounce of odorless, tasteless arsenic for a penny at any pharmacy, though eventually purchasers had to sign a poison register.

The Victorians didn’t stop at poisoning pests and each other, they also poisoned themselves. Laudanum, an over the counter herbal cure for sleeplessness, nerves, or stress, was used especially for ladies of delicate sensibility, as well as for fussy babies. Described as an herbal remedy, it is made from poppies, and contains every form of opiate, from morphine to cocaine to heroin. Incidentally, laudanum is still legally prescribed in the US, though possibly not for long…

Dying From Dye

Paris Green, a dye containing copper arsenate, was used in garden sprays, wallpapers, clothing and even children’s toys, and many people died. Early Bayer ads touted both the brand new aspirin and pure heroin, promoted as ‘the sedative for coughs’. In the US, cocaine was sold over the counter until 1914 and was commonly found in products like children’s toothache drops, dandruff remedies and medicinal tonics. Coca wine combined wine with cocaine were quite popular. I understand why; In Costa Rica, I chewed coca leaves, along with cola nuts and the result was fabulous: there was no high, but nothing in my aging body hurt. Wow!

Today, all plant poisons are detectable in an autopsy or bloodwork, but back then, no such luck. Thus, many mysteries of the day were based on unknown toxins like South American curare, but there was plenty of fatal stuff in every Victorian garden, from foxgloves to datura. However, when dealing with garden pests, gardeners mostly stuck with the classic four deadly plants; hellebore, aconite, nicotine, and hemlock. Extracts of all of these noxious plants were cheerfully sprayed on everything from rose bushes to rutabegas to kill off cutworms and caterpillars, slugs and snails, molds and mildews, or whatever was giving trouble at the time. Eventually people began to notice that folks who used these sprays often ended up as dead as the pests they were fighting. That’s not surprising, since heritage pesticides often included mercury and arsenic as well as strychnine, nicotine, and copper.

Dealing With Deer

Anyway, back to the deer. I was impressed to see how tame the Port Townsend deer are, grazing gardens happily as cars or people pass them by. My own yard is visited daily by a small herd of deer, and despite all the published lists of plants deer don’t eat, wherever deer populations are high, there are very few plants that won’t be browsed. For years, I planted the outer areas of my gardens with strongly scented foliage plants, finding that deer rarely ate them. These days, I’m noticing that, while adult deer seldom graze on intensely flavorful herbs like scented geraniums, rosemary, and lavender, young deer will eat anything, at least for a while.

I can’t promise that my advice will rid you of their presence, but I can offer some ideas for making deer and other pests less welcome. As an example, Victorian critter chasers consisted of slim wands like fishing rods, with twine that held a potato stuck with feathers bobbing at the end. They used fly paper in greenhouses and in vegetable gardens to capture aphids, thrips, and whitefly, and painted wooden apples red, then coated them with glue and hung them in orchards to catch apple maggots, all of which work very well indeed even today.

Fancy Fences And Male Pee

For deer, Victorians who couldn’t afford brick or stone garden walls made wooden fences just as the Romans did, using a series of poles in 3 heights (5- 6- and 7-feet) set 6 inches apart. (Prince Charles has one at Highgate). Today, we have many kinds of deer fencing, from heavy duty netting to stockade wire as well as wood. Where fencing is impractical, we can try an ever-changing array of tricks to keep deer away. They quickly habituate to whatever we use, so it’s most effective to rotate several different techniques. Some folks swear by smelly repellants, from soap to human hair to stinky clothing dryer sheets and rotting salmon.

Male predator urine is generally very effective. Bottles of wolf or coyote urine are inhumanely collected from caged animals, but many of us keep male predators around the home. Teenaged boy pee works best, and they often think it’s hilarious to whizz around the garden. It turns to nitrogen, so that’s all good. Collected pee can be placed in plastic flower bud picks, with a piece of cotton rope for a wick, and set around the garden, a charmingly intimate touch.

Berry Traps

Deer love strawberries and I have experimented with many ways to keep deer out of my berry beds. One of the more successful techniques I’ve used is to buy big bargain-sized packets of skinny bamboo kebab skewers and poke them thickly, pointy side up, in amongst the berries. It works even better if you thread some of the stinking dryer sheets on the skewers.

Some folks place salt licks to entice deer away from their gardens. Others keep aggressive male dogs, but I’ve found that a scarecrow water spray device is very effective if moved often. Also Skydd, made from blood meal (sourced from steer, no mad cow) really works. Finally, I’ve had excellent results using bittering agents which make plant foliage smell and taste bad to deer.

The Chocolate Cure

Bitrex spray is mixed with a clear latex carrier that coats stems and foliage. Repellex systemic tablets are placed in soil when planting, repel not only deer but rodents, gophers, rabbits and other herbivores, providing up to two years of protection for roses, lilies, and so forth, according to field studies performed at Rutgers and other testing institutes.

As an added bonus, the best antidote to the bitter taste (which transfers readily to hand and mouth) is chocolate! Con: It takes about a month for the bittering agents to enter the plant’s system fully. Thus, bulbs, roots, shoots, and foliage may need physical protection during that window of vulnerability. Also, if not used according to package directions (tablets inserted about 3 inches into the soil), the product may not be as effective. In addition, if this extremely bitter stuff gets on your hands, it inevitably reaches your mouth, where it can take a day or two to wear off, Chocolate! More chocolate!

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