Archive for January, 2006


As promised, more on keeping the deer from driving you to a garden composed entirely of barberries and gravel:

* Smelly rope trick: Instead of ( or in addition to ) spraying, you can soak cotton clothesline in odor based repellent and run it as deer nose level fencing around your perennial beds. Easiest installation is through eye hooks screwed into wooden posts, but if you use cup hooks for the running length and thumb-latches at the ends, it’s easy to remove the string and resoak it from time to time.

* A loose dog (confined by an invisible fence) works very well – assuming you choose a dog that doesn’t do more damage than the deer do. But it only works in good weather because it only works when the dog is out there. And of course high maintenance does not even begin to describe it. This is really just a suggestion to consider springing for the fence if you already HAVE a dog.

* Wireless fence: described and sold at This is a set of posts that attract deer, then deliver a painful shock that teaches them to stay away. Same principle as a baited electric fence and – according to the manufacturer – just as effective without all that wire.

* Hunting. If you don’t like the idea of guns on the property, consider putting out the word that bow-hunters would be welcome. Unlike the deer, whose population numbers are exploding, hunters are an endangered species. Average age is somewhere around 50, but they are still around

* Community action: Deer lovers in some communities have instituted sterilization programs. And who knows? King Canute did not have notable success at the ocean’s edge, but maybe he didn’t throw enough money at the project. You can read about one effort in this direction – and see pictures of doctors operating on the deer – here.

* Permanent Fencing ( in the end that’s where you always wind up), is well if dauntingly described by ATTRA,  which also goes over a great deal else.

Note: In fairness, it should be said that Canute knew he would fail, he was just trying to prove his human limitations to a bunch of sycophants.

Help for Houseplants, a Great Birdfeeder, and some good news about Goat

Today I come to you directly from a jolly therapy session; half an hour of poking around at our big orange jasmine, scraping off the scale. The therapy is for the plant, not me – those houseplant gurus are thinking wishfully when they say this kind of screwing around has a calming effect. But it does remind me to remind you to go peer closely at your indoor greenery for signs of unwanted life. Midwinter is explosion time for aphids, whiteflies and scale. Like all of us, the plants have had it with short dark days and dry stale air.

The jasmine, a murraya, actually, is also getting a course of drenchings with insecticidal soap. You know the drill: Put the plant in the tub. Spray the hell out of it, being sure to get the undersides of the leaves. Leave it in place overnight. Next day, put a sheet of plastic over the pot surface to protect the soil, weight it with a few shampoo bottles or whatever, so it doesn’t slip, then draw the curtains and give the plant a long, gentle, tepid shower.

Is that it? No it’s not. Once there are enough bugs to see, there are enough bugs to breed, and it usually takes 2 or 3 treatments to get rid of them. Why bother? In the case of the murraya, fragrant flowers all year round, in batches every couple of months. The full name is Murraya paniculata, and they are not all that uncommon – I got mine at a local nursery that offers them every winter.

BTW, the shower part is a good idea even for plants that don’t have bugs… not only will they look better without dust, they’ll be able to absorb more sunlight. Needless to say, this advice does not apply to cactus or to damp-hating succulents like aloes and jades.

* Nothing like fooling around with the houseplants to make you want to head outdoors, to refill the birdfeeder if nothing more. And while we’re out here, allow me to recommend the hanging wire mesh conical collapsing basket model, currently playing at a hardware store near you. They’re terrif: unobtrusive, welcoming to multiple birds and difficult for squirrels to get at – — also hard for larger perching birds, as we discovered by watching one poor female cardinal ( the winter’s loveliest bird, in my opinion) swooping hopefully by the sides without being able to land. To solve this problem , stick a few lengths of thin bamboo stake through the mesh, letting them protrude just a few inches on each side. As long as you choose a very thin stakes, the perches are too flimsy to support anything bigger than a bird.

* And finally, a nice tidbit for lovers of Jamaican food: there is suddenly quite a bit of goat meat around, probably a happy outgrowth of the goat cheese boom. This is not tender young kid, it’s grown goat. Wonderful for curries and stews, but tough and I do mean tough. You’d think a 2 inch piece of anything would get tender after 2 and a half hours of stewing, but if you were thinking about goat you’d be wrong. Don’t forget to start dinner early.

