The flowering of suburbia after World War II created a vast canvas on which homeowners could paint their individual landscapes and gardens. But herds of white-tailed deer did not see a work of art so much as a tasting menu.
Deer populations have exploded in recent decades for a number of reasons. Among them: The forests and fields that made up their old habitat were replaced with housing subdivisions that provided free, delicious landscape plants. I refer to such treats as hostas, roses, tulips, day lilies, tomatoes, azaleas — the list goes on. As exasperated as homeowners became, most of them didn’t want an army of hunters in the neighborhood with high-powered rifles or bows and arrows.
Excluding deer is vital to fully embracing the garden, but this is easier said than done. You will find lists of deer-resistant plants, including members of the mint family, as well as asters, goldenrods, grasses, ferns and sedges. But no list is a sure bet.
Repellents are another option, but they are a continuing and burdensome drain on the gardener’s time and resources.
True gardening liberation in deer territory takes the form of a fence. Fencing needs to be high — 8 feet is the standard advice — and even if that is possible within local laws and neighborhood rules, fencing is expensive. To the outside world, a fence can make you appear to be some kind of clandestine government agent or a shady oligarch when all you want to do is grow some pansies.
If you can exclude deer, though, it is astonishing to discover how the landscape can heal itself. This applies not only to the garden but also to natural areas that are degraded by deer browsing. Both environments are celebrated at Woodend Sanctuary, a 40-acre former private estate and the longtime home to the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Maryland. And both are slowly recovering, four years after the completion of an approximately mile-long perimeter fence around 33 of the acres, built at a cost of $200,000, to exclude a resident herd of more than 30 bucks, does and fawns.
The restoration project, called Nature for All, includes a native plant demonstration garden that has been expanded around the property’s red-brick mansion. Previously, it was encircled in ugly plastic fencing. Now, it is a larger and maturing display that includes towering shrubs of buttonbush and bayberry amid lower drifts of lobelia, aster, swamp mallow, goldenrod and winterberry. At the base of a white pine, partridgeberry forms a fine-textured carpet.
In areas where meadows were installed, the flowers bloomed more profusely and grew taller after the fence was installed.
A year after the deer were excluded, drifts of golden ragwort appeared in spring, followed by blue mistflower in late summer. “We didn’t realize just how much they were being suppressed,” said Alison Pearce, deputy director of programs at the sanctuary.
If your garden is bothered by deer and you can’t put up a perimeter fence, Pearce offers a strategy. Put localized, temporary fencing around newly planted ground covers, trees and shrubs. Once the plants get established — after a few growing seasons — they are less likely to interest deer, and you can take down the barrier and repeat the process elsewhere. “You don’t have to fence your whole property,” she said.
Much of Woodend is defined by a forested stream valley, progressively degraded over the years with the help of the deer and suburban storm-water runoff. The woods, full of towering tulip poplars, oaks and other native hardwoods, were not regenerating. The deer were eating all the seedlings and rubbing the bark off surviving juvenile trees. The only species that was unmolested was Japanese maple, an exotic ornamental that came to represent one-quarter of the forest’s inventory. “We weren’t going to have a forest in a couple of decades, because we had no regeneration,” Pearce said. “That situation has completely reversed.”
In addition to the trees reseeding, native shrubs also are growing back. Pearce showed me many spicebush specimens that were browsed but are now suckering afresh.
After the fence went up, the society turned to repairing the stream, which was both eroding and silting, to the detriment of the habitat. Trees undermined by storm water were falling down.
Now, the tributary of nearby Rock Creek has been rebuilt with weirs, pools and submerged sandpits to hold and calm storm water. The old dirt woodland path has been replaced with a wheelchair-friendly, 8-foot-wide trail with permeable aggregate topped with bonded gravel. The stream-fed pond has a boardwalk and stage for the many school groups and others who visit, and the banks of the stream have been planted with native ground covers and young trees.
“The deer fencing was the first project of Nature for All, because it really set the stage. Without it, we couldn’t have done any of the habitat upgrades,” Pearce said.