Adventures in gardening
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Adventures in gardening

Those hostas belong to me — the deer disagree

A doe takes time out from feeding on the vegetation to stare at the camera.
A doe takes time out from feeding on the vegetation to stare at the camera.

The deer have prevailed. Again.

My beautiful hostas — some variegated, some heirloom, some in the family for three generations, and some just plain old Home Depot newbies — were shorn of their leafy glory at the peak of summer. And not in a series of niblings or noshes, nothing at the margins, nothing dainty about it. It’s been a full-on, buzz-saw attack. Something approaching biblical proportions in microcosm.

(In case non-gardeners are confused by hostas, I can tell you that Merriam-Webster defines them as a genus of Asian herbaceous plants within the lily family. They are extremely hardy and thrive in Jersey soil. I simply define them as the perfect border or stand-alone plant.)

Please don’t invoke the Bambi image, at least not at this painful juncture. In truth, these graceful, lithe herbivores with voracious appetites are losing their fear of humans, breeding like rabbits, and staking out domain in developed areas as their habitats recede. My backyard seems to be ground zero. In particular, I’m singling out a doe and two fawns who I caught between mouthfuls — twice. Caught in the act doesn’t even begin to do justice to the scene. They looked at me languidly and listened to my rantings for a few moments without any deer-in-the-headlight reaction before leisurely exiting by leaping the netted fencing I’ve erected more to satisfy myself than to keep them at bay. The sensor lights I installed also proved of absolutely no value. Ditto to the liberal amounts of a noxious smelling “natural” repellent I sprayed over the hostas. The repellent, in the final analysis, seemed more repellent to me than to them, especially when I read the ingredients.

And just to put an exclamation point on their misdeeds, the deer littered the backyard with piles of scat.

These critters have targeted the plants before, but not in as complete and cruel a manner as this year. Not a leaf remains in the beds I painstakingly nurtured along the side of the house and in the backyard. The barren stalks poke glumly out of the ground, painful reminders of the desecration. Even the thought of their full return next year (and they will be back) does little to assuage feelings of loss.

And it’s not comforting to remind me that there are probably more deer extant than there were when the Pilgrims arrived. I class them with Canada geese for cunning and survivability, to say nothing of the federal and state protections they have accrued. When we were youngsters, we would visit them at a paddock in the South Mountain Reservation, where they fed off salt licks and the constant stares of wonderment from children who had never before seen such creatures. Deer were rare and fleeting back then, and they had plenty of room to feed and breed in undeveloped suburban woods.

But, oh, how the worm turns.

Currently, the Essex County Parks Commission conducts an annual spring hunt to accomplish what it euphemistically terms culling the herd. After years of impassioned debate and public hearings (deer-huggers vs. deer-stalkers), the freeholders and county executive authorized the exercise. Now the reservation is sealed off while marksmen stalk their prey, either perched in trees or on foot. Hundreds of deer have been killed to date, and the meat is salvaged. In conjunction with the hunt, the county launched a massive reforestation and replenishment initiative within the 2,000-acre tract to repair the damage done over decades by the animals, and it is beginning to bear evident fruit with new trees, grasses, and plantings taking root and enhancing the surroundings for campers, hikers, and visitors.

Of course, I can do nothing like what the county does — nor would I particularly want to — and I have no hankering to try venison. Next year, however, I will be stepping up my game. The ineffectual shouting and shooing of the deer will be augmented with heavier applications of the repellant repellant, and for the first time, I will cover the beds with netting. Of course, the netting will require constant tweaking to keep the hosta leaves from crimping or shriveling under the weight of the mesh, and the jury-rigged setup will rob me of an unobstructed view of their beauty. But let the deer chew on (or through) that for a while. At least it may produce a happier result than this summer of botanical discontent, leading to the inevitable winter of discontent as I gaze out the frosty window and dwell on the barren beds and what might have been.

But spring, as it inevitably does, will bring hope and renewal, and I will be ready to join the battle once again. Those hostas are tough and keep coming back for more, and so will I.

My religion teaches me to respect and accommodate the creatures of this increasingly stressed planet. I read daily about whole regions running short of water or being submerged by floods, icebergs melting in plain sight, forest fires raging uncontrollably, rainforests falling to chain saws, food being wasted instead of second-harvested or composted, a planet growing more febrile and crowded by the day. And many of its species are being displaced or forced to migrate to new habitats, my backyard included.

Speaking Jewishly, I should say I am greatly concerned with the challenges of overpopulation, global warming, and diminishing resources. I want to leave less of a consumptive footprint in my own personal life, and I am hopeful that my stepsons and grandchildren will outdo me in this respect.

But a streak of selfishness surfaces when it comes to my backyard, my sea of serenity and beauty. Less may be more, except, it seems, where my hostas are concerned. Perhaps I should leave a tiny section without netting and deer repellant, a freebie for the fawns as it were, similar to ancient Hebrew farmers who were commanded to leave a portion of their harvest for the hungry among them.

I need to stop obsessing about the hostas and focus on something more soothing, like the presidential election.

Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange retired after nearly 40 years as an editor at the Star-Ledger. He is now a part-time proofreader for the Jewish Standard and a full-time frustrated gardener.

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