Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

Deter Deer with Camouflage Gardening

A deer-proof garden is essentially non-existent, but a highly deer-resistant garden is attainable with a little effort and planning. One key is to practice “camouflage gardening“.

Camouflage gardening is the practice of using plants that animals don’t like to deter them from eating plants that they do like. Camouflage gardening is mostly focused on deterring deer, but can work for rabbits, squirrels, and even dogs and cats with appropriate plantings. I must point out and stress that this deters animals like deer from eating desirable plants, it doesn’t prevent them from eating anything.

Deer exploring my new vegetable garden area

Deer exploring my new vegetable garden area

Think of it as constructing a castle or defensive military position. The plant you want to protect is in the center of the defensive zone. It’s surrounded by a barrier of deer-resistant plants. For superior defense you layer zones with additional rings of protection. You’re not building walls to protect plants but using plants to protect plants.

There are certain plants that deer, and similarly many other animals, don’t like. Deer tend to avoid plants that are strongly aromatic or bitter tasting, that have a milky or sticky sap, or that have prickly leaves or are tough and hairy. When they encounter these plants they tend to ignore them and move on.

Deer are browsers that amble from plant to plant looking for something they like. If a plant isn’t on their list of favorites, they’ll keep looking for one that is. This assumes that they have an adequate food selection available. When conditions are bad, as in drought years or when habitat is reduced, they’ll eat almost anything to stay alive. In spring pregnant does will eat almost anything.

Deer by table

Deer will look everywhere for food

To get the best protection and to help minimize problems during bad years, the outside protective zone, which is the first that deer encounter, would have a plant that is highly resistant to deer. This layer should have plants that are aromatic with an odor that makes them walk away. You create a scent barrier that prevents them from smelling desirable plants. Lavender, mint, salvia, beebalm, rosemary, and cedar are some plants that have a smell deer avoid and are also rarely eaten.

Salvia and yarrow deter deer

Salvia and yarrow deter deer

The second layer of protection would include bad-tasting or toxic plants. The idea is that if they wander past or through the first protective zone they’ll come across plants that they don’t want to eat. Holly, juniper, feathergrass, zinnia, and barberry are rarely eaten. Plants like elderberry, poppies, bleeding heart, lobelia, and larkspur can be toxic. When deer encounter these plants they should go in the opposite direction.

A third layer of protection is to offer a suicide zone. This is a grouping of fast-growing plants outside the protected area that are less deer resistant. Honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, morning glory, and clematis are plants that deer will nibble without decimating the plant. Flowers that reseed prolifically fit in here too. Planted strategically, these plants can lead deer away from more desirable beds.
With a simple two-stage protection planting plan, deer will come across your landscape, realize they don’t like the smells and tastes, and keep on walking. If they’re curious or extra hungry, they’ll try nibbling on what they find but if they don’t like it they’ll realize this whole yard isn’t worth their time and effort and will move on to your neighbor’s yard. They never make it to the roses or tulips or young fruit tree that they would devour.

Adding a suicide zone gives them someplace else to go as they walk away from your garden. They may eat a few clematis or morning glory flowers as they avoid the aromas and tastes of the other zones. Asters, petunias, and small sunflowers give them something else to nibble, and will grow back soon.

Deer damage to my sunflowers

Deer damage to my sunflowers

As you plan a camouflage garden you don’t need to think in terms of clearly defined rings of plants. The first and second protective zones can be intermingled, with aromatic plants planted among bitter and toxic ones. The concept is that one plant deters the deer and when they move to a second plant it deters them too. Ideally every plant they encounter within a defined space is a deterrent and they never move through it.

When you have a mix of plants with many deer deterrent properties it creates a synergy where the entire garden becomes highly effective at deterring deer. A wide spectrum of aromatic plants can confuse deer to the point that they seek a more simple, clearly identifiable source of food… like the big expanse of tulips down the street.

To be most effective camouflage gardening needs to be as year-round as possible. If the plant you’re hoping to protect blooms or buds before the others, deer can find it. Your deterrent plants need to be in position and producing their deterring effect.

