Defending the land

There are many garden pests whose depredations range from mildy annoying to deeply disheartening, but in the piedmont there are three archpests: white-tailed deer, eastern cottontail rabbits, and pine voles. Shortly after we moved into this house ten years ago, it became clear that before we would have any success gardening, we would need to deal with this triumvirate of enemies.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

I will eat ALL the plants!

I read somewhere that there are more white-tailed deer alive today than at any time since Columbus.  Not as many Americans hunt them these days, and regrowth of the eastern forest (compare today’s landscape to old photos from the civil war) combined with suburban development has created vast areas of the edge habitat that they prefer. Perhaps the eastward spread of coyotes will  put a dent in their population, but until then many suburban gardens will be all-you-can-eat buffets with too many diners.

There are basically three ways to deal with deer:  grow plants they don’t like to eat, spray repellents, or fence them out.  The internet is full of lists of deer-resistant plants, but in my experience hungry or curious deer will sample anything green, with the possible exception of daffodils.  Sprays of bitter or foul tasting substances work well, but they need to be reapplied after heavy rain.  If you forget, the deer can destroy a year’s worth of growth in an night.  That leaves fences as the only practical, long term solution.

Our deer fence running through the woods

We chose to put up 8′ tall plastic mesh fencing manufactured by Benner’s Gardens.  The fence is unobtrusive, particularly during the summer when the leaves are on the trees, and it is easy to put up.  Instead of digging post holes, you insert the fence posts into hollow metal spikes that you pound into the ground with a sledgehammer.  Only the gate across our driveway required us to dig holes and set the posts in concrete.  The fence can actually be put up by a single person, but it is easier with two people:  a strong, coordinated person to wield the sledgehammer and a naive, trusting type brave helper to hold the spike.

The fence would probably fail if a heavy deer leaned up against it and pushed, but deer are creatures of habit, and the idea is to redirect their nightly wandering.  So far it seems to be working.  We see small herds wandering down the line of the fence in the early morning, but apart from one fawn who found a break in the fence, none have managed to get inside.

Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus)


Unfortunately, plastic mesh is no match for rabbit teeth.  Within a few months, the base of our new deer fence was riddled with little holes.  Eastern cottontails are basically solitary and do not burrow, so they aren’t as destructive in the garden as a warren of European rabbits.  Nevertheless, it is disheartening to find your perennials beheaded and young azaleas gnawed back to stubs.

The solution was to go around the entire perimeter of the deer fence, installing a 3′ metal wire rabbit fence.  The bottom of the fence is secured with hooked ground stakes reinforced with heavy concrete blocks at spots where the rabbits try to get in.  I see marks where they gnaw on the wire, but they have not succeeded in breaking through.

Plastic deer fence with green wire rabbit fence running along the bottom. Determining which side has the hungry deer and rabbits is left as an exercise for the reader.

Pine vole (Microtus pinetorum)

Since they spend most of their time underground, I don’t have a picture of a pine vole, but you can see one here.  I first realized that we had a problem when I noticed a recently planted rose swaying more than would seem to be warranted by the light breeze.  When I tugged gently on the stem, the entire plant lifted out of the ground, because all of its roots had been eaten off. Then, when I looked more closely, I found the entrance holes of vole burrows all over the garden.  Once several more shrubs were eaten and our entire crop of carrots disappeared from the bottom up, we decided to do something about the voles.

I tried trapping them with mouse traps baited with apple placed beside the burrow entrance and covered with a flower pot, but I didn’t catch a single vole.  Cats might be effective, but our cats only go outside under close supervision, because I don’t want them killing the local lizards and birds or being killed by an owl or coyote.

What does seem to work is amending the soil when we plant new shrubs and perennials.  We mix roughly 1/3 native clay, 1/3 composted cow manure, and 1/3 stalite.  Stalite, marketed as Permatill or VoleBloc is a kiln-expanded slate produced here in North Carolina.  It basically looks like pumice or dark gray perlite, and I use it as a substitute for perlite to increase drainage and aeration in my potting mix for succulents and tropical bulbs.

a handful of Permatill (stalite)

In the garden, it serves two purposes.  It breaks up the clay, increasing drainage in winter and water penetration in summer, and its rough texture creates an unfriendly environment for the sensitive noses and paws of voles.  It really does seem to keep the voles away, at least long enough for the plants to get established.  By the time their roots grow out of the amended soil, they seem to be large enough to survive some chewing.  I still lose some plants–most recently a Silphium terebinthinaceum reduced to a ring of limp leaves around a vole hole positioned exactly where the taproot used to be–but enough survive so that gardening is an enjoyable hobby rather than an exercise in frustration and gnashing of teeth.

