By: Rhea Worrell, krake[at]direcway[dot]com
I hate to type the words war and roses on the same line. While war is the manifestation of everything brutal and tragic in life, roses represent everything sublime: love, refinement, spirituality, healing, beauty, renewal. Yet I have often felt buffeted and despairing while attempting to grow roses, as if I was battling against strong foes. My allies in the struggle were a long growing season, mild winters, and sheer perseverance. But my enemies were many – and persistent: drought, shade, and deer (and the notorious red-orange clay of the South). How demoralizing the fight became!
Maybe I had been too naïve. When I moved to North Carolina, I expected a gardening paradise. Coming from an area with long, cold, dark winters and chilly gray summers, I expected that this state’s mild temperatures, long season and brilliant sun would spell instant gardening success. What I didn’t know is that the area of North Carolina I was moving to was very heavily wooded with solid impenetrable clay. That it was subject to the whims of El Niño and La Niña, meaning alternate years of too much or not enough rain. That there was the ever present possibility of hurricanes, ice storms and tornadoes. And that for some plants it was actually too hot….
When I began landscaping at my new North Carolina home, I decided to plant about 40 or so roses. I was blissfully ignorant of several things: One, that the soil surrounding the house was rock hard orange clay embedded with tree roots. Two, that none of the open areas around the house received more than six hours a day of sun. Three, that marauding deer were on their way over for supper…
Not many plants would be happy set in a thick terra cotta pot without a drainhole. But that describes the situation I faced. I saw three options:
- Create new beds by removing clay and replacing it with planting mix, preferably in raised beds.
- Use the existing beds, but only after digging up all the clay and combing it with various soil amendments before planting.
- Dig extra large holes in existing beds for planting each rose or shrub, add gypsum to the soil mix, and water like mad. (Gypsum dissolves the surrounding clay so that the plant’s fine roots can absorb nutrients). Then gradually replace the surrounding soil.
I chose the third option. It allowed me to plant immediately and to spread out the workload over several seasons.
I came up with a planting formula: For each rose we dug a hole two feet across and two feet deep. My husband and I worked on the project together; we snuggled each rose’s bare roots into a mixture of rich black soil (planting mix), aged chicken manure, peat moss, coarse sand, gypsum and rose food and watered for a long, long time.
It gave the roses a good start, but then the “war of the roses” commenced.
Drought was a persistent enemy throughout the roses second and third year. My new garden survived – but did not thrive. There is no remedy for drought. As all intrepid gardeners know, water from a hose in any quantity cannot match rain, but it is better than nothing. Watering the garden through months of drought became drudgery.
So I spent a lot of time,
time that I chose,
holding a hose,
in front of each rose,
giving it a dose,
of the H 2 Os
We fought a concurrent battle against shade. When I complained to a friend, he commented: “Get used to it. You’re in the woods. You can’t win. You’ll have to continually cut down trees to stop them from taking away your sunshine.”
I had to admit that there simply wasn’t enough sun for all of my roses so I gave away Rosa banksia, Russelliana, Seafoam, Mme. Bravy, Nastarana, Rosa moschata, and greenbriar rose. Paul’s Himalayan Musk and Catherine Mermet were early casualties.
Other roses simply needed repositioning. I moved Rosa laevigata from a shady spot under a tree to a high sunny wall where she is presently thriving. I moved Mme. Alfred Carriere from a shady position (where she was plagued with mildew) to an open arbor. Already, her leaves are a richer and deeper green and she has generously bloomed for us.
To reduce the shade in the yard, we decided to take down some tall trees surrounding our garden. That gave us an hour more sun every morning. Then, last December, a severe ice storm took out about 40 trees in the woods, including seven near the house. Result: a lot of chain saw rental fees (bad), and a much brighter garden (good).
As an organic gardener I put most of my efforts into creating great soil. I weed, water, and prune, but that’s all that I will do for my plants. No sprays, no fuss. The wonderful part is that my strategy (or lack of one) really works. There aren’t many bug problems, because I have encouraged their predators to feel at home in the garden. Because there are no poisons in the garden, it’s a haven for birds, bats, toads, lizards, and frogs. Plus, of course, the beneficial insects that dine on their compatriots. They are all welcome here. With the deer it’s a different story. They have no predators. The bear, panthers and wolves are long gone. Without predation, deer populations explode. There are so many deer that they have over-grazed the woods and must forage through gardens.
For two years, the deer chomped our cherished plants. They devoured roses, snacked on azaleas, munched hibiscus, scarfed down hostas, gobbled daylilies and gorged on hydrangeas. Desperate to stop the devastation, I found that there were many touted remedies and they broke down into six general coping strategies.
1. Creating barriers: Dogs, fence
We initially rejected the deer fence idea due to logistics and cost. We couldn’t surround the entire house with fencing without restricting access. The cost would be astronomical. We didn’t want to see a black plastic fence every day and an electric fence might endanger smaller critters.
We liked the idea of getting a dog, but again logistical problems came up. The dog would need to be outside every night and might get lost or might run away. The dog might damage the gardens. But most of all, our cat told us “no way.”
2. Creating fear and repulsion: Soap, urine, hair or sprays. Loud noises or bright lights. Sprays of water. Scarecrows.
Applying bad-smelling stuff (hair, urine, soap, sprays) to our entire yard – after every rain – would be time-intensive, boring and gross. As we found out: this yucky stuff has to be carefully reapplied to every single plant every single time it rains. Forget once, and you could be in trouble. They deer are clever that way. Trampling through the garden all summer with jars full of urine or a handfuls of hair is not my idea of fun. And so we put this idea to rest. There are gadgets with movement sensors that will pulse water at deer whenever they show. Some gadgets have lights and/or sounds also. Great idea, but for someone else. Our landscaping was too spread out for this to work.