For example, for early spring your garden border is planted with dwarf juniper, rosemary, sage, or artemisia — plants that are still fragrant even when they’re dormant. A fragrant groundcover like thyme covers the area. A large planting of daffodils, plants deer typically don’t eat, brings early color and helps create another deer deterrent barrier. Irises come next, another plant deer typically don’t eat. At the center of your display for height and color are your tulips, a plant that deer love to devour. Depending on variety, you may have irises and tulips flowering together which adds extra confusion to the deer. It’s not a perfect solution. In a good year your tulips are spared; in a very bad year everything is eaten.

I’m planting my new landscape with entire beds of deterrent plants. One bed has lavender on one side and various spirea on the other. Miscanthus grass provides height and interest. Purple coneflower and yarrow add color. Apache plume fills the center for added texture color and interest. It’s highly satisfying to see deer tracks in and around the bed and not a single plant is disturbed.

Another bed has creeping phlox, artemisia, dwarf pines, salvia, yucca, columbines, irises, and daffodils; again, there are tracks but no damage. Next year’s new beds will have similar plantings.

My new deer deterrent beds cause deer to walk away

My new deer deterrent beds cause deer to walk away

We have a resident deer population. They even bed down among the gambel oak trees in our backyard. I’m hoping that they’ll get used to encountering so many plants they don’t like that by the time I plant young trees and a few other less-resistant perennials they’ll have learned to go some place else for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Already I’ve noticed more tracks walking around my deer-resistant beds than walking through them.

Get to know your neighbors

Get to know your neighbors

For your camouflage garden, research deer deterrent plants. You won’t need to sacrifice color, smell, texture, or height. Select plants that you like to grow normally. Then design your beds and landscape with those plants as the first barrier. Continue with plantings of other deer-resistant plants that you want in your landscape. Personalize the space. You don’t need to grow plants you don’t like.

Camouflage gardening isn’t foolproof. The only sure way to protect plants is with a physical barrier. For prized plants and young trees a fence or metal wall is the only sure deer proofing. Used together, camouflage and wire fences can allow plants that deer like to eat to become large enough and established to the point they don’t need a fence.

Camouflage gardening works best in a large landscape or garden with enough space to allow planting the necessary barrier plants, but even in small gardens the same principles can be beneficial. Make plants that deer and other animals avoid your first line of defense. Hide your other plants with smells and tastes that deter deer. With a little planning and a lot of luck you may be able to enjoy plants that you’ve had problems with before.


Deer Deterrent Soap

Deer soap works. I’m not talking about a big buck enjoying a nice, luxurious bath after getting all hot and sweaty, but rather using fragrant soap as a weapon in keeping deer away from the garden. Of course, as with any strategy of deterring these pesky animals, there are limitations to soap.

There is no foolproof method of repelling deer. Anything you see advertised or described as a deer repellent is overstating its effectiveness. At best a product can deter them. That’s an important differentiation. When hungry enough, deer will eat plants they would normally avoid and will venture into areas that pose a threat. By making a garden less appealing, you hope to veer their wanderings in another direction. That’s where deterrents come in.

Deer damage to my sunflowers

Taste and smell deterrents are among the most common types used by gardeners. Making a plant taste bad or an area smell offensive to deer is a good tactic. It’s like when you go to the city and walk along the street looking for a nice restaurant for dinner. You’re more likely to stop and enjoy the fare of the doorway with aromas of fresh-baked bread and grilled meat than the one that reeks of sewer gas. But if choice is limited and you’re hungry enough, you’ll forgo the rancid odors for a hardy meal.

I have a deer problem and would prefer that they avoid my plants and look for more appealing meals so I experimented this year with soap as a smell deterrent; I also recruited fellow gardeners to help in the experiment. My wife makes custom, luxury soap and I asked her to make a batch using specific ingredients designed to maximize its effectiveness as a deer deterrent.

There are certain smells that are more offensive to deer than others. University of Nebraska studies showed that animal-based fats are more effective than natural oils so my deer soap is made with pig lard rather than the olive oil, coconut oil, and shea butter that my wife normally uses. Mint is a plant that often deters deer so part of the fragrance base of my custom soap is mint. The more odorous the soap the more effective it is, so the overall fragrance is amped up. The result is a soap that I can smell from a good distance which means deer will be unable to avoid the odor.

