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Oh, deer! Tampa gardeners fed up with deer and rabbits

They say you can pick up lots of information on the golf course, and yes, it's true. • A couple of weeks ago, I hit the 19th hole — the only one I'm good at — at Countryway Golf Club. Sure enough, I chanced upon a couple of gardening golfers discussing a problem plaguing their Westchase neighborhood.

The conversation went something like this:

Kathy Carlsen: "My bee balm is gone. My Indian Hawthorne is almost gone."

Kathy McGlone: "I had all those SunHostas, and they'd gotten so big. They were beautiful! They were blooming!"

Kathy Carlsen: "And now they're nubs. I know that made you sick. I'm so sorry. What a terrible thing to come home to after vacation."

Then, there was this email from Bob Millaway in Spring Hill:

"A critical resident up here — DEER! The tableau of plants pictured and listed in your article in today's paper reads like a menu at an exclusive wildlife preserve. Perhaps the only group not on the delight list for these animals is the several types of bunch grasses and the junipers. All the rest will not last the night."

That was just the beginning. It seems everyone's complaining about deer and rabbits.

Gardeners tend to be wildlife lovers, but when deer devour rose bushes, thorns and all, lantana blooms, schefflera and sweet potato vines, and rabbits wipe out the rest, even the gentlest among us spew vindictives.

"A few of us have become ... EXPEDITORS," Bob wrote. "Yes, there are very effective deterrents; recidivism is zero."

Kathy noted that the problem is the worst she has seen since moving to Westchase 18 years ago.

"I've got plants they've ignored forever, so I thought they were safe," she says. "Now they're getting eaten."

One of her neighbors rigged screens framed with PVC pipes. Every night, she covers her flower beds with them and every morning, she packs them away again.

"The reason there's a problem now is all the rain," says Greg Shell, a Lutz gardener who doesn't need a golf course to catch the scuttlebutt. As the proprietor of Shell's Feed Store in north Tampa, he talks to gardeners and farmers all day long.

"There's lots of tender, green growth now, they love that."

Kathy Carlsen and Bob Millaway believe there's not only more to eat — there's more to eat it.

"A healthy deer population is a controlled one," Bob says. "When can you recall twins being born and surviving natural predator pressure? Up here, twins have become the norm and the number of triplets is increasing. The home garden, er, my home garden, is their smorgasbord."

Natural predators used to help keep their numbers in check, Kathy says.

"We used to see coyotes crossing Linebaugh (Avenue) and running across the golf course all the time," she says. "Now, I'm lucky to have a sighting twice a year."

• • •

If you're going to bed with a garden and waking up to nothing, there are some good tricks to try.

Greg and Holly Ober, a wildlife and conservation specialist at the University of Florida, suggest a few offensive tactics that don't involve a freezer full of venison steaks and filleted bunny breasts.

Greg recommends three products, all of which should be applied when there's no rain forecast and you don't plan to water. All are natural, can be used on edibles and are labeled as deer and rabbit repellents. They're available at Shell's, and I'm adding a couple other shopping options. (Note: As with shampoos and exercise, it's best to switch up products and routines frequently.)

Hinder's active ingredient is, basically, ammonia. "It's very good and the effect lasts for days, even after a rain," Greg says. He suggests spot-testing on plants first, to ensure they can tolerate it. Hinder scored well in a 2001 study by the Illinois Walnut Council. It's hard to find for sale online; a 24-ounce squirt bottle sells for $13.99 at extremelygreen.com.

Shake-Away crystallized coyote urine. "Sprinkle it around plants wherever you're having trouble. If you can change their feeding patterns for two or three days, they should move on," Greg says. At amazon.com, Shake-Away is about $14 for 28.5 ounces. It's also available locally at Ace of Town 'N Country. (Coyote urine had a 50:50 effectiveness rate in the Walnut Council study.)

Liquid Fence — if you can stomach the smell. "It's labeled for deer and rabbits, but it's very effective for squirrels, too," Greg says. "I've used it to keep squirrels out of my new bean plants. You spray it right on the plants." Liquid Fence's primary ingredient is "putrescent whole egg solids" — rotten eggs. They're served with a dollop of garlic powder. It sells for $12.99 a quart at liquidfence.com, which also carries granular versions.

Holly Ober says she hasn't evaluated products, so she can't recommend one. But she has other suggestions.

Fencing

For rabbits, the cheapest, simplest option is 2-foot-tall chicken wire wrapped around the perimeter of the garden. Bury a couple of inches of the bottom edge to prevent animals from slipping underneath.

For deer, fine plastic mesh can be put up for a few weeks or months between wooden stakes. It's lightweight, comes in earth tones and doesn't quickly crumble in the sun.

Deer-resistant plants: "I did a study a couple of years ago to assess deer preference for various wildflowers," Holly says. "They did not like lanceleaf tickseed, pinnate prairie coneflower, goldenmane tickseed, or firewheel (Coreopsis lanceolata, Ratibida pinnata, Coreopsis basalis, and Gaillardia pulchella)."

To that list, Kathy adds azaleas, hibiscus and snow on the mountain (Euphorbia marginata).

(No, I haven't found a comprehensive list of plants deer despise, and there may not be one. When deer and rabbits are hungry, they're not picky, experts say.)

"I'm just going to keep trying to find plants they won't eat," Kathy says. "I would never want to get rid of them. I wouldn't chase them away even if they came up in my yard while I was sitting there watching.

"We love looking at nature. That's why we moved here."

And the occasional clash with other plant lovers? It's just par for the course."

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Find more local gardening tales at www.digginfloridadirt.com or join the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt.

Oh, deer! Tampa gardeners fed up with deer and rabbits 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 4:30am]

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