Saturday, February 25, 2012

Deer Country: Why Deer Don’t Eat Ornamental Grasses

Fountain grass in summer
In my recent posting, “Deer Country: Bib Jeans, New Trimmer, 26 Flat Tops” [Feb. 15], I commented, “Best of all, deer don’t eat fountain grass—and most other ornamental grasses.  I suppose the reason is that the grass is too tough for them to easily bite off and then chew.”

Bettye Ames, a Howard County Master Gardener, emailed me a more enlightened reason why deer don’t eat ornamental grasses:  “The stems and leaves of ornamental grasses contain silica (read ‘glass’), which can cut the mouths of grazers.  This same silica may cut our dear gardening hands and arms if we forget to put on gloves and long sleeves while cutting our ornamental grasses.”

I knew ornamental grasses can be tough.  I knew my old electric trimmer sometimes mangled tough fountain-grass rather than cutting it cleanly.  I knew it was easier to cut stems than to pull them off.  But I didn’t know about the silica.

An Internet search quickly confirmed Bettye’s explanation.  Both Wikipedia and Pediaview contain identical sentences: “The leaf blades of many grasses are hardened with silica phytoliths, which helps discourage grazing animals. In some grasses (such as sword grass), this makes the edges of the grass blades sharp enough to cut human skin.”

Fountain grass in fall
Another website mentioned that some grasses contain sufficient amounts of silica to dull cutting blades.  Several sites used bamboo as an example of a grass containing so much silica that its stems are rigid.

As I read, I involuntary shuddered, and hair on the back of my head stood up.  I remembered visiting Hugo, a school mate, about 65 years ago.  We thought it was fun to explore the remains of the nearby, abandoned slaughter house that had burned several years earlier.  At some point we explored a nearby patch of tall grass and thought we would pull enough to make a hiding place.  I grabbed a handful of grass and pulled, and as it slid between my right palm and index finger, I felt the grass slice through my flesh.

I screamed and, dripping blood, ran to Hugo’s house.  I don’t remember all the details today, but I do remember someone holding my bloody hand under a gushing stream of cold water as someone else pumped vigorously.  Soon the bleeding stopped and my wound was taped shut.  A faint scar by the second joint on the inside of my index finger reminds me of that day.  I suppose the old pump at Hugo’s house has long since disappeared and the site remains undesignated as a national historic site, despite the blood shed there.

Thank you, Bettye, for widening our knowledge about ornamental grasses and why deer usually avoid them and for the reminder to wear gloves when we work with the tough ornamental grasses.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Deer Country: Freeing our trees

Buck rubbing tree with 24" protector
(galvanized hardware cloth)
I’ve been freeing many of our young trees when weather permits, which has been frequently this balmy winter.  Readers of this blog know that deer abound at Meadow Glenn and to grow trees requires that I cage them in their early years with metal stakes and welded wire.

I make the cages with two iron fence posts and a circle of 36”-wide welded wire that’s about two feet in diameter.

Many of the trees I’ve planted over the last six years were four- to five-feet tall, so most of their leaves were at a perfect height for deer browsing.  That’s why I began building cages—to separate leaves of young trees from mouths of hungry bambits.

As the trees have grown, I‘ve pruned their lower limbs so the lowest now are above the “browse line,” the imaginary line about five feet from the ground above which deer seldom browse.  It’s time to remove the cages, which, frankly, as landscape accents never will be featured in Fine Gardening magazine. 

Sumac that snapped
when buck rubbed it
Though browsing deer are no longer a major problem, rubbing deer are.  Rubbing deer are bucks in the fall—generally October or November—that wants to rub off the dead velvet that covered their growing antlers and then to polish their new racks.  Bucks prefer young, springy trees and shrubs for that purpose and generally rub vigorously about a foot or two from the ground.  Points of their antlers can damage the trees, even kill them if the rubbing severely damages the bark around the whole tree trunk.

Bucks here at Meadow Glenn seem to prefer to rub trunks up to two inches in diameter.  Local favorites are sumac, maple, and oak.  Small maples and oaks usually are tough enough to survive most damage, but sumacs often snap a few inches from the ground. 

Because of the rubbing problem, when I remove cages from our trees, I still must protect their trunks.  After trying a variety of trunk-protecting materials—including 24-inch galvanized hardware cloth and 36-inch welded wire (2”x3” grid)—I’ve settled on 36-inch plastic hardware cloth (1/2” grid).  The plastic hardware cloth is easier to cut with wire cutters and to handle, and bucks often adjusted to the 24-inch size by rubbing just above it.

Plastic hardware cloth
and bag of cable ties
I cut the 36-inch plastic hardware cloth in lengths that make a circle that’s between four and five inches in diameter, which leaves room for the trunks to grow for several years.  I secure each protector in place with two eight-inch cable ties, one about six inches from each end of the protector once I’ve wrapped it around a tree.

I haven’t found rigid trunk protectors locally, but several varieties are available on the Internet.  Search: “tree trunk protectors.”  Some are short to protect bark from string trimmers.  Others range up to four feet in height.

