Garden Plot: Keeping deer away from young trees

Photo from 2005. (Courtesy Linda Crichlow White.)
How do we keep deer from ruining trees?

Mike McGrath | November 14, 2014 9:52 pm

Young trees need protection from horny deer

John in McLean writes about his “get-away place” in Charles County:

“I wrap the young trees I’ve planted there from about a foot off the ground to four feet up to protect them against deer rubbing their antlers and destroying the bark. I’ve used both commercial paper and fiber-mesh wraps and haven’t had a single “scratch” in the three years I’ve been wrapping. I put the wrappings on in mid-October and remove them around February. My question: It seems like fiberglass window screening would work just as well and be a lot easier for me to wrap around the trunk, as it’s much wider. What do you think?”

Well, first, thanks for the reminder that homeowners need to use some kind of “guard” to protect the tender and tasty bark of young trees from both antlers and eating, John. (Here’s a nice selection of the kinds of things we’re talking about.)

Now, I’ve always used professional plastic wrap-around tree guards or loose cages made of staked chicken wire for this — and the link you sent about your paper wrap doesn’t even mention deer protection (it’s sold to prevent sunscald on trees out west). But if your wraps are working, I wouldn’t change a thing!

And the rest of you out there: If deer or rabbits are active in your area, be sure they can’t get at the bark of trees that are three years old or younger. And whatever form of protection you use:

  • Make sure it’s loose and doesn’t bite into the bark of the tree;
  • Don’t put it on until around Halloween;
  • And be sure to remove it around Easter. Tree guards must be removed during the summer growing period.

Thatch gone; now what?

Chris in Alexandria writes: “The government shutdown gave me the opportunity to de-thatch my lawn for the first time ever. Now I need to ensure that my abundant crab grass doesn’t take advantage of the newly de-thatched yard. Neighbor No. 1 suggested that I set my mower on its lowest possible setting and scalp the crab grass. Neighbor No. 2 suggested I re-seed to get grass to fill in and overtake the dying crab grass. Which one is correct and what is your advice?”

Neighbor No. 1 is dead wrong; the only time you ever want to scalp your lawn is to kill off the grass and replace it with a garden.

Neighbor No. 2 is correct, but don’t just sow more seed. Spread some compost and/or high-quality screened topsoil over the lawn and then add fresh seed. (But don’t delay — you’re rapidly running out of time for the new grass to get established.) Then be ready to apply corn gluten meal in the spring to prevent all of your dormant crabgrass seeds from sprouting.

And in the future, don’t feed your lawn more than twice a year, and (unless you have zoysia or Bermuda grass) never feed your lawn in the summer. Overfeeding with chemical fertilizers is the No. 1 cause of thatch. And summer feedings promote thatch and crabgrass!

Last call to get rid of grubs with milky spore

Chris in Alexandria also writes: “While de-thatching my lawn, I was able to uproot a lot of my crab grass, but I also discovered I have a grub problem. Should I put grub killer down now? Or in the spring?”

If you mean chemical grub killer, how about “never,” Chris? Is “never” good for you? Toxic grub-killing pesticides only work once, and they’re a real danger to you and your environment. Apply the non-toxic biological grub control milky spore while the soil is still warm and the grubs are still feeding and it will wipe out this bunch and generations of grubs to come. (Or actually, not to come.)

But don’t delay — milky spore only works when grubs are actively feeding in warm soil. And that soil will soon cool down, sending the grubs deep into the earth to hibernate out the winter.

Compound interest a bad idea when the principal is dollar spot

Walter in Kensington writes: “Rutgers has diagnosed our lawn problem as dollar spot disease. Will this disease spread to other parts of our lawn? And do you know if there are any treatments for it?”

“Dollar spot” is a lawn disease whose signature “spots” start out the size of a silver dollar, grow to the size of a softball and can merge to form large, blighted areas. Yes, it can be spread to other parts of the lawn — but by you, not by wind or rain. Don’t walk on or work on the affected areas, and don’t drag hoses and such over them.

The main causes of dollar spot are too-frequent watering and lack of proper food. Luckily, the disease rarely causes permanent damage, and can be controlled by feeding and watering the lawn correctly. That means natural feedings twice a year — once in spring and once in early fall — and “wise watering”: deep, infrequent soakings during times of drought. If you starve your lawn and/or water every day, you’ll always have lots of bad dollars.

Calling Doctor Hackingabush!

Amy in Springfield writes: “I have a row of Gold Thread Cyprus lining my front walkway; a “dwarf” variety planted last spring that are now about 4 feet tall. They had never been trimmed, so my husband used a hedge trimmer on one side of them so that we could actually use the walkway. Now they’re a bit lopsided. What’s the best way to even them out and bring down the height a bit?”

Well, if they’re only four feet tall and already causing problems, it sounds like you didn’t plan for the final size of the plants, Amy. The best answer might be to move them a bit further from the walkway. (You can move them now or in the spring.)

But whatever you do, please don’t attack the poor plants with hedge clippers again! To moderate their size correctly, use hand pruners to cut the ends of some of the branches back during the active growing season. Don’t remove entire branches — just the outer third or so. And don’t try and cut them all evenly; these plants look best when the branches are somewhat staggered.

To achieve the most pleasing look, gently prune some selected branches back a little bit every few weeks over the course of the summer. Don’t whack them!

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