How to keep deer away

A regular reader sent me this note with the subject line, “Container Gardening (or how I learned to like deer and groundhogs again).”

“I had to laugh at the latest column headline this morning about deterring deer. I happen to have a husband who buys 50 pounds of cracked corn at a time for the deer. Indeed, for his recent birthday, I bought him a salt lick. He’s not a hunter. He just likes to see them.

“Anyway, I use to have a garden with a fence and grow tomatoes and such. However, for the past perhaps 10 years or so, I gave up gardening in the ground and turned to container gardening. There are multiple reasons why I have done this: Easier as I’ve gotten older, no more frustration over animal raids at night, local farm stands within a mile or so. The most important reason why I gave up gardening is that spring is major birding time and I’m pretty avid about birding. I’d rather be on the trails with binoculars and camera on May mornings than weeding.

“So, in April I buy romaine lettuce transplants from a local store and plant them in window boxes. That plus herbs are about the only vegetable item I plant. In May, I buy flowers for the hummingbirds. I plant them in big pots. All of this I set up on shelves outside my kitchen window. The deer don’t bother the lettuce. (They’re eating their cracked corn anyway.) And the flowers attract hummingbirds which I can then photograph through the kitchen window.

“Specifically for the hummingbirds, I buy salvias, the varieties Rockin’ Purple, Rockin’ Fushia, and Black and Blue. I also buy Cuphea plants, Vermillionaire. These work! I’ve also planted Pineapple Sage, but mine has always bloomed in October after the hummers have gone south, and I’ve never had any luck getting a late stray Rufus Hummingbird.

“I buy commercial potting soil and mix it with well-rotted leaves from our leaf piles. I mix in some perlite and a bit of fertilizer. The plants are in a location which gets strong sun in the afternoon, so I keep them well watered. Since everything is in pots, I can rearrange them to my liking.

“The hummingbirds are here now. The last week in April is when they seem to arrive. The males arrive first. Note that the only hummingbird that nests here in this area is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

“Always enjoy your column even though I’m just a container gardener now. Thank you for writing it.”

— Carole Mebus, Williams Township

The second email offered an alternative solution:

“Back home upstate PA. we used double electric fence to keep the bears from getting into the beehives and deer from the garden and for the groundhog and rabbits used chicken wire around the vegetable patch about 20″ high with and into the ground an inch or two with electric fence around just above the chicken wire to keep groundhogs out. Enjoy your fresh vegetables.”

— Alpha

I had read about using low-voltage electric fencing but have never used or even seen it in use. I did not find a good description of the project that I felt comfortable citing. However, I am sure that there are reliable resources familiar with electric fencing that can assist any interested gardeners.

I had intended to move on to dealing with groundhogs as requested in Randy’s letter received last week. But since we had two interesting reader responses about dealing with deer, the groundhogs can wait until next week.

Another reader shares her observations on disappearing Dusty Miller after she read an older column:

“Hi. I just read an answer you gave to a question back in 2010. It was a question about a Dusty Miller was suddenly gone, down to a stalk. I think I just discovered the “problem.” Let me explain……I have a wicker basket sitting on a bench in my yard. It’s planted with alyssum, pansies, and dusty miller. I’ve had it outside for at least 5 weeks and it’s gorgeous. Wednesday morning, I walked outside and my dusty miller leaves were gone, only about 2 leaves left. Just stalks, while the pansies and alyssum were untouched. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never had a squirrel, chipmunk, etc. ever go near my dusty millers. I then instantly went online to find information on why DM leaves are suddenly disappearing overnight. Well, this morning, I go outside and what do I see? A Robin standing on my bench with a dusty miller leaf in its beak ripping it off the plant in the wicker basket. Then it flew off with it. With that said, I have lamb’s ear in a flower bed beside the bench and that stinker came back and ripped off lamb’s ear leaves and flew off with that too! That’s my thief! The Robin. He or she is obviously using the soft leaves to line their nest. The same way I buy the softness linens for my bed. Just thought I’d pass my “discovery” along. Have a great weekend!”

— Sissy Gemmill

Dusty Miller (Jacobaea maritima, previously and still sold as Senecio cineraria) is a perennial in warmer climates but the most commonly sold as an annual in Zone 6. The silver-leaved plant is popularly used for foliage interest in containers and annual beds. The column Sissy mentioned ran 12 years ago and illustrates that gardeners often face the same problems, even years apart.

I managed to get a few hummingbird plants this week. My personal favorites, Black and Blue salvia and two colors of lantana have already been visited by our guests while still in the nursery containers.