Deer-defense, Squirrels and a soup trick for Sue

Today is mostly a pair of creature features – deer vs. daylilies and squirrel counting comin’ right up. But first, a spoonful of recipe rescue at the request of my good friend Sue,

She called the other night in a panic –

“Is there anything you can add to make something less hot? ” Turns out she was making a big deal cioppino for a whole bunch of spice averse friends and she’d overdone the hot pepper flakes.

And this in spite of using far less than the recipe called for. Well, there isn’t anything you can add (except a great deal more of everything else). All she could do was make a quick batch of rice for people to pour their hot hot stew on top of. That and pass a bowl of sour cream, which is a horrible idea from the culinary standpoint but at least could keep people from starving. And please don’t write to say why not pasta – it doesn’t mitigate heat the way rice does.

In future, I suggested, take about a third of a cup of broth out and add the small amount of pepper to that. Then add the seasoned broth to the big pot o’ stuff until you like the result. Pause a moment between additions; it takes a while for the heat to disperse, and be sure to KEEP TASTING! This works for anything that might cause problems yet is added in such small quantities it’s easy to overdo. Truffle oil, for example, the most regrettably overused of yesterday’s trendy seasonings.

On to the deer, since I promised last week I’d give some tips for keeping them out of the daylilies.

Tip A number one is fencing. It was fencing before and it’s still fencing, but putting it on the list is sort of cheating because everybody knows it and everybody keeps hoping there’s something else and getting a dog doesn’t count.

So: repellents. Obviously, those that smell bad before they taste bad are better. Most of them keep smelling bad to deer even after they no longer smell bad to you, but it’s a good idea to try ’em out first – in – as they say of cleaning products – an unobtrusive spot.

A few brands with good reviews include: plantskydd , deer off , deer out, liquid fence, and deer chaser, but there are dozens. Those based on dried blood, garlic , rotten eggs, ammonia salts, peppermint , cinnamon or some combination thereof seem to work better than predator urine, probably because it doesn’t take deer long to figure out that the predator is not in the vicinity.

Choose at least 2 kinds and keep switching. Deer can become habituated to almost anything, so the more you can keep ’em off guard, the better. Start making the area repulsive when the scapes start growing, well before the buds develop, then spray the buds. If you have fragrant daylilies , stop when the buds are about half-swollen.

And although you don’t spray it on, don’t forget good old smelly soap: Dial and Irish Spring are favorites. Just put a few chips in a bag of cheesecloth and use a clothespin to attach the bag to a thin bamboo stake. The soap should be slightly above the lily buds. Other strategies to be posted shortly and meanwhile:

Please send me a squirrel count ( Are you seeing more of ’em? Fewer? The same as usual? We are seeing none at all, though I hesitate to jinx things by mentioning it. Our birdfeeders have been overrun, winter and summer, for 15 years – ever since we came to this house – and this winter there are suddenly none. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Rien. I see them out in the world when I’m driving, so they are clearly still here with us on the planet…

shopping for daylilies

Today’s focus is daylilies, which remind me of the old joke about fashions in Beantown: Young woman gets on the train next to a dowager wearing a beautiful chapeau. Youngster says “what a lovely hat. Where did you buy it?” Matron draws herself up and says “Buy my hat? My dear, in Boston, we HAVE our hats. ”

Similarly, almost all of us have our daylilies. Brand new garden-free houses are an exception, but any place that has had time for a few things to get planted has probably been planted with a few daylilies, and since the blessed things never die, whatever daylilies you had when you got there, whatever daylilies you planted 20 years ago when you were starting out, those are the daylilies you’ve still got.

Well, there’s a lot to be said for durability, but there are two things wrong with this. One is that daylilies do need dividing. They’re not as bad as some plants I could name, but after anywhere from 5 to 10 years they tend to get crowded and flower less. Then you have even MORE of whatever, which you must either find a place for or find someone to take them in ( in theory, you could just put them on the compost but who do you know who does that?)

And of course the other wrong thing, a natural outgrowth of wrong thing #1, is that your old daylilies prevent you from planting new daylilies – or at least daylilies that are new to you. And given that there are somewhere around 50,000 named daylilies, it’s quite likely that there are several you’d rather have than the ones you have at the moment.

Just about everybody sells them, and there’s an extensive list of sources (along with lots of other nifty info.) at, the website of the American hemerocallis society. But no matter where you shop, don’t forget to notice bloom times: different nurseries go into this in greater and lesser detail, but at the minimum the listing or tag should say whether the plants flower early, midseason or late. It should also tell you whether the cultivar is a diploid or tetraploid.

