Local Bounty: Keeping up with the birds and the deer

Window boxes at the writer’s house required bird netting to keep the deer at bay. Blueberries gathered from the writer’s bushes.
Window boxes at the writer’s house required bird netting to keep the deer at bay. Blueberries gathered from the writer’s bushes.

LOCAL BOUNTY I was mad. The deer ate half my patio tomato plant, and that wasn’t supposed to happen because I live in a city. And I sprayed it with $15 repellent.

Who doesn’t love deer, with their spotty babies (two last year, born right behind the garage), big soft eyes and goofy ears? I don’t want to hurt them, just make them decide to eat the neighbor’s tomato plant instead. So the spray irritant wouldn’t hurt them, I figured, just taste really bad.

I was already upset because the deer had stripped my blueberry bushes of flowers and leaves. When my dad died, friends gave me a gift card to that fancy garden center, and in his memory I purchased two blueberry bushes. He’d tried growing berries in our yard on Long Island only to be foiled year after year by hungry birds.

My bushes have done very well, yielding a few pints of blueberries between them each year, stretching out the harvest so that we could enjoy a handful at a time at breakfast over a few weeks. Their glossy dark leaves and tiny white flowers that gave way to fruit would have made my dad happy, and the birds didn’t ever take enough berries that we’d notice.

Then a few years ago the deer showed up. They were bashful, seen only in the early morning or evenings.

They started slow. At first I noticed a few flowers missing here, a few hosta leaves there. The next year all of the buds on my daylilies disappeared. By this time the deer were showing themselves in broad daylight, sauntering through the yards as if they owned the place. In spring they’d graze on the lawns like sheep, gathering in alarming numbers — five, six or more.

The pandemic shut down my neighborhood around the RPI campus for almost a year. Normally at least 5,000 students live and commute here. Baseball players, bats resting on their shoulders, jog by our house on the way to the field, classic vinyl music floats over the air on warm evenings and absent-minded students lose their (incomprehensible) homework in our shrubs. They completely inhabit the place. When the main streets were devoid of cars, the student apartments were empty and the campus was locked down tight, the deer loved it.

That’s when they started roaming in packs of eight or more. But when the students came back, the deer stayed.

My neighbors installed cameras that start filming when something moves. The cameras caught 12 of them one night, lumbering slowly across their yard like zombies. One spent the night sleeping on their front porch.

Have you seen a deer up close? They are bigger than a Great Dane. I just about came on top of one on my patio when I was carrying in groceries.

And did it run away in fear? It did not. It stared, a white Impatien flower hanging off its lip, a half dozen scattered on the brick patio. I waved my free arm and hollered, “Shoo,” or something, and it took off running, startled. Then it stopped, about 15 feet away, and stared at me.

Ha! is what I replied when the guy at the garden center asked, “Do they come near your house?” because they ate the petunias right out of the window boxes.

Dawn learned they didn’t like her grandkids’ party horns, so she bought extra and passed them around to the neighbors. For a few weeks it was satisfying; they’d pick up their ears and bound like kangaroos down the street.

And we always knew when one of the neighbors had deer in their yard, even with the windows closed.

It didn’t last. The deer became inured to the noise and went back to staring dumbly when we tried to scare them away. This is how things are today.

Now, back to the blueberry bushes. I’d bought a spray irritant from a major manufacturer made from capsaicin (found in chili peppers), oil of black pepper and piperine, another alkaloid made from black pepper. Most of the products I saw online contained stuff like this.

You can make your own deer repellent from Tabasco, cayenne pepper and peppermint. Add dish soap or egg white to help it stick to the plants.

I wasn’t feeling very DIY, so I sprang for a bottle and sprayed away. There were the usual suspects pictured on the label: the deer, bunnies and groundhogs. Even squirrels, though I usually let them get away with digging in my window boxes because they’re so cute.

I sprayed everything: lilies, tomatoes, hosta, Impatiens, blueberry bushes. And then I read the label — whoops — where, buried in the middle of a paragraph in the same size font as the directions, there was the warning, “Do not spray on food or feed plants.” Uh-oh.

I expect warning labels that say things like POISON and CAUTION to be large, red and eye-catching, perhaps accompanied by a prominently placed skull and crossbones. This warning may as well have been a suggestion, an afterthought.

It rained a lot, and often, after I’d applied the repellent, and though it is supposed to last 30 days my neighbor reapplies it after heavy rain. So I figured it would wash off, right?

I was reassured to learn there wasn’t anything poisonous in the spray when I finally read its label and ingredients list.

Meantime, the blueberry plants recovered and the deer stayed away.

A few weeks had passed and it had rained a ton. Hmm.

So I tried a blueberry. There was a bumper crop; fat berries in bunches weighed down the branches almost to the ground.

It tasted bad. Really bad. And the bitter taste stayed with me for a long time. Hours.

A few days later I tried again with exactly the same results. Husband Eric was starting to wonder where the blueberries were.

It crossed my mind, briefly, not to tell him about the spray. I might get them past him in a fruit salad; he’d never know. But those blueberries tasted bad. He’d notice.

What would you do? I broke the news to him. He was disappointed, sure, but didn’t chide me for spraying before reading.

The squirrels did not mind the taste. They enjoyed the blueberries, bobbing up and down on the branches as they ate. They scattered what they couldn’t eat all over the ground. They were not cute.

I’ve found a kind of solution: bird netting. The shrubs in my front garden, even the deer-resistant ones, are shrouded in fine black netting as if my lawn guy is in mourning. The few branches that stick out, even the deer-resistant ones, have been eaten.

Although I’ve learned most deer-resistant plants are on their menu, they won’t touch herbs like basil and chives. Thankfully, they’ve left the herb garden alone.

All of the containers of tomatoes are now up on the tiny porch. So I can still harvest some things.

Some of us in the neighborhood stew over the deer and the damage they do. Others shrug and think they’re cute. Eric is in the second category.

I still shake my fist like a geezer telling kids to get off his damn lawn. And though it makes no difference to the deer, it does make me feel marginally better.

Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy. Reach her at [email protected]

Blueberry muffins
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter at room temperature
1 egg
2 1/4 cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 pint blueberries, washed

Preheat oven to 375
degrees. Line a regular-
sized cupcake pan with paper liners.
In a small bowl, sift
together flour, baking
powder and salt. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter until fluffy. Add egg.
Add vanilla to milk in measuring cup.
To butter mixture, add flour and milk mixtures alternately in parts, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Gently fold in blueberries.
Divide batter between 12 lined cups.
Makes 1 dozen.
— Caroline Lee

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