Preventing Deer Damage in the Winter

By A. Goldman

They can eat a lot…

Once all your fall gardening is done you might think everything is complete but if you live where deer are a nuisance, get back outside for some self-defense. If you haven’t tackled “deer defense” this fall, here are some things you can do to get your plants through the winter.

The first tip is to keep deer from habitually visiting your garden in the future. It’s easier to maintain a beautiful landscape if deer are not nibbling on a regular basis. 

One way to do this is to provide screening. As you view your winter garden, determine if you can strategically plant “unfriendly” plants that will discourage deer from traveling through and screen the more tasty morsels from their view. It is often easier to see where to place screening plants in the winter landscape. Think about spiny, evergreen plants like Mahonia or American Holly (Ilex opaca) that will form a barrier and screen in all seasons.

That’s fine for the future, but what can you do to prevent significant damage from deer winter grazing right now?   

 You can create a barrier around specific important shrubs. For small shrubs, use nylon netting from a fabric store that is sold by the yard and is 72” wide. It comes in many colors but black or green are the least noticeable.  This netting is fine and will not trap birds or catch on spiny plants like hollies—this is important for spring removal.  To use this netting, guesstimate how much netting you will need, cut, wrap completely around shrub and then fold both ends together over once creating a “seam” and then use a standard stapler to keep it closed.  Gather the bottom closed and staple that closed too to avoid snouts eating from the bottom up.

Stapling it closed allows you to adjust it to your shrub or small tree and in the spring it is a cinch to pull it open.  Fold it up for storage and if there are large tears, just cut down to a smaller size for use next year on a smaller plant. With the 72” width, you can protect up to a six-foot tree or shrub. 

Spray on repellents work when the days are warmer but the scent is diminished as the temps drop. Handmade sachets of Milorganite hung at deer head height are easy and inexpensive to make using a loose weave fabric. If you do not sew, use snack sized bags with small holes punched in them with a small hole for a twist tie to be inserted into.  After winter use these “sachets” can be emptied on the ground as Milorganite is a good nitrogen fertilizer. 

You can also try applying clove, eucalyptus or peppermint oil to small cotton or wool strips and tying them at five-foot height on shrubs and trees.  In the spring you can drop these on the ground and they will disintegrate.

Keep the tree wrap to protect from rodent damage

Young trees can be severely damaged and even snapped in half by bucks rubbing the velvet off their antlers.  Protecting bark from buck rub is usually done in the fall by putting trunk wrap on young trees.  Leave this protection up through the winter as an extra precaution.  The protective wraps may also protect trees from being girdled by rodents eating the bark if we have a snowy winter.  They can be re-used used for several years but should be taken off in the spring and put back on the following fall. 

Fencing to protect vulnerable plants

Another tactic which will take more time is to fully enclose an area with particularly susceptible plantings.  Rebar or fence posts with either plastic or metal fencing are great although the plastic fencing can collapse with a heavy snow if not properly taut.  Plastic is easier to roll up and use from year to year.

It may seem extra work to protect your plantings from hungry deer but when you consider the time, effort, and money it took to create your garden, why should the deer reap the benefits of that hard work?!

If you have any clever methods to prevent winter deer damage, please share them in the comments.

Gifts for the Gardener

Article by A. Goldman and C. StClair

The gift giving season is fast approaching. Most gardeners are practical folks who have no need for fussy items for the garden.  Here are a few gift suggestions to consider.  

  • The gift of education! In the winter months when gardening is limited, classes are a wonderful way to gain new knowledge and scratch the gardening itch.  Mt. Cuba Center and Longwood Gardens both offer many classes and workshops.  A membership to these gardens is also a great idea.
  • Consider practical items that gardeners need but do not always want to invest in. Things like good organic fertilizers, coir bricks to add to lightweight potting soil, flexible carrying tub trugs,  and heavy duty hoses—ones that can stand getting run over! A good quality hose end watering wand is always appreciated.
One author’s beloved and abused, 20 year old weeding knife…
  • Quality tools can make the gardening experience so much more enjoyable.  Some of our “must-have-it’s-my-favorite” tools include good quality hand pruners, Japanese weeding knife (so many uses!), a digging and spading garden fork (better than a shovel for digging up many things), a stirrup hoe (perfect for all the vegetable gardeners), a serrated soil scoop (more uses than a hand trowel).
  • Consider a gardening book that is specific to your gardener’s situation and interests like deer resistant or shade. Often works on a specific topic are more useful than general gardening books.  Want some recommendations on our favorites? Let us know in the comments.
  • If you would like to impress your gardener, wrap up a box of soil with a promise of a delivery of quality compost in the spring.  Gardeners never have enough compost and there will be much gratitude for such a thoughtful gift – especially if it includes some of your labor to spread said compost!

