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Defensive Gardening

Overcoming the Perils of Deer, Rocks, and Tree Roots



Photo by Tatiana Davidova

One of the many things that my grandmother passed on to me, besides her blue eyes, was her love of gardening. Hers was what is politely known as a “cottage garden,” which means many different types of flowers mixed together and very colorful, somewhat messy. Perhaps “blousy” is the best word to describe it. There were hollyhocks, day lilies, roses, and iris, all growing together in great profusion with raspberries, quince bushes, and lavender. 

Her garden was her daily delight.

My grandmother grew up in Ireland, in the land of peat bogs and potato fields, with lots of rainy days that helped to keep the Emerald Isle green. Generations of women before her had traditionally managed their kitchen gardens, so gardening was probably in her DNA. She would often tell me about her mother’s garden, just outside the kitchen, ringed by boxwood bushes.

When my husband and I bought our first house in Malverne, Long Island, I decided I wanted a garden with a manicured look, something tidy and more controlled, one that had “good bones.” It turned out to be tidy, but it was also quite dull. My grandmother would visit and quietly suggest that perhaps I might add a few day lilies for color or a few Portulaca (also known as moss roses) since neither of them required much care. My go-to plant of choice at that time was the hardy impatiens. Admittedly, not a very creative choice, but it allowed me to appear to be a somewhat successful gardener.

We moved to Connecticut more than 25 years ago. I left behind my first garden and had to learn to become a very different type of gardener. My grandmother never had to deal with some of the challenges that living in this area brings. I call it “defensive gardening.”

Her garden didn’t have rocks that emerged through the soil with the winter frost heaves. There were no deer grazing on the flower buds in spring. Her property had fewer trees and a lot more sunshine. 

Last year I decided to check off an item on my bucket list and enrolled in UConn’s master gardener course. I wanted to learn more about plants and good gardening practices. I soon realized how very little I knew. It was a humbling experience. Every time I learned the name of a new plant, I forgot the name of an old, familiar one. 

I did, however, learn many helpful things about gardening. Just ask me about soil tests, organic gardening practices, pesticide management, insects, herbaceous plants, as well as different types of grasses, herbs, and weeds. These are now all part of my great reservoir of gardening knowledge. (But ask me about them quickly—this  reservoir of knowledge has a limited life span due to “sieve brain.”)

I learned some fairly successful methods that allow me to garden here. Utilizing deer-resistant plants, spraying deer repellants, and erecting deer fences are several good solutions that work to control the deer. But you need to be vigilant because deer are very crafty.

I’ve made peace with the rocks that push up through the soil in winter. I’ve discovered that they add some interesting architectural detail to my garden, especially when covered with moss and lichen. I’ve also realized that one of the things that the local soil does very well, in addition to growing rocks, is growing trees. In order for plants to thrive, trees need to be periodically removed to allow for more sunshine and airflow. When we moved here, my father’s housewarming gift to us was a chain saw. It has proven to be one of our most treasured and well-used possessions.

I would like to say that all these efforts allowed my garden to look as lovely as my grandmother’s beautiful cottage garden. But, alas, I think that she still triumphs because my garden, in spite of my status as a Master Gardener, is not quite there yet. My grandmother never tried too hard to make her garden work. She just took pleasure from being in it and loved each and every plant. 

Maybe that was the secret of her success. 

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