My research uncovered recommendations for placing soap from 18 inches (.5 meter) to 10 feet (3 meters) apart. Encouraged by persuasive university studies, I placed my deer soap from three to four feet apart (1 – 1.2 meter), hanging from a fence next to my sunflowers. Though sunflower is often listed as a plant that deer don’t like, they love to nibble on my young plants. I varied the height above ground from two feet (.6 meter) to four feet (1.2 meter).

Deer soap hanging above the sunflowers

The effect was immediate. I lost no more young sunflower plants to deer in the areas I placed the deer deterrent soap. My friend Della reported similar results. The large deer population in her neighborhood regularly decimates her plants. Since placing the soap she hasn’t lost any Clematis or Buckthorn, plants that are normally favorites of her deer.

My experiment also confirmed a limitation of soap as a deer deterrent. Deer are smart animals and will begin to learn that we’re playing tricks on them. They begin to recognize that the surprising and offensive odor is now normal and part of the landscape. At about the six-week point, I noticed deer damage to plants at the periphery of my test area. The plants within a two-feet radius (.6 meter) of the soap bars were still untouched. I suspect that sun and rain have lessened the strength of the fragrance and that the weaker aroma is not as effective at the edges of the bed.

One solution is to switch to another smell deterrent before the deer get used to the old stuff. If a garden always smells “bad” with varying offensive aromas, it is more likely that the deer will pass by looking for a meal that is more appealing. I have more soap with different fragrance components to swap out for the earlier batch.

It is also a good idea to increase the number of soap bars and place them as close to the protected plants as possible. Smells diminish with distance so concentrating the odorous soap keeps the smell strong throughout the protected zone.

I had my soap custom made and it lasted a month and a half before losing its peak efficiency. Almost any fragrant soap will work as a deer deterrent. Many people have reported success with soaps like Ivory and Irish Spring. There are many other smell deterrents that work with varying results. Predator urine, human hair, citrus peels, and rotten eggs have all been shown to deter deer but lose their effectiveness after a good rain.

Soap lasts longer than many of these deterrents and doesn’t need to be replaced as often. Varying the type of soap to introduce new smells is the best approach to keeping deer away.

Deer soap does pose a potential problem for gardeners. It can attract voles. When the soap dissolves in a rain, the ground beneath it becomes more appealing to voles. If you have a vole problem (I do) and live in a wet region (I don’t) you may want to consider changing the location of the soap periodically so it doesn’t build up on the soil and become an attractant to another garden pest. I haven’t noticed any increase in vole tunnels near my test bed, but I haven’t had very much rain.

I’m quite pleased with the results of my deer-deterrent experiment. Soap will continue to be a part of my arsenal in the battle against deer. It doesn’t harm them in any way and it keeps my garden intact. While my soap is hung from a fence, hanging it directly from sturdy branches allows the same effectiveness to extend to fruit trees and decorative bushes and shrubs.

With enough soap the entire landscape can become a deterrent to deer.

If you’d like to purchase some of the custom deer deterrent soap, go to

A Sure Sign of Spring — Snakes in the Garden

I spied a Robin last week and again this morning. The plump, red-red bird bob-bobbing for worms along my garden path is often among the first indicators that spring has arrived, or at least uncommonly warm days that mimic spring. For me the best sign of spring’s arrival is a sighting of my resident garter snakes. I saw one yesterday.

The first snake sighting of the year

I’m really not an “ophiophilist”, a snake lover or someone with a special fondness for snakes. They always give me a start when I detect a slithering shadow at my feet. Jumping sideways or a few feet into the air is a common response. The idea of trying to pick one up doesn’t enter my mind because I’m certain it will never happen. But I like having garter snakes in my garden.

There are two snakes that enjoy my planting spaces. One is substantially bigger than the other and is usually the one I spot first. He tends to hang out at a big rock I placed at the base of our deck stairs just for his benefit. It was the smaller one I saw yesterday.

The big snake under his rock

As a gardener, seeing snakes tells me that the ground is warming up and soil organisms are becoming active. Snakes are reptiles, cold-blooded creatures that slow their metabolism dramatically in winter and cold periods. Commonly thought of as hibernation, for them it is actually called “brumation”.