Stocking stuffer ideas…

  • A serious gardener can almost never have too many pairs of work gloves. Gloves with lightweight rubber coating are invaluable for keeping your hands clean and dry.  If heavy pruning or shoveling is planned, gloves with padded palms are appreciated. Having multiple pairs makes it easy to trot off and start the day.  A pair in the car is fab as well.   
  • Maybe some scissors or flower snips.  Pairs of inexpensive scissors in can be tucked planters around the house for impromptu deadheading or for gathering flowers.  These are under $5.00 and can be sharpened.  
  • Gardening twine or plant ties (I like the reusable Velcro ties).
  • Gift certificates to mail order plant or seed suppliers and a copy of the catalog.

One last piece of advice… Use caution with those kitschy garden ornaments.  If you don’t know the gardener’s tastes well, it might end up the equivalent to the ugly Christmas sweater…interesting but embarrassing to use. 

Plant Profile: Amsonia hubrichtii

Amsonia hubrichtii has the common name Bluestar or Threadleaf Bluestar. It is a hardy, long-lived perennial native to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

This Amsonia has lovely, feathery foliage that adds a unique, billowy texture to the garden. It blooms in spring with light blue, star-like flowers – but this plant really shines in the fall with brilliant golden-yellow foliage.

Amsonia hubrichtii is easy to grow in average, well-drained soil . With time it can grow quite large, 3-4 feet tall and wide with a shrub-like appearance.  This perennial starts slow and may need a couple years to fill out but once established it is hardy, dependable and rarely needs division. A polite grower, it does not spread by rhizomes and is not known to aggressively self-seed. Amsonia hubrichtii is deer and rabbit resistant and has no serious pests or diseases.

The flowering and fall color is best in full sun, but it will tolerate some shade.  If grown in too much shade or very rich soil, its habit will be open and floppy. Cutting it back about 6 inches after blooming will help prevent flopping.  

Want more information? Here are some links:

Missouri Botanical Garden  Plant Finder

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Tasks for the November Garden

Article by A. Goldman and C. StClair

The growing season may be winding down but there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy your property this month. A few tasks to consider…

Oakleaf Hydrangea in fall
  • Take a stroll around to assess what grew well, what may have struggled, and needs to moved, empty spots that will need a new plant next year (shopping!!). Make notes for future reference or else document the needs with your phone camera.
  • Harvest seed pods, dried ornamental grass tops, pine cones, interesting twigs, sweet gum balls, and other potential natural holiday decorations.  Please leave a quantity for wildlife to enjoy throughout the winter but if you are using these items outside they can still nosh on them in a wreath or porch pot.
  • Bring inside any delicate garden ornaments.  Freezing temperatures and winter weather along with winds and maybe a falling tree branch can do damage to beloved garden art. 
  • For not yet planted plants, assess your possibilities for overwintering if they just can’t make it in the ground.  Group together near a wall for protection but make sure they still receive moisture.  You can tuck them into a compost pile, wrap pots with bubble wrap and overwinter in a larger planter, or if you can’t deal with so many….gift them to another gardener!
  • Finish planting spring bulbs. Bulbs can be planted until January as long as the ground is not frozen.
  • Keep spreading downed leaves around shrubs and trees.  Leaves are nature’s soil blanket and soil builder.  Many pollinators and amphibians overwinter in leaves so next season’s spring peeper may be snuggled up under your shrubs!
  • Make sure evergreens that have been planted in the last two years have sufficient water going into winter.  Evergreens lose moisture through their needles all year round and if the ground is frozen, this depletes their reserves and browning or death can occur.  
  • Compost in place.  If your limp Hosta leaves are challenging your garden aesthetics, cut them down and leave them on the ground. No worries as they will soon decompose right there and enrich your soil doing it.   This works best for softer items but can be done if woodies are cut up in small pieces. 
  • If you are planning a new garden bed or the expansion of an existing one next year, get a head start now. Cover turf areas with newspaper. Top that with alternate layers of leaves and green compostable items like grass clippings and vegetable waste to a height of about 18 inches. Come spring, the area will much more friendly for planting.
  • For bird lovers; clean out birdhouses and then add bits of soft fabric (natural fibers) for overwintering.  On bitter cold nights birds will seek shelter in houses and often with other birds to help retain heat.  In the spring the bits of fabric can be placed on the ground for nest building. 
  • If you do not already have a bird feeder on your property, consider installing one for your important garden assistants.   They are still inspecting your trees for harmful insects and watching colorful bird antics in the winter months makes for great entertainment.  Feeders provide supplemental food when winter conditions are harsh. Buy quality bird seed.  Something you would like if you were a bird!
  • Don’t throw out your hanging basket. You might want to recycle that after reading December’s issue.
Leaves make great mulch!