Setting the Scene

The piedmont of the eastern USA is a plateau that separates the Atlantic coastal plain from the Appalachian mountain ranges.  Here in North Carolina, it extends almost 300 miles from the fall line  to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The piedmont is part of the Eastern Deciduous Forest ecosystem, split between the mesophytic and oak-pine regions.

In North Carolina, the piedmont falls within USDA climate zone 7 (0 to 10 F, -17 to -12 C average winter minimum).  Winter minimums only tell part of the story, though. Tromsø, Norway is also Zone 7, and most of the UK is in the warmer Zone 8.  However, our summers are considerably hotter than northwestern Europe.  In July and August, the average daily high is ~85-90 F (29-32 C) and average night time low is ~68-70 F (20-21 C).  Rainfall is reasonably well distributed across the year, but in summer it mostly falls in localized thunderstorms.  We might get a couple of inches of rain in an hour, while a site a few miles away gets nothing.

Our little patch of the piedmont consists of two acres of woodland, partially cleared in 2006 for the house and septic system.  The land slopes down from north to south and is fairly dry.  The northern 1/3 is mixed deciduous forest dominated by oaks (Quercus spp.), hickories (Carya spp.), and tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) with an understory of red maple (Acer rubrum), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), and American holly (Ilex opaca).

IMG_5344 crop
looking north in June, 2016

The southern 2/3 of the property was logged more recently and has regrown as an overcrowded stand of loblolly pines (Pinus taeda), presumably planted by the previous owners but never thinned before the property was sold for development.  The pines are interspersed with young sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) and a few more interesting trees like sourwood and American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

looking south in February, 2015

The main sunny growing area south of the house is the drainfield for the septic system, which precludes planting large shrubs.  The drainfield is currently a weedy lawn, subsiding where the buried stumps of pine trees are decaying, but I am slowly replacing the grass with flowerbeds.

The other sunny area is north of the house where a few trees damaged by building were removed.  This area is very dry, and it is where we built the greenhouse.

The greenhouse today flanked by a row of leafless Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’, leafy Gardenia jasminoides, and a small vegetable patch with net trellises.

The greenhouse contains my collection of orchids and other tropical plants:

greenhouse panorama resized
panoramic view of greenhouse interior with pachypodiums and ant plants left, orchids center, and more orchids and tropical amaryllids right. The skull on the support post is from a white-tailed deer.

The majority of the property, under both the deciduous trees and the pines, is heavily shaded in summer with hard, organic-deficient clay that can only be dug with a mattock. It has been a challenge getting shade perennials to survive under the trees, but a few native orchids (Tipularia and Goodyera) and striped  wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) have established themselves naturally.  I’ll post about them in the future.

Up next:  Defences against garden pests

Germinating the blog

Although there is more freezing weather and the possibility of snow in the forecast, spring is well underway in North Carolina.  The redbud trees are in full bloom, and the early yellow daffodils are fading.  The crocuses are already finished.

This is what they looked like a couple of weeks ago:


The fence lizards are up and about.


At this time of the year, when they are intent on sunning themselves, I can often approach close enough to gently touch them.  In summer, they’ll be up a tree and hiding around the other side of the trunk before I get near.

In my greenhouse, the longer days and more intense sunlight are waking up various plants from their winter dormancy.

Cattleya amethystoglossa flowers are just opening,


while the St. Joseph’s Lily (Hippeastrum x johnsonii) is in full bloom.

Hippeastrum x johnsonii flowers

The yellow, spring blooming pachypodiums are just getting started.  This is Pachypodium bicolor, named for the slightly paler throat, unfortunately not very visible in this picture, that gives its flowers two colors:


In the background is the pale yellow form of Pachypodium eburneum.

Opposite the pachypodium bench,  a vireya (tropical rhododendron) brightens up the corner with its intense orange flowers.  This unlabeled plant is probably a hybrid of Rhododendron javanicum, or possibly the species itself:


With all this new growth and color, it seems like a good time to start the gardening blog that I have been thinking about.  My goal is to keep it going for at least a year, to document a full annual cycle of growth in the garden and greenhouse.  After that, we’ll see how it goes.