3. Deprivation. Unappealing tastes: Deerproof plants.
Now, there are no deer-proof roses. They are such a comfort food for deer, even with the thorns. The roses would have to be protected. But I could use deerproof plants for other landscaping needs. So I put together a list and used it to create three deerproof mixed beds, using existing and new plants. A friend gave me this tip: “Any plant with silvery foliage is probably deerproof.” Then she gave me a chunk of Artemisia “Silver King.” The deerproof beds contain plants that the deer don’t like because they are aromatic (Santolina), fuzzy (Lamb’s Ears), toxic (Daphne) or simply bad-tasting (willow).
4. Diversion. Best food is outside garden: Hay or salt licks.
Diverting the deer was a whim we never tested.
5. Elimination: Shooting to kill.
Shooting deer wasn’t a serious option either, in spite of my anger. I called them names, yelled at them, got depressed over them, even joked about running them down with our car. But I couldn’t kill one. The fact that there are too many of them isn’t their fault.
Their need for food can’t be held against them. I’m not a deer aficionado and probably never will be, after witnessing all the damage they can do, but I realize they are still living breathing creatures that must eat to live. They’ve over-grazed the woods, so they are always looking for fresh young plants. If they must be killed, it should be by a natural predator. Bring back the Carolina panthers!
6. Resignation: Moving away from deer territory.
The solution to the deer problem turned out to be a compromise: part deer fence, part improvised fence and part deer-proof beds. (The deer fence is basically a 7-foot high black plastic mesh that’s clipped to a strong cable with metal rings. The cable is attached to trees and posts). We decided to surround the most vulnerable plants – roses, perennials and fruit trees – with a deer fence, leaving two sides of the house open. That cut down the cost of the deer fence and allowed access to the house. We found that the fence is almost invisible. (Of course we have to remember to keep the gates closed. Once a deer gets in, it has a tough time getting out.)
Our boggy native plant area we surrounded with disposable tomato fencing and tall stakes and embellished with multicolored glass bottles and discarded CDs (courtesy of AOL). We’ve left narrow gaps in the fence for access. Although it’s lower than the deer fence, it still works – perhaps because it is so near the house. The compromise solution has worked: this year the entire garden came to life. We’ve had months of rain, and no deer inside the fence (though we have seen them on the perimeter looking for the entrance). The roses were splendid in May and the native plants are soaring and stretching like never before. The sedum are spreading out in mats and the fruit trees are filling out. I rejoice at the tender plants I can grow here year round — China roses, canna, calocasia,camellias, gardenia and jasmine.
When the sun is shining, and the breezes are breathing, and the hummingbirds are zooming, and the sweet elixirs are floating, and the pink and yellow buds are peeking, and the lizards are scampering, and Smudge the cat is rolling on the gravel path, I realize that I was right all along: I have found paradise. There is no more war.
Deer Candy – The Top Ten
- Fruit Trees
My Current Rose List
(best performers bolded – all are in part shade)
- Alister Stella Grey
- Buff Beauty
- Celine Forestier
- Cl. Lady Hillingdon
- Clotilde Soupert
- Dr. Huey (understock)
- Francis DuBreuil
- Irene Watts
- Jaune Desprez
- Louis Phillipe
- Mme. Alfred Carriere
- Mrs. Oakley Fisher
- Paul’s Lemon Pillar
- Ragged Robin
- Reve D’Or
- Apothecary Rose
- Gipsy Boy
- Cherokee Rose
- The Fairy
- Rosa ‘White Pet’
- Rosa roxburghii
My Deerproof Sunny Mailbox Bed
- Artemisia – Artemisia schmidtiana “Silver Mound”
- Nepeta – Nepeta faasenii “Six Hills Giant”
- Rosemary – Rosamarinus officinalis “Arp”
- Santolina – Santolina chamaecyparissus “Pretty Carol”
- Thyme – Thymus serpyllum “Argentus”
The Deerproof Pastel Pleasures Bed
- Iris – Iris virginica
- False Indigo – Baptisia pendula
- Dianthus – Dianthus “Bath’s Pink”
- Lambs Ears – Stachys lanata “Big Ears”
- Purple Beautyberry – Callicarpa
- White Beautyberry – Callicarpa japonica
- Variegated Willow – Salix integra “Hakuro Nishiki”
- Amarcrinum – Amarcrinum/Crinodonna
- Variegated Spirea – Spirea “Snowflake”
- Siberian Iris – Iris siberica
- Rose Campion – Lychnis coronaria “Blush Pink”
- Artemisa – Artemisia “Silver King”
Deerproof Driveway Bed
- Creeping Juniper – Juniperus
- Eleagnus – Eleagnus odorata
- Hardy orange – Poncirus trifoliata
- “Corn Grass” – Arundo
- Ground Ivy – Glecoma hederacaea variegata
Deerproof Gold Prosperity Bed
- Creeping Jenny/Pennywort – Lysimachia nummularis aurea
- Daphne – Daphne odora aureamarginata
- Varieg. St. John’s Wort – Hypericum hybrid
- Goldheart Ivy – Hedera “Gold Heart”
- Sedum groundcover – Sedum sp.
- Varieg. Japanese Maple – Acer palmatum “Higasayama”
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