Protecting Plants From Grazers

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Wiring The Garden

I recently replanted my entry gardens, which had become dangerously overgrown. Plantings can be dangerous when trees begin to shed branches or fall in high winds, but in this case, the danger lay more in blocking views to the front door, which meant EMTs could not find their way to my mom’s bedside in a timely manner. (The pizza guy found the door just fine, though, go figure.) There was also the issue of tree rats frolicking in the attic crawl space, and the fact that landscapes designed to last 20 years don’t always function well in year 35. In any case, the overgrown trees and shrubs came down, the stumps were dug out (no picnic, I assure you) and the soil replenished.

The front door is on the north side of the house, with a large blank wall to one side. This space cried out for something sculptural, a plant with architectural strength that would not outgrow its position even in maturity. After some searching, I found a shapely golden full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum Aureum) that will in time become the centerpiece of the front entry. These are exquisite trees, and if you choose one with a handsome structure, over time, it will mature into a small but spectacular showpiece. Unless, of course, the deer nibble on it.

Indiscriminate Eaters

When this happened to my young maple, I was most unhappily surprised. None of the many maples I have planted over the years had been browsed by deer, nor have I seen signs of deer dining on native maples. Seeing the size of the culprit’s hoof prints in my dairy manure mulch, I realized that I was a fool not to provide some protection for the tempting array of fresh fodder I had thoughtfully provided. Despite my good luck in the past, I know perfectly well that deer are garden omnivores, especially when young.

While older deer develop favorite garden snacks, youngsters are indiscriminate. In a word, they’ll eat pretty much anything, at least once. Even when they decide they don’t really like a plant, they may remove the leaves and spit them out repeatedly. Adults may also ignore certain plants for years, then decide they love them (or perhaps new deer with more cosmopolitan tastes have arrived on the scene). This is very frustrating behavior, since we can’t ever be really sure that a given plant won’t be deer damaged. Deer have browsed new growth on my neighbor’s ivy, and I once lost a large and datura to a deer (I’ve always wondered what effect datura’s entheogens had on the poor unsuspecting critter).

Cagey Practices

I still have half a roll of 4 foot high, 2 x 4 inch mesh galvanized wire goat pen mesh left over from building Sophie’s catio on my upper deck. This stuff is pretty stout, but I got a couple of pals to help me make a cage wide enough to encircle the tree. Stout stakes hold it in place so eager noses can’t bump it aside as the tree puts on new foliage. Happily, the wounded tree is recovering well and has even extended its lovely branches, necessitating a secondary wreathing of the cage with chicken wire. The result is not precisely attractive, but it certainly does the job, as the proliferation of hoof prints around the protected tree reveals.

Fool Me Twice

Nearby, I planted a gorgeous specimen of Acer palmatum Orangeola, with glossy, dissected leaves that offer a long sequence of color changes from spring into autumn. This tree had not been touched when its companion was nibbled, so… Yup. Really. I left it unprotected until the day I found several branches torn off. Sad but true. Once again, it took several people to help me bend the stiff wire into a hoop wide enough to encircle the tree AND allow for future growth. (I do learn, just a little slowly sometimes.)

By now, I was looking a bit more carefully through the garden and of course found more damage. Thus, my dwarf golden sumac (Rhus typhina Bailtiger Tiger Eyes) now sports a handsome yellow powder coated tomato cage (it’s tasteful to try to color-match the cage with its captive) wrapped with chicken wire, as does fluffy golden Spirea thunbergii Ogon. What it it with these deer liking golden foliage this year? The good news, though, is that galvanized wire fencing and chicken wire can partner to make deer proof, rabbit proof and kid proof cages for pretty much any plant you need to protect.

Bigger Plants, Bigger Protection

When I’ve been involved with large scale plantings where cattle browsing was an issue, we’ve used vaca cages to protect young trees for the first few years. If your browsers are big guys like cattle or elk, the wire has to be both galvanized and at least 12 gauge or more. We used the same size mesh, 2 x 4 inches, because 4 x 4 mesh can allow smaller snoots to push in and nibble off branches, let alone leaves. The wire needs to be at least 56 inches high to give the trees a chance to develop sturdy branching, and 5 feet is better, especially in heavily browsed areas where the cages may need to remain in place for a decade or longer.

For stakes, use tall, heavy weight steel T posts, fastened to the cage with heavy gauge galvanized wire, which definitely holds up better than flimsier stuff. The heavy duty stakes help protect against bucks rubbing antlers against trunks as well, since bucks seem to prefer the steel stakes over tree trunks. When protecting young trees, the cages can be made fairly slim; 56 inches around (or about 18 inches in diameter) is the standard in cattle country and works fine in these parts as well. Cut each cage section about a quarter inch from a vertical wire, so the cut ends at one end are nearly 2 inches long. These can be wrapped around the vertical wire at the opposite end of the tube, so you don’t need to extra wire twists. Where rabbits are a problem, line the lowest few feet of each tree cage with chicken wire. This double wire whammy delivers excellent yet light weight and inexpensive protection.

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