Weed Watch: Hairy Bittercress

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine Hirsuta) is a winter annual weed that begins growing in late fall and resumes growing in late winter and early spring, often before other plants wake up from their winter slumber.

This weed forms a rosette of leaves in the fall and usually waits until spring to flower. It forms small white flowers on stems above the foliage. The flowers turn into long thin seed pods. When the seeds are ripe, the pods explode when disturbed, shooting the seeds up to 16 feet according to some sources.

Hairy Bittercress is an annual and is usually shallow rooted and easy to pull out. The secret to its success as a weed is the prolific amount of seed and the ability to spread it by explosion so early in the season when other plants have not yet emerged to cover ground.

The best way to manage this weed is to pull them before they make seeds. Removing the rosettes in the fall or early winter can reduce the springtime invasion.

However, Hairy Bittercress does have some wildlife value for early butterfly caterpillars and specialist bees.  If possible, leave a patch in your yard for the caterpillars to munch.

Fun fact… Hairy Bittercress is part of the mustard family and is edible. It apparently has a mild, peppery flavor.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Weed of the Month

North Carolina Extension – Cardamine hirsuta

Bulbs for the Bees

Article by A. Goldman

Crocus vernus ‘Flower Record

Fall is a great time to anticipate spring by planting some spring blooming bulbs.  Not only do you benefit from seeing flowers early in the year, the bees will thank you for giving them an early season boost of nectar from those early bloomers.

Galanthus elwesii (Snowdrop)

Late February/beginning of March is when the queen bumblebee, solitary bees and honey bees may emerge to forage for much needed pollen and nectar to replenish their energy levels.  By planting early bulbs such as:  Snowdrops (Galanthus), Crocus, Buttercups (Eranthis), Glory of the snow (Chinodoxa), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica, and even species tulips you can greatly enhance the presence of pollinators in your garden for the season.

For a continuation of spring color, later bloomers include Fritillaria, Grape hyacinth (Muscari) and those highly-scented Hyacinths. 

Allium aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’

A large group that would satisfy any gardener and that bees also relish is the Allium family.  There are early and mid-spring as well as summer blooming Allium in various heights, colors, and forms. They all provide excellent bee forage and can provide interest in pretty much any area of the garden.

Planting bulbs is easily done up until the ground freezes and you can still place an order from some excellent sources.  Some of our favorites include:

www.Brentandbeckysbulbs.com

www.Oldhousegardens.com

www.Whiteflowerfarms.com

Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose)

One additional thought on providing early blooming flowers for the bees, Hellebores are excellent for this purpose. Like bulbs, once established Hellebores can thrive for years with not much fuss or muss. 

If you have Hellebores already established in your garden, investigate under the “skirts” for babies that can be transplanted to new locations in the fall.

Planting bulbs is a spring present to yourself and to the bees who will appreciate you thinking of them and continue to pollinate the landscape for the benefit of us all.  

Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’

Just Do the Soil Test

You’ll be glad you did

Soil test picture

Do you have an area of your yard that is not doing as well as you’d like? Or maybe you’re considering creating a new planting area? Have you tested the soil in your vegetable garden in the past 5 years? Or ever?

A soil test can give you valuable (and sometimes surprising) information. Proper soil nutrients create healthy plants that are better able to fend off diseases and pests without any intervention. Knowing the state of your soil can help prevent the expense of excess fertilization, not to mention the environmental damage that excess fertilizer can cause.

Now is the perfect time to get that soil test.  If the soil test indicates that your soil is too acidic, you can apply the lime in the fall so it has time to alter the soil pH over the winter. If your soil is low in organic matter, you may decide to grow a cover crop over the fall and winter.

 Any needed fertilizers should be added in the spring before planting.

Soil test kits can be purchased from the Penn State Extension Office in Smeadley Park. Follow the directions for sampling carefully – your test results are only as good as your sample.  You will receive a soil report sent directly to your home with all the recommendations for improving your soil.  If you have any trouble interpreting your test report, you can always contact the Master Gardener Hort Line for help.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Penn State Extension: Soil Testing Overview

Penn State Extension: Don’t Guess… Soil Test

Penn State Extension: Interpreting Your Soil Test Reports

Penn State Extension: Soil Test Results: “What’s Next?” Guide for Homeowners