To avoid freezing their slender bodies in our frigid winter conditions they find a deep spot below the frost line underground and wait for warm weather to return. My snakes live somewhere under my backyard sidewalk. I’ve seen both of them enter and exit at a spot close to the garage steps. I assume they found a route to the base of the house foundation possibly benefiting from some residual heat our home emits in winter. I’ve seen them curled up together near their rock so I also assume they brumate together, sharing their body warmth.

Slithering back under the sidewalk

For months they don’t eat. They enter brumation with an empty stomach so that any food in there won’t spoil and rot when their metabolism slows down. At some point they detect warming conditions and venture out to eat. If the ground were still frozen, the worms and frogs that make up part of their diet would be absent so they only arrive when the food is present.

That’s why I like knowing they’re active again. The earthworms are moving through the soil. The presence of the snakes and the robins confirm this. When the soil is warm enough for the worms it’s usually warm enough for plant roots. That means I can consider planting and sowing soon.

Of course there are other considerations for planting. Last frost date, soil temperatures for germination, length of daylight, snow possibility, and many other factors come into play before I put anything in the ground. One snake’s appearance is not enough to override good gardening decision-making, but it is ample evidence for good things to come.

Spring is really here! It has been unseasonably warm, but I’ve been fooled by our finicky weather before. This time it looks like it’s here to stay. Long-term weather forecasts confirm it (for now) and at least one snake is venturing out of his safe winter home to test the hypothesis.

There are still many chores and tasks to finish to fully prepare my garden for the season. Occasional cold days and nights are still ahead for the next five or six weeks. It’s not clear sailing yet, but a little snake is enough to lighten my spirits and brighten my day.

Using Bird Netting

Luring birds to my garden to observe them among my flowers and trees is a major activity of mine. Watching through the kitchen window, we watch the finches and jays feeding on their respective seed as we enjoy our own food and wine. The hummingbirds bring life and vitality to the garden and we never tire of their presence. I do what I can to make them all welcome, but draw the line when it comes to my strawberries and raspberries and bird netting is the key.

A plant worth protecting

Some birds, particularly the magpies (those @*%#! magpies), enjoy a banquet in my garden. They peck tomatoes and pluck seeds. When given a chance they’ll gorge themselves on every piece of ripe fruit on stem, vine, or branch. To keep them from the fruit that I prefer to eat myself, I use bird netting as a barrier.

Bird netting is simply a plastic or fiber mesh net that is spread over a plant for the purpose of preventing access by birds. The openings in common nets are typically 5/8 or 3/4 of an inch square, too small for any bird’s body to penetrate. It is very effective and very economical for typical bird pests. Heavy duty netting of 1″ or 2″ squares is more expensive, but will stand up to larger, heavier, and persistent birds.

A simple plastic, metal, or wood frame is necessary to drape the netting over. If you lay the netting directly on the plants you want to protect, the birds will be able to stand on it and peck through the openings, even the small ones. When supported by a frame, the netting acts as an efficient obstacle.

For low plants the frame just needs to be higher than the plants. In my strawberry bed I bent five-feet long sections of black PVC tubing between the sides; the ends of the tubing are inserted over 18-inch long pieces of metal rebar sunk into the soil. A length of bird netting covers the entire bed from end to end. It’s important that all the sides are enclosed. I use 3-inch metal garden staples to hold the netting flush with the ground.

Bird netting over the strawberries

The birds will still desire the fruit and may try to get it even when they see the netting, but when they meet the resistance of the netting they’ll eventually give up. They can be persistent though and are smart enough to find gaps. I’ve discovered birds on the inside of the netting; they found a way in but not a way out. That’s why it’s important to have all edges secured flush to the soil or mulch surface.

The white PVC pipe that I used to make mini greenhouses is ideally suited to support bird netting (see my blog, “Extending Your Growing Season with Mini Geenhouses“). In early spring it supports plastic sheets to warm the bed, in late summer it supports bird netting to protect your harvest, in the fall it supports plastic again to extend the season.

