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Katy Burns: Gardening can really stink, but the hostas are worth it

This April 11, 2012 photo shows hostas, with shoots that are tasty and can be prepared in the same way you would cook asparagus, in New Market, Va. Many ornamental plants are beautiful to look at but a few manage to make their way to the kitchen. (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)

This April 11, 2012 photo shows hostas, with shoots that are tasty and can be prepared in the same way you would cook asparagus, in New Market, Va. Many ornamental plants are beautiful to look at but a few manage to make their way to the kitchen. (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)

Dear, oh dear. Deer!

Time to close the windows and haul out the big sprayer and the Liquid Fence. The absolutely hands-down cutest predators in the land are coming for our hostas. And our daisies and our phlox and our daylilies.

But mostly for our hostas.

Hostas used to be called plantain lilies or, worse, funkias, and they mostly grew in sedate round green clumps in grandmothers’ gardens. Well, grandmothers got a lot cooler over recent years, and so did hostas. Hostas are now insanely popular. They come in all sizes and have dazzling foliage, with more shades of green, cream and gold than we thought existed in nature.

They grow happily in light shade and even sun this far north, and they tolerate damp soil. They are also essentially disease-free and, except for a bit of slug damage, look great from early spring, when they begin rising from the ground, until late fall when they conveniently collapse and just sort of melt away. The perfect perennials! Their only enemies are voles and other underground critters who occasionally tunnel through their roots in winter.

And deer. Hostas are like catnip for the hoofed despoilers of New Hampshire gardens, irresistible salad bars for browsing deer diners.

There is nothing worse than looking out the bedroom window on a lovely summer afternoon and seeing a doe and her two fetching fawns – oh, those big, brown eyes, those silky soft coats! – making a meal of a couple of really elegant Regal Splendor hostas.

So we resort to Liquid Fence, a concoction of “putrescent whole egg solids” and garlic that is – trust me – truly vile smelling. Especially, apparently, to deer. Hence, time to close the windows. A good thing about Liquid Fence? It doesn’t hurt the deer – or anything else. A better thing: It loses its stink, as far as we humans are concerned, within a day. And the best thing is that it seems to work. The effect can last for weeks, even if it rains.

Note here that I’m talking about Liquid Fence for deer and rabbits. There are separate Liquid Fence products, all allegedly harmless, for repelling cats and dogs, geese, moles and – honest! – armadillos. Which as far as I know are not a problem this far north. Yet.

And sometimes just to vary things we occasionally switch to another product, Deer Stopper, which also seems to work and masks its putrescent egg solid smell with oils of mint and rosemary, although it costs more.

When we moved to this house nearly 25 years ago deer, were not a problem. Now they are. This particularly long, cold winter, they foraged right up to the house, munching the middles out of some lovely small-leaved rhododendrons, chowing down on roses and even – they must have been starving – eating significant parts of the incredibly sharp-leafed holly bush by the front door.

There is a rumor in the neighborhood that someone – unnamed, of course – is feeding the deer. Who knows? And our area is probably too densely populated for serious hunters.

But whatever the reason for the deer increase, we will adapt. As we have already adapted. There were gardens when we got here, and over the years we made more. We took out some big trees and cut others back, bringing more sunshine to the place. We planted shrubs and flowering trees and lots and lots of perennials, some of which actually thrived. We even grew a few vegetables, until we realized that if God wanted us to grow veggies, She wouldn’t have landed us in a place with such great farm stands.

The trees are closing in again. Nature is not static. Who knew? That perfect flowering crab is now threatening the electrical, phone and cable lines to the house and requires regular pruning. Lilies of the valley have made dense carpets, and a thicket of forsythia is marching inexorably up the front lawn.

The place is getting shadier, and we’re trying more and more to go with old faithfuls, foolproof plants like peonies and daylilies, Siberian iris, daisies. Plants that happily reproduce themselves – coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and bleeding hearts – are treasured. And of course, sturdy and soothing hostas.

There are people we know and admire who are real Gardeners, with a capital G. Sara was one. She knew every plant by its proper Latin name and developed lovely gardens in near-coastal Maine, then gradually converted them all to meadow or shrubs when it was her time to cut back.

Another was our old friend Kirby, who also knew all the Latin names and who ruthlessly edited her spectacularly beautiful enclosed garden, ripping out plants that were getting pushy and making life difficult for their neighbors.

We are not Gardeners but gardeners, very much lower case, people who love plants and flowers and the effect they have on us and on the world we live in. We happily seek out purveyors of prime plants that might survive in our gardens. We make regular pilgrimages to Uncanoonuc Mountain Perennials in Goffstown, the area’s premiere plant nursery, just to see what’s new.

We don’t necessarily always know what we’re doing – hey, just because we’re a little north of a plant’s usual range doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try it! – and our failure rate means cash in the coffers of plant vendors far and wide, including the farmers who proudly display their offerings at the Concord Farmers’ Market.

This weekend, while others celebrate Memorial Day weekend by slipping their boats into lakes, taking practice swings with their golf clubs, gassing up their ATVs and firing up their grills for a holiday cookout, we’re prowling around garden centers, checking out hanging baskets and picking up a few more hostas.

And this week we’ll be re-spraying the Liquid Fence. Plus maybe hanging some Irish Spring soap here and there. It really does reek. And it might be time to check out reports that Milorganite – a highly touted fertilizer marketed by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District – is a pretty good deer repellent as well.

After all, one can never have too many hostas.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

Legacy Comments1

I, too, lost my holly bush. Not sure if it will come back. Milorganite has been very effective for me against deer damage but my dog eats it and became very sick (recovered) so caution! I only use Milorganite in areas beyond the electric fence so my dog can't reach it now. I had believed Irish Spring worked until I found deer eating my beautiful tulips. I put an entire bar smack in the heart of the tulips and the deer continued to eat the tulips right down to the ground this year.

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