I checked prices today at Home Depot to see what the raw materials currently cost.  A 15-foot roll of 36-inch “Black Plastic Hardware Cloth” (1/2-inch mesh) sells for $16.44.  A bag of 100 eight-inch black cable ties costs $5.99.  A roll that long would make 13 protectors four inches in diameter.  Cost would be just over $1.30 for each protector and two ties.  That’s about a $5.00 saving on each from Internet prices (plus shipping) of comparable products. 

Do I hear a Frugal Gardener shouting, “Yes!  I can save a few bucks— some serious dough—if I make my own!”

Plastic protectors in place
in Deer Country
Deer Country puns aside, I’ve already removed cages from more than 20 young native trees that I’ve planted since 2006—red maples, tulip poplars, American dogwoods, American redbuds, and black gums.  Maybe in another five years I’ll be able to remove the trunk protectors too.

That’s all the excitement I can report from Meadow Glenn, where I cage the trees and the deer run free.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Deer Country: Bib Jeans, New Trimmer, 26 Flat Tops

Fountain grass needs cutting back
What a beautiful February day—bright sunshine, temperature hovering just below 50°F, slight breeze.  I put on my new pair of bib jeans, unboxed my new 17” electric hedge trimmer, grabbed a 100’ extension cord and a pitchfork, and went to work cutting back our perennial fountain grass.

Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) is a great landscape plant for Deer Country.  It has character—bright green in spring and early summer, grows nearly 3’ tall, is light golden brown in fall, and attracts birds that seem to savor its seeds well into winter.

Best of all, deer don’t eat fountain grass—and most other ornamental grasses.  I suppose the reason is that the grass is too tough for them to easily bite off and then chew.

We have 26 clumps of fountain grass.  Four in a front yard island bed help another deer unfavorite, boxwood (Buxus x ‘Green Mountain’), hide the vent of our septic system.  The remainder are in our backyard, most on the outside of our fence where they help dissuade local nimble bambits from jumping the 4’ split rail and wire fence by widening the jumping obstacle.

Without the fountain grass, the fence is about six inches wide.  With the fountain grass, the hurdle, at least from a deer perspective, is about five feet wide, a width our bambits so far have refused to jump.

Fountain grass with flat-top cuts
Every February or early March, though, before the fountain grass begins its spring growth, I cut back the previous year’s grass.  I call it giving the clumps their annual flat-top haircuts.

That’s what I did this morning.  The job took less than two hours, including stacking the cuttings with my pitchfork for easy moving to our compost heap when my Kubota tractor returns from its annual winter service appointment.

Oh, my Aching Back, I thought, as I finished bending and cutting and stacking.  Yes, my back ached—and also my left ankle and knee and right shoulder.   Why don’t young gardeners ache, I often ask?  Do pains of age only begin at three score and ten?

And then, as I looked at the stack of hay I’d piled on the side of the hill and felt the warming winter sun soothing my aching muscles and joints, I thought of the ancient nursery rhyme, at least as best as I could recollect:

Ancient Gardener Blue,
Come raise an alarm,
The squirrel’s on the birdfeeder,
The deer are eating the corn.
Where is that gardener
Who keeps away the deer?
On the haystack
Fast asleep!
Will you wake him?
Oh no, not I!

And guess what I did right then and there—as warming winter sun soothed my aches and pains?
Yes, I really did

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Bowl Sacrifice

Red Sails lettuce in mini-greenhouse, Feb. 5

Ellen and I were assembling ingredients for our Super Bowl treat—a six-layer dip.


Refried beans—yes!

Shredded cheddar—yes!

Chopped tomatoes—yes!



“Did you bring it in yet?” Ellen asked.

It was time for our Super Bowl Sacrifice.  It was time for me to cut one of the three Red Sails lettuce plants that have been growing in my cheap mini-greenhouse during the winter months.

The beautiful Super Bowl sacrifice
Well, when it’s time, it’s time.  I took my garden scissors off their hook in the garage by the kitchen door, and Ellen and I walked to the mini-greenhouse.  I wanted her to witness the sacrifice.

I unsnapped the fasteners and took off the lid.  The three Red Sails lettuces were beautiful.  I took my scissors, raised the lower leaves of the left Red Sails lettuce a bit, slid in the scissors, and … our Super Bowl Sacrifice was complete.

The head of lettuce was beautiful—despite the two small slugs that had managed to burrow their way into the bottomless mini-greenhouse in their quest for a lettuce meal.

Soon our six-layer dip was complete, and we nibbled away as the Giants took an early lead in Super Bowl XLVI, and then the Patriots tool the lead.

Good game, so far.  Good six-layer dip.  Good Red Sails lettuce fresh from meager winter garden.

Let the eating begin!
This is my round-about way of saying the mini-greenhouse is working well in this warm winter.
One Red Sails lettuce sacrificed.  Two Red Sails lettuces growing beautifully still.

If you missed my earlier postings about my mini-greenhouse experiment, CLICK HERE.

P.S. Final score: New England Patriots 17, New York Giants 21, Red Sails Lettuce 24.