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Managing Deer

Managing Deer

By Cynthia Hendry, Smoke Signals
Photographs courtesy of Mark Green

The production team from the PBS GardenSMART television program indicate that one of the most frequent gardening questions they receive regards gardening with deer. After visiting and interviewing me recently, they made a decision to create a new program featuring my 30-plus-year-old garden on Petit Ridge.

The Problem

Around 2000, Big Canoe deer count surveys indicated a steep population increase. Not only were many forest areas showing significant browse lines, but also seedling tree species and many wildflower species were disappearing. At the time, we were surveying the variety of wildflower species on the Nature Valley Wildflower Trail each spring before the annual guided tour dates. In the early years, we had over 100 different species of beautiful and rare wildflowers. Alarmingly, species were disappearing before our eyes.

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There was concern about the negative effects to our beautiful woodland. Homeowners reported very few landscape plants were surviving deer browsing on shrubs and damage by bucks scraping their horns on newly planted native trees like dogwoods and redbuds. It was decided to investigate a new approach.

A deer study committee of property owners was assigned the task of tackling this very controversial problem; after all, we were and are a wildlife sanctuary. I told the GardenSMART team the smartest decision made was having property owners from both sides of the question on the committee, making a list of every question anyone could ask, and finding professionals in wildlife biology to answer all the questions.

The final conclusion was, without managing the deer population, we could not have a wildlife sanctuary. We were told deer eat an average of three pounds of vegetation per day. As their population increased, they would eventually destroy the forest for all smaller species of wildlife, including birds. After that destruction, the deer would become diseased and their population would finally collapse.

After three town hall meetings with wildlife biologists answering all property owner questions, Big Canoe asked the entire community to vote on the decision. The vote indicated an overwhelming consensus with the committee's conclusion. We have had a deer management program since.

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The Results

The wildlife biologists’ program included a study of both our forest's and our deer population's health. Both have improved. Sadly, our Wildflower Trail never totally recovered and some of our older forested areas still have a minimal understory. Those areas continue to be managed more intensely.

Along with the deer management program, Big Canoe refined and expanded the plant list. A guide for approved fencing was also created. Over the years, as new neighborhoods like Cherokee and Wildcat were rolled out, having this program and these protections allowed homeowners to create more diverse and healthy landscapes.

Over the last 33 years my garden has been trial-and-error. Being in one of the severely damaged woodland areas, in winters of minimal acorn crop, the deer have nothing to eat other than my plants. Thus, minimizing access has been the most effective protection for the plants.

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Continued Trials

As I told the GardenSMART team, knowing the most vulnerable garden locations and plants in your garden is key to designing a deer-resistant garden. I trial new plants near our street as this is the least protected space. This year, I trialed many species of late-spring- and summer-blooming bulbs. According to the catalog description, they are deer-resistant.

Positioning plants can also include placing the plant so it is out of reach or in a place so that its base can be protected until it grows tall and mature enough to be safe. Many of the large shrubs, like viburnum and hydrangea, can be treated this way.

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In Conclusion

Hopefully, this brief preview will entice you to note the GardenSMART program schedule and watch the show. It was fun seeing the camera-equipped drone zoom over my garden taking pictures from angles I could never imagine. Garden life is good on Petit Ridge.

Happy summer gardening!

Cynthia Hendry has lived and gardened in Big Canoe for more than 30 years. Her landscape design work includes Best of Show for Big Canoe Street of Dreams, as well as Big Canoe Show Homes for Southern Living and Atlanta magazines.

All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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