Taller or vining plants need larger framing. For my raspberries I built a barrier of metal fenceposts and four-feet high fencing. This is a strong frame primarily to keep the deer out, but it serves a secondary purpose of supporting bird netting over the top. The deer will eat the tips of the raspberries before the flowers develop and the birds will eat the fruit so both have to be dealt with. It’s a fully enclosed box that I can open but the birds and deer can’t.

My raspberries protected by fencing and bird netting

Bird netting is ideal for birds and is well suited for keeping other garden pests at bay as well. Last year I planted young apple and cherry trees and was actually surprised when I found their tips eaten by deer. This year when I added a new plum tree I was prepared. I buried the end of a 10′-long PVC pipe next to the tree at planting. It supports bird netting that fully encloses the tree like a dainty parasol. Around the base is a ring of 4′ metal fencing to which the net is attached. I’m not worried about birds at this point because the tree isn’t producing fruit, but this has proven effective against deer. The fencing is occasionally pushed out of place, apparently by a deer trying to move it away, but the light, plastic netting has kept the young branches from being eaten. When the tree is bigger, netting will protect the fruit.

Bird netting over the plum tree

On my deck I wrapped a piece of netting around a tomato plant in a pot. My Yellow Lab, Lily, was fond of pulling off the green tomatoes to play with (see my blog, “Dogs and Tomatoes“). The netting now keeps her away from the tomatoes, allowing them time to ripen. Netting is also effective against cats, squirrels, and other small animals.

Bird netting protecting a tomato plant

Bird netting comes in a variety of sizes for easy and varied uses. Gardener’s Supply Company offers netting of 7′ x 7′ and 14′ x 14′ that can easily be thrown over a small fruit tree or a good-size garden plot. I use a roll 7′ x 100′ that I purchased from a major home improvement store; it is easily cut to fit garden beds and different size hoops. You can also find bird netting of 14′ x 100′ or 50′ x 50′ or even 30′ x 500′ online.

At some point I imagine a roof of netting over my entire garden. I’ve seen similar setups by other gardeners. A fully enclosed garden may seem extreme and sterile but insects can still get through the netting for pollination and it allows sun and rain in. I’m getting annoyed at the number of tomatoes, beans, squash, and corn that fall prey to birds, especially those @*%#! magpies, and a single roof of netting seems like a nice plan.

For now I cover a few of the beds and trees. I could cover the tomatoes but the indeterminate varieties grow tall and beyond the confines of the bed. I’ve tried netting before but the tomato vines grow through it and become a tangled mess. That makes harvesting the ripe tomatoes quite difficult. I know selective pruning and a very large net support system can solve the problem, but I’m not ready to put that much effort into the solution.

For garden beds with compact and controlled plantings, bird netting can easily protect the fruit until ready for human harvest. It lasts for years and can be reused. I try to label the netting when I roll it up at the end of the season so I know which bed it is cut to fit. A roll 100′ feet long is enough to cover about eight of my beds, allowing for overlap on the ends.

I don’t put netting over my flower beds or bushes. I want the hummingbirds to feed on the flower nectar and don’t mind birds eating stray seeds. They rarely damage any of those beds. If the deer become too much of a nuisance it may be necessary to shelter some plants, but I don’t have that concern yet. For birds, unless you’re trying to protect a prized flower or plant, netting is seldom needed outside a vegetable garden.

If you have a bird problem, or any other large garden pest, and haven’t tried bird netting, consider it. For little cost and effort your problem could be solved.

Dogs and Tomatoes

Labrador Retrievers love fresh green tomatoes. I’ve seen no empirical studies on this other than my own. Through the years we’ve had three Labs:  a Black, a Chocolate, and a Yellow. All of them at one time or another were caught red-pawed with green tomatoes retrieved from the garden. Therefore, I submit that Labs love green tomatoes.

Shaca, the Chocolate Lab, was my garden buddy for many years. In her youth, after a busy and respectful day in the garden, she would prance into the house proudly displaying a large, green tomato between her chompers. A terse response from me usually followed as I removed it. A few minutes later she would return, tail wagging, with another one. She liked that game.


As much as she enjoyed it, tomatoes are notoriously difficult to grow along the Front Range of the Rockies in Colorado, and losing large ones late in the season, just before they ripen, is stressful.

