Archive for March, 2007

Deer Proof Rhododendron

The plant breeder who creates a rhododendron that deer don’t like is going to be rich, but you don’t need to wait for this golden shrub if you have large old rhodies, which I wish I had but I don’t. What I do is nag all my friends and design clients: Think tall. Think sculpture. Think of Japan.


This clump grows about 1/3 mile from where the deer below were standing. Over and over in springtime those naked stems sprout healthy new growth, which sticks out randomly here and there in unhealthy-looking tufts. Over and over, the base fills out about halfway. Over and over, just when you’re starting to root for the thing and imagine it might manage to bush back out, Wham! Eaten again.

Mercifully, the owners do not encase the whole works in a gigantic net bag, but they also fail to see the obvious, which I would illustrate right here and now if I were adept with photoshop. Meanwhile, just look at those handsome trunks and the full green canopy of bud covered foliage. Imagine pruning out all but the strongest, most graceful wood. The easy, no-waiting deer-proof rhododendron is simply a multi-trunked tree. Hungry deer will stretch on tippy-hoofs, but they’re not goats. They don’t climb.

Deer Alert

In the dampy doldrums of March, when all is dirty snow and mud, when snowdrops, skunk cabbage and tiny bulb shoots are more or less it for new green, it’s easy to forget that deer, like rust, never sleep.

But right now they’re hungrier than ever; they’ve already nibbled all the easy wild stuff; the leftover acorns are still buried… and your tender roses, hydrangeas, etc. are just starting to swell.

‘nough said. Get out there and spray before it’s too late, i.e. before they take the first nibble.


Deer are often boldest in spring; hunting season is long over and so is their easy access to wild food. This group was right next to the road until I was 50 feet away, and they only ran about 50 yards before figuring that was enough.

For Lily Lovers

Most gardeners know how it is with lilies – you have enough; you definitely have enough. And then it’s March and it’s extremely dreary and here – surprise! – is a pile of summer bulb catalogs with extremely yummy pictures of lilies and you think, well, there’s always room for a few more in the cutting garden and they do make such effortless bouquets


And then, in an increasing number of cases, you think: well, nah; the wretched lily beetles will just get these too and make me feel terrible.

Gilles Gonthier

The scarlet lily beetle, Lilioceris lilii, is marching across New England, laying waste to all lilies in its path. Not everybody has them yet, but everybody who does has gone through the same dispiriting sequence: First there are only a couple and you hand pick them and it’s no big deal. Then there are a dozen or two and a combination of picking and neem sprays seems to do the trick. Then it’s many dozen and pyrethrin, and then it aint pretty.

It’s hard to think of anything good to say about these voracious creatures, but there is in fact one Giant Ray of Sunshine: they don’t travel far on their own. Unlike, for instance, Japanese beetles, which can fly considerable distances, lily beetles spread mostly by way of infected soil, and that means control is possible.

Our Lilioceris Strategy:

1. Prevention: No new ones! We don’t buy potted lilies (or fritillarias, their preferred host). When new bulbs arrive, we throw all the packing material in the trash and gently rinse the roots in tepid water if there is soil clinging to them. There shouldn’t be – and haven’t been – any of the oval, yellow eggs, which are deposited on the leaves, but we always check, just in case.

2. Constant Vigilance: overwintered adults are supposed to emerge from the soil in June. We assume ours might be precocious and start expecting them as soon as the lilies come up. I try to stay ever-alert for beetles or signs that they’ve been chewing, and a couple of times a week I scrunch down and look up. Eggs are deposited on leaf undersides and the black larvae tend to stay there until they’ve oozed out to the leaf tips and started chomping inwards. (Ragged leaf tips are a dead giveaway) .

3. Paranoiac Vigilance: They aren’t always on the lilies. Kristi found the very first one we saw on a tomato leaf. Alas, it was not the first one we had, and thus we come to

4. Kill, Kill, Kill:
a) Adults drop from the plants when disturbed, teach yourself to grab upward so they don’t get away. Crush thoroughly or drop in a jar of soapy water.
b) Larvae are disgusting – gooey and black because covered in their own shit, to keep predators at bay ( aint nature grand?), and they do much more damage than the adults. Removing them is unpleasant but easy; just wipe them from the plants with a rag or a glove covered hand. If you start at the base of the stem, wrap your hand around it under the first set of leaves and stroke gently but firmly upward, you can usually get most of them with one or two passes. People who make lewd remarks may be approached with the working hand, which will shut them up in a hurry. Be sure to revisit affected plants frequently, new larvae are likely to show up.
c). Don’t slack off. Many descriptions of L. lilii say there is only one generation per year. Hah! There are at least two, even in Maine.

5. Perseverance Furthers. It’s probably impossible to eradicate them, but our experience suggests you can keep them to small numbers without working too hard. Reducing them to small numbers from large ones does take a season of of all-out war, but after that it’s easy.

6. Oh, did I mention? The price of lilies is eternal vigilance.

Late July Addendum: When it became clear my torn knee would keep me from Maine all spring, I asked Kristi to put some diatomaceous earth on the leaves as well as on the ground ( see comments), and it looks like Peggy is on to something. It didn’t get rid of them completely and it did look horrible; but allied with the stuff on the ground it  kept the population in check until I was back on patrol.