Plant damage from animals of all sizes can be catastrophic and often happens overnight. Recovery from it means having another succession of seedlings ready to plant, causing a delay in production and holes in the bouquet and arrangement plan. In the heat of the season, this can leave us scrambling. Like many other things in flower farming, prevention is key.
This article is centered on mammals, but the bug world can be just as vicious and destructive. Most animal problems happen when plants are young and tender, but never trust a deer around a blooming gladiola or a vole with tender perennial roots in spring.
Let’s talk about deer. To prevent the damage they can cause, we need to understand their habits and habitat. When and where they mate, then nest, and forage for food in winter all determine how they behave each spring. A winter with full snow cover pushes them to find food in gardens they have never visited before.
Manmade and natural obstacles also dictate where they travel. Kenyon Parsons, from Parsons Farm in Sharon Springs, NY, explained to me that a hill on one side and the fence of a large distribution center on the other creates a funnel that brings herds of deer up from the village and across the road to his fields.
Parsons does not fence but uses rotation and trap crops to dissuade deer from eating the valuable plants. Some years that works well, but last year deer consumed three successions of pumpkins. Planting two swipes on the outside rows of soybeans with the corn planter works well as a distraction but is dependent on having a soybean guy to combine at the end of the season.
We can claim that some plants are resistant to damage, but deer are contrary creatures. Rutgers University has a list that rates the risk of many ornamental crops. Three that are almost guaranteed to be deer candy are tulips, sea holly (Eryngium) and Canterbury bells (Campanula). Meanwhile daffodils, globe thistle and foxglove are all reliably predator safe. Based on other attributes, we could pair these up in plantings.
Most deer-resistant plants are actually spring blooming perennials and hardy annuals including biennials – but not all. My plots are split between spring, summer and autumn. The spring one is not fenced but is in a village between two houses and is along a busy state highway. There is occasional deer activity but I temper it by planting the upper four rows with border crops they do not care about, including snapdragons, strawflowers, statice and Scabiosa. I tuck in tender annuals including Ageratum, Ammobium and anise hyssop to continue the theme. Last year I pushed it with sunflowers and gladiola along the road. They walked around everything else to get to the glads. I beat the thrips but lost the blooms to the deer.
Causing distractions works up to a point, but blocking access is the most effective deterrent to deer damage. Just slapping a fence up will lead to regret. The most common mistake I’ve seen on farm visits are deer fences that are too short. A four-foot wire on six-foot T-posts is not going to do the job. Deer will lean right over to eat what they want. Deer fencing should be at least seven feet and must be taut or they will push through.
It’s also important to allow for crop rotation to prevent disease and soil depletion. The first couple of years it’s easy enough to move specific varieties around, but then it can be challenging to move plants around within that space. This is not even considering planting a cover crop or allowing the land to become fallow. Fences really amplify any other problems.
We have used three styles of fencing, all mostly successful but not without challenges. What would be best for you depends on space, your desire to keep it neat and permanency.
The most expensive option is also the longest lasting. Seven-foot-tall by 400-foot rolls of galvanized metal on pressure treated posts is the most stable and best option for a large area. The downside is the lower part still has large enough rectangles for rabbits and woodchucks to enter – so we still had to add chicken wire and secure the bottom with ground staples. The upside is that it is easy to weed eat around and is the easiest to maintain. Another downside is that it’s not moveable.
In a smaller area, we use chicken wire attached to T-posts with two spans of electrified wire across the top. This easily takes care of the small animal issue while deterring deer. The wires are powered by a solar unit. The biggest challenge is remembering to turn it back on when you’re done working the plot. This one is also easy to keep looking nice with a weed eater.
The lowest cost and easiest to move is black plastic quarter-inch mesh attached to furring strips on T-posts. It can be erected in a few hours for a few hundred dollars. With rabbits nearby, we leave a foot at the bottom where we lay roughhewn boards over the mesh to keep them out. Each autumn we take down the ends to access the space with machinery. Weed eater string tangles and pulls down mesh, so it’s best to allow the grass to grow up through.
The last consideration is how to access the space. When we built a gate big enough to get a tractor through, it was heavy and cumbersome to open and close on a daily basis. This needs to be scaled to everyday use with accommodations for weed control. Ours are hog panels with chicken wire.
Fencing both solves and create problems. Preventing one kind of damage can invite another. Combining these three options with an understanding of how deer move and being conscious of small mammals stops destruction – at least this year.