Shaca learned to stay out of the garden beds. Whenever I was gardening she would lie in a prime shaded spot along the garden edge and watch me. In my absence, particularly when the squirrels were active, she would forget the boundaries. In addition to pilfered green tomatoes, some plants were occasionally damaged. To minimize garden losses I put a fence up and only allowed her in when I was present. I didn’t like the restrictions, but she still had lots of yard to play in.

Rosie, the Black Lab, was much older when she ventured into my garden for the first time. In my new, unfenced garden, she learned to stay out of the raised beds. I only caught her gnawing on a green tomato once or twice after the first frost had already killed the vines. I didn’t have a big problem with her retrieving garden refuse and let it go.

Shaca and Rosie

We lost both Shaca and Rosie this last year. Their gardening transgressions are memories, pleasant ones now.

Lily, a Yellow Lab, is new to our household that also includes two older dogs. Lily is the newest garden criminal. She’s been in the garden since she was a puppy, which hasn’t been long since she’s only 10 months old. I no longer have to tell her to get out of the beds. She does a wonderful job of walking the paths and avoiding new plants. But her inner dog was encouraging her to live up to the legacy of Shaca and Rosie.

Young Lily

One evening this week we heard her running and pouncing along the deck. Loud scurrying was interspersed with careening against the house and rails. She was attacking a green tomato as it rolled along the wood planks.

It was humorous, or rather it would have been humorous if it wasn’t the largest green tomato in the entire garden and was just about to change color. She had plucked it from a plant in a pot on the deck. It was obviously too nice a prize to leave on the vine and she was quite proud of the new toy that was entertaining her.

I was annoyed and a little angry. The next day, though, my deductive light bulb turned on. The answer to the unasked question of why Labs love green tomatoes was suddenly clear. I’d seen Lily behave in the same manner before.

There’s a reason Labrador Retrievers are called retrievers. Sticks, stuffed dog toys, and socks are all items Lily loves to fetch. Not all of them on command. She loves to steal my socks in the morning and then bring one to me while I’m searching for them. Shaca would occasionally present me with a dead bird that I suspect one of the other dogs had killed. Rosie would wander in with various items of clothing from the bedroom. Their tails were always wagging joyfully.

Retrieving balls is a special love. A throw across the yard, a breakneck run, a deft snatch, and a speedy return with the prize. Tennis balls are the toy of choice. Their bounce and ease of heft made them perfect for master and dog alike. Nice, green, tennis balls.

It’s taken three dogs and many years to realize the similarities between tomatoes and tennis balls. To a dog they’re virtually the same thing. Firm, round, and green. I don’t recall any of the dogs bringing me juicy, red tomatoes, just the green ones. After a full day when I was ready to relax and enjoy the evening, a young dog’s energy is still amped and ready for more play. Dad doesn’t want to participate so let’s grab one of these balls hanging in the no-no place.

Which one is the ball?

It’s difficult to fault an animal for something they do naturally. Retrievers have been bred for generations to retrieve. When we play fetch with an object that could just as easily be a green tomato, can we blame them for finding their own outlet for play. Even if it’s our treasured garden.

Netting and fencing will help alleviate the problem in the garden, but I’m not sure if the tomato plant on the deck will ever be safe again. I lose more tomatoes to insects and birds than I do to the dogs so it’s not something I’ll lose sleep over. And as I think about it, it brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.

Dogs are smart. Labs are friendly, loving, playful, and not vindictive at all. It makes perfect sense that they would break life into simple elements:  play, fun, ball. We reward them with praise or treats when they bring back the tennis ball. Why wouldn’t they wag their tails and anxiously bring us a green tomato.

I think back to Shaca skipping through the patio door with her prize and it heightens a sense of nostalgia. She was young and eager to please. Lily continues in the same vein, tail wagging, morning sock in mouth, anxious for attention and play. I suspect more green tomatoes will be lost to her sharp mind and desire to entertain herself and me.

I’m okay with that. The cost of a few tomatoes creates priceless memories. She’ll lose her puppy mentality soon and before I know it both of us will be too stiff and tired to play fetch. There will always be green tomatoes, but as we’ve seen with Shaca and Rosie there won’t always be Lily. The next time I find her with a green tomato there won’t be any harsh words. We’ll both enjoy the moment.