Sue Kittek is also a freelance garden columnist, writer, and lecturer. Send questions to Garden Keeper at or mail: Garden Keeper, The Morning Call, PO Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105.

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Planting: Plant a second crop of snap or pole beans, radishes, and carrots. Sow small sections of crops like beans, radishes, lettuce, and spinach at regular intervals to create a longer harvest. Set out tomatoes, basil, eggplant and pepper transplants. Start seed for baby’s breath, cosmos, zinnias, salsify, eggplant, summer squash and winter squash. Direct sow corn, okra, and rutabaga. Continue sowing snap, bush and pole beans, cantaloupe, melons, cucumbers, rhubarb, summer and winter squash. Plant or pot up summer bulbs and tubers such as dahlias, cannas, calla lilies, and caladiums. Plant bare-root trees and shrubs. Make sure the soil is dry enough to work — Don’t dig or plant in mud. Buy annuals for containers, annual garden beds and to fill in bare spots in perennial or shrub beds.

Seasonal: Cut back boltonia by half the size of the plant. Cut Joe-pye weed back to three feet tall. Cut back candy tuft to encourage bushiness. Shear back woodland phlox (P. divaricata).

Deadhead sea thrift (Armeria), centaurea, centranthus ruber, dianthus, fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra exima), hardy geraniums, bearded irises, red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria/tritoma), catmint (Nepeta), herbaceous peonies, oriental poppies, pincushion flowers (Scabiosa).

Fertilize Siberian irises, summer phlox (P. paniculata) and Shasta daisies with a light application of balanced fertilizer

Divide spring-blooming perennials after they finish blooming. Cut back peony flower stems as the blooms fade. Allow the greens to grow until fall, then cut them back to the ground. Clip back iris flower stems as the blooms fade; divide plants in crowded beds. Start pinching back chrysanthemums and asters to promote bushy growth and more flowers. Continue to pinch back new tips at two-week intervals until early July.

Ease out your plants that wintered over inside. Start with an hour or so on a warm day and increase outdoor time until the nights are regularly in the 50°F range before leaving them out for the season. Visit nurseries as they open for inspiration as well as new plants. Shop for summer bulbs as well. Apply a top dressing of compost to lawns and beds. Test soil for new beds, Retest soil in poorly performing areas or those that haven’t been tested in the last 3-5 years.

Cut back ornamental grasses. Divide when you see new green growth. Divide hostas and daylilies. Prune and divide perennials that bloom in late summer or fall. Prune back and clear out dead, diseased or unattractive stems from perennials and shrubs, but not those that flower in the spring. Please check proper pruning information for each plant and prune as needed and recommended.

Apply spring and summer mulch, two to three inches deep and placed a few inches away from foundations, tree trunks and other plants. Fluff mulch and add more if necessary. Apply corn gluten-based weed control in the garden and establish a schedule for reapplication, usually at four to six week intervals

Lawn: Keep newly seeded or sodded lawns watered; supplement rain in weeks where less than an inch By mid-June: Apply spring fertilizer treatments. Apply preemergent crabgrass control in the next few weeks. Fill in holes and low spots in lawn.

Chores: Water any recent plantings anytime the ground isn’t frozen and we experience a week with less than an inch of rain. Fix damaged screens and garden hoses. Note damaged caulking around doors and windows. Dump standing water and remove anything that may collect rainwater to help control mosquito populations. Provide deer, rabbit and groundhog protection for vulnerable plants. Reapply taste or scent deterrents. Clean and fill bird feeders regularly. Clean up spilled seed and empty hulls. Dump, scrub and refill birdbaths at least once a week. Consider setting out nesting materials if you have them.

Clear gutters and direct rainwater runoff away from house foundations.

Tools, equipment, and supplies: Store winter equipment and replace or repair as needed.

Check spring/summer equipment — repair or replace damaged or worn out tools. Check power tools and mowers and send for service if needed.

Security: Clear lawns of debris before mowing and make sure pets, children and others are well away from the area being mowed.

Store garden chemicals indoors away from pets and children. Discard outdated ones at local chemical collection events. Photograph storm damage before clearing or repairing for insurance claims and file promptly. Anytime you are outside and the temperatures are about 50°F or warmer watch for tick bites. Use an insect repellent containing Deet on the skin. Apply a permethrin product to clothing. Wear light-colored clothing, long sleeves, hats and long pants when working in the garden. Stay hydrated. Drink water or other non-caffeinated, nonalcoholic beverages. Even in cold weather, apply sunscreen, wear hats and limit exposure to the sun. Wear closed-toe shoes and gloves; use eye protection; and use ear protection when using any loud power tools.