Those terms refer to the sets of chromosomes in each cell, and they matter to you as well as to breeders because they tell you things about plant habit:

Diploids are closer to old-fashioned daylilies. They tend to have smaller flowers and more of them, and they tend to be less imposing, easier to integrate into mixed borders, sometimes floppy but almost always graceful .

Tetraploids are – well, beefy would be a word. The plants are usually robust. Stalks are stiff. Flowers are large and substantial and often very strongly colored.

The latest prize-winning introductions can cost as much as a good Paris hat – 2 or 3 hundred dollars for a single division – but there are gazillions of others in the 10 to 20 dollar range. Plenty of places offer plants for less, but as usual, there is a bottom price below which you are likely to get either low quality, very common plants or divisions so mingy you’ll have to wait a long time before much of anything happens.

Okay, what haven’t I mentioned? If you already have daylilies, you know: deer! They eat daylilies – or, more accurately they eat the flowers. Some tips on how to prevent this will appear here next week.

Snowed Under

Once it’s too cold to just go outside in whatever you have on, it might as well snow, as far as I’m concerned. From the garden and home design point of view, snow is the great freebie of all time.

For one thing, it’s wonderful insulation, like tiny bubble bubble wrap. A thick layer on the garden keeps soil temperatures even, so you don’t get the freeze-thaw cycles that lift soil and rip roots from the ground. It also protects tender plant crowns from drying sun and wind. And old-timers know your house stays a lot warmer when there’s a good heap of snow all around the foundation. Of course, it will also stay a lot wetter if that foundation has issues.

But enough of practicality! the truly great thing about snow is it’s gorgeous. Even when it isn’t frosting dark tree limbs and setting off the statuary, it’s simplifying the landscape, unifying discordant elements, covering dead weeds and patchy grass like an act of natural forgiveness.

Of course nothing is perfect. There are two ungreat things about snow: one being that the stuff is heavy, the other that you usually have to remove some. Specifics vary but there is one huge big general rule: sooner is better than later, and the wetter the snow the truer that is.

Removing snow from trees and shrubs:

*Start by being sure you have to. Ice is a lot more likely to cause problems; most plants have lots of natural bending capacity, and being whacked is not frozen bark’s idea of a good time. But branches that stay deeply bent for more than a couple of days may never spring back, and if they must bear additional snow they may break under the load.

* When snow-removal is called for, use the brush end of a broom to gently and slowly push branches UPWARD until the snow falls off. The natural inclination is to push down, but of course that means the poor branch is getting hammered double.

* When you get done, consider bundling anything that’s especially vulnerable – arborvitaes, hemlocks and boxwoods, for instance. It only takes a few minutes to apply a loose wrapping of wide-mesh netting and secure it with a few twists of twine.

Removing snow from walkways:

* Even walks that appear to be on level ground often have uphill and downhill sides. Don’t forget to pile the snow on the downhill side, to minimize runoff over the path, and don’t forget to throw that pile well off to the side, so the runoff has somewhere to run. Are there thick shrubs in the way? Make a note on the April calendar to do something about that. I will too, and we can talk about solutions then.

* By now I hope it’s no longer news that using sodium chloride to melt ice is right up there with driving a Hummer for environmental bad behaviour: the stuff corrodes metal, flakes concrete and mortar, damages soil structure, wounds and kills plants, then pollutes both surface and groundwater. Regrettably, alternatives like magnesium chloride and calcium chloride aren’t all that much better. Yet having an icy walkway is also on the anti-social side. What to do?

Two choices – or three, if you’re feeling flush

Choice 1. After shoveling – or even better, before it starts snowing – use a de-icer based on Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA to its friends ). It’s still not great for the surface water, but it doesn’t tend to keep seeping down; it’s a lot less corrosive than the chlorides and it seldom damages plants.

Choice 2 : provide traction with coarse gravel, (non-clumping) kitter litter or anything similar. These products are benign outdoors and won’t come in if you keep a stiff bootbrush beside the door. On a somewhat grander scale, most big hardware and building supply stores sell stiff cleated traction mats. You do need to have a place to store them but other than that they’re effortless, and do not require you to nag anybody about entrance etiquette.

Choice 3: go for hot rubber – the electrified rubber mats used by restaurants and stores. At anywhere from 4 to 6 hundred bucks for a 3×5 or 6 foot section they are certainly the expensive spread; they do draw a fair amount of power; and they work best if you turn them on as soon as it starts snowing. But they last a long time, can be left in place all season, and if you love someone who has fragile bones, may well be worth every penny.