Snakes in the Garden

Our snake at the bottom of the stairs has been quite active lately. I’ve seen it most days this week, basking in the early morning sun. This is a wonderful time of year for snakes. It’s warm in the evening, warm in the morning, and not too hot during the day. Food and water sources abound. Except for the territorial hawks, there isn’t much to be worried about.

The snake under the rock

The snakes in my garden are garter snakes. I know of at least two. The big one lives under the sidewalk and rests under a big rock I put at the bottom of the deck stairs. The smaller one found its way into our shower and I released it near the sidewalk in April (see my blog “Gardens and a Colorado Spring“). It was still cool during the day and I found the two of them curled up together under the rock a few weeks after that. I’m not sure where it resides now.

The smaller "shower" snake

According to there are five garter snake species found in Colorado. Mine look slightly different from each other; I think the big one is a Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix) and the smaller is a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Or maybe a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans). I can be wrong about that because it’s difficult to find pictures of snakes that looked exactly like them. Garter snakes can have different coloring even when they’re the same species. If anyone has a definitive answer on these two please let me know.

Garter snakes are the most common snake in North America and have habitats that range from ponds and streams to rocks and fields to homes and gardens. They are opportunistic hunters and adapt to eat what they can find. Almost all information sources reference their consumption of fish and amphibians, but in my high-altitude, dry, prairie landscape they’re probably feeding on slugs, grasshoppers, and earthworms.

If they can find a baby bird or egg, they’ll eat it. In my garden I hope they’re feeding on mice, voles, and baby gophers. Though that may be too much to hope for.

They don’t grow much longer than 3 1/2 feet long and my big one is at least three feet long. The last time I saw the little one it was bigger than when I released it, at a respectable two feet length. Those are estimates; I haven’t caught and stretched them along a tape measure.

I’ve only ever seen these two and I don’t know their respective sex. Typically females are larger than males so I may have a momma snake under my rock. Garter snakes bear live young and the new snakes are born in late summer or early fall. That time is fast approaching so I’m on the lookout for signs of 20 baby snakes. A typical litter is 10 to 30 snakes and they’re independent at birth. Eager to feed right away, my earthworm population is in peril if that happens.

I’m a huge advocate of attracting wildlife to the garden, good and bad. It’s illegal to kill nonvenomous snakes in Colorado and I wouldn’t want to. They play a role in the environment that is ultimately beneficial. While I may lose some earthworms that are aerating the soil, I’ll also lose the slugs that eat my strawberries and Hostas. A baby bird or small egg in a nest near the ground may be devoured, but so too will the destructive vole hiding in a tunnel near my gardens.

In a few months when the weather grows colder the snakes will enter their winter den, a spot usually shared by many other snakes. They’ll enter their hibernation, which is actually a “brumation” period. It’s a type of dormancy when they save metabolic energy and huddle in a mass of other snakes to conserve their body heat. I don’t know where the brumation den is, but it could be a few miles away as all the snakes in the area might gather together.

In preparation for that period they feed more and begin to store fat. That may be why I’ve seen my snake so much lately. It may be returning from an early morning feeding excursion. It is welcome to as many grasshoppers and slugs as it can find.

The first few times I saw it I was startled by the snake. Now I look for it every day just to be sure it’s still there. While garter snakes actually do relatively well in captivity, I have no desire to keep it as a pet. It has a place in my garden and it has a purpose and I do what I can to avoid interfering with the natural cycle.

My wife named it Joe for the benefit of our grandson. It was fun for her to describe my encounter with it in the shower and how we (the snake and I) had a conversation as I released it back into the wild at the base of the stairs. At four years old he was anxious to hear about what the snake said and he wanted to see it when he stayed overnight recently. To our mutual pleasure it was sunning itself when they ventured out the next morning. An exciting morning for a little boy.

Though Joe would truly be the name of the smaller snake, and we haven’t really named the big one, it was an experience that that was rewarding for all of us. Children should have the opportunity to realize that nature is wondrous in all of its forms. Snakes don’t need to be feared. We should marvel at all of the animals. I don’t particularly enjoy the stealthy deer and gophers making a mess of my garden, but I stop and stare in awe every time I actually see them.

The snake under the rock helps remind me that my gardens and my role in this landscape are just a small piece in a much larger picture. It’s a bit humbling. But it also helps validate my actions. By encouraging diversity I’m rewarded with more of it. The hummingbirds, jays, foxes, and dogs share the land along with the snakes, gophers, and deer. They go about their lives with little fear of how I’ll intervene. I like it that way.

A Deer in the Garden

I have a deer problem. It’s not a bad one and for now it’s small, but it’s a problem nonetheless. I suspected deer were exploring my gardens late last year when I detected some tree damage (see my blog, “Not Sheep, Sherlock“). A few months ago I startled a solitary deer grazing on my grass when I opened the back door; he leapt over the fence and disappeared quickly through the neighbor’s trees. There have been a few tattletale piles of droppings in far-off sections of the property in the past, but no signs of imminent garden threat. Until now.

Yesterday there were tracks. In my garden. Smack dab in the middle of it.

The proof

The damage was limited to a single corn stalk, and a few of the peas. Many more tasty plants were left untouched. At least for now.

The corn victim

Many of my gardener friends have serious deer issues. They are unable to garden with any freedom because all plants they wish to keep for more than a few days must be fully enclosed by fencing or plastic covers. The deer walk openly through the neighborhoods blatantly destroying the vegetation in their path. There is little that can be done about it.

I garden by the “big neighborhood” theory. Our deer aren’t corralled into an urban valley like in many of those neighborhoods. Our deer have miles of open space around my beds and the theory holds that there will be another meal some place else that is easier to acquire. We have dogs and fences and lights and a deer has to be hesitant when venturing near.

The theory also holds that an early morning grazing by a solitary animal is a random occurrence and one that is unlikely to repeat itself often. I’m putting the future of my gardens at risk by relying on such a theory.

Valid or not, I think there is natural support for it. I understand that deer and the many other wild animals in our environment must feed regularly. I also understand that most of them have a fear or mistrust of humans. So they feed in the dark and in areas devoid of human interference. Most of the time it’s deep in the trees and away from houses.

But this year was drier than usual. We had very little measurable precipitation in April, May, and June. The normally green fields and forests were reduced to brown landscapes. Deer were forced to journey from their safe havens into the realm of people in search of food. This is a normal trend during drought years. My gardens offered little to entice them then because they were very small oases surrounded by vast expanses of dryness as I struggled with the same weather issues.

This month has been wet. We have enjoyed above normal rainfall levels as almost every day drops some monsoonal moisture. It’s green everywhere. The meandering foraging rewards the deer with every step. They don’t have to search for food, they just have to bend down and open their mouths.

That’s why I’m not too worried about my “big neighborhood” theory and the prints of a single animal. I choose to believe that he was walking through our backyard and was just eating what was in front of him. Some grass, a few wildflowers, a corn stalk, a couple of pea shoots, some more wildflowers, more grass, and the cycle continued as he walked to another neighbor’s yard. I’m hoping there was nothing special about what he tasted in my garden. There is a lot of fresh, young grass out there.

However, it may be time to have some concern. That solitary deer may be lying in the shade of a tall pine tree thinking: Now where was that tasty morsel I enjoyed yesterday; I must find it again. And if a single animal finds a topnotch restaurant you know his friends will want to try it too.

So preparation of potential safeguards is nigh. My new garden beds are in the open. They should be fenced before my plants become the culinary delight of the nearby herds. I’m a big believer in decoy plants. If I continue to see signs of deer, next year I’ll plant some succulent annuals far away from my treasured vegetables and fruits. If they insist on attending my banquet, let them eat the cheap stuff.

I’m not at the point of trying any deer deterrents, because few of them work effectively and because I don’t think it’s necessary yet. Part of me thinks that deer are pretty smart and they’ve learned to identify the so-called deterrents. Somewhere there’s a deer thinking: So what are they trying to hide with that wolf urine? I should check it out.

My guard is up. I’ll keep looking for more signs of deer as I plan to build that fence. I’ll do some more research on deer-preferred plants as I plan next year’s garden. I’m not losing any sleep over potential losses of this year’s crops. It hasn’t happened and I don’t expect it. This is a big neighborhood after all.