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Facing Off with a Buck

It was a typical late summer morning as I was walked to our compost bin at the back of the house. Still in my housecoat and lost in thought, I didn't look up until I was about half way there. And that's when I saw him. He was about a 10 point white tailed deer and he was standing right in the middle of the lawn. We were about 50ft apart.

I stopped and stood very still. In my mind, I could see every plant that I had planted that the deer had eaten. I could see every tree stripped of its tender bark and every annihilated euonymus. I wasn’t scared, I was mad.

We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds. I wasn't going to move. That bugger was on my land and I was done thinking they were cute and essential. He must have picked up on my antagonism because he started to snort and paw at the ground with his hoof.

I had no idea this was a sign of aggression. I was simply holding my ground. Me in my housecoat with a stinky compost bin in my hands and he with his large, hardened antlers but I wasn't giving in.

Moments passed and then he looked down and slowly walked away. I watched until he was way past our property line and then finished my task with a calm heart and mind.

Later I would learn that both my husband and the neighbours had watched this confrontation from our respective houses with total fear. They had understood that the deer could have attacked at any point. To this day, I never felt I was in danger. The deer and I were simply having a discussion about what I would tolerate. Since then they have backed off from treating our garden as a drive through buffet but they still like to prove they can visit whenever they like.

The deer are one of many of the challenges we have faced as we have tried to rejuvenate our one acre of land.

Another challenge was the clay. Our land is essentially divided in two, a front part close to the road and the Back 40, as we call it. The two areas are separated by a low area that floods in the spring and stays pretty boggy throughout the summer. It is wet enough that we had to build a small bridge across it.

The front part was originally intended as a lawn for the original owner's horse, Pepper. He had simply dumped clay and rock and added a little topsoil. I am always amazed that ANYTHING grows in the front. When I started planting in this area, I quickly discovered that a shovel wouldn't work. No, I needed a 5ft tall, heavy ice pick. With a great up and down motion, I thrust the pick into the ground, move it around in a circle and do it all over again. I then kneel and pick out the rocks and chunks of clay by hand. We have had to add a lot of new soil, compost and fertilizer to keep things growing.

The Back 40 gets super soggy in the Spring but on the whole is pretty good soil. Once you get past the 6 inches of sod, you usually find a kind of pelleted clay. Heavier than loam but loose enough to spread easily around a plant. However, we still dig much bigger holes and add triple mix or top soil with fertilizer to amend the soil when we plant anything. Or, we just build raised beds.

When we first got the land there were only trees on the edges. It was just one big flat canvas looking to be painted. I had so many crazy design ideas when we first started to work the land but they have all been squashed. We didn't know much about planting and growing but as each season came and went, we quickly realized that without a massive landscaping budget and large machinery, none of my ideas would come to pass.

I was also learning more about the area. Our land is on the north shores of Lake Erie so it falls into the upper parts of what is called the Carolinian Forest. This area covers most of the eastern United States as far west as Tennessee.

It has an extremely high diversity of species, 500 of which are considered rare. However, it is also highly developed with agricultural, industrial and commercial interests leading to fragmented habitats for the remaining wildlife. As a result, forest cover has been reduced to 11.3% and wetlands to a mere 5%. In addition, native species are threatened by invasive species like garlic mustard and over grazing white tailed deer.

It struck me that if I was going to plant anything on our land I would try to use as many native plants as possible. So I went looking for trees like Black Walnut, Hickory, Kentucky Coffee, Sassafras, and Tulip but came up empty. Native trees tend to grow slowly and aren't very showy so they don't sell as well as the hybrid plants we see in a typical nursery.

At one point I heard of a government grant of 50 native plants and trees to large property owners . You just had to prove you had a minimum of 2 acres. So my mother and I combined our lots for the application. Unfortunately, due to my ignorance only about 15 survived.

To make up for my mistake, I consulted a local nursery and purchased the more generic and hardy Maples, River Birch and Weeping Willow in larger sizes that had been raised in a similar environment. They were about 3 years old when I planted them and all of them are thriving.

But even as my new trees were growing, I still had to contend with those pesky deer. Every tender sapling that I planted was a delicacy to the herd. When they are hungry, I have even seen them eat prickly spruce and pine, contrary to what all the books say.

As a result, I learned that for every tree I plant, a cage must be installed for as long as it takes for the lower branches to be too tall for the deer to reach. This makes for a less than picturesque landscape. Every time I think, I haven't seen too many deer this year, and maybe I can take off the cages for the summer, I will walk out to check on the trees and see evidence of a chow down.

On top of all that, as someone who has been trying to go as low waste as possible, it has been my greatest regret that it took me years to find the best cage solution. Initially, I used plastic covered stakes that rotted and bent in the wet ground, plastic wire cage material that disintegrated in the sun and single use plastic cable ties to hold it all together.

I have finally found a solution of metal t-stakes, chicken wire and reusable twist ties. It is my least favourite job to do as the setting up is finicky and time consuming but it is essential to give these trees a shot at life. I celebrate the days when a tree reaches an age when I can finally set it free.

In the end, I consider our small, mostly native lot of trees a success. Some of the older saplings that we planted 10 years ago are 30+ feet tall. We have three Kentucky Coffee trees which survived the initial plant that are doing well but are really slow growers. My father found a seller of Black Walnuts and we planted three of them, one for each of my nephews. They were attacked by caterpillars for a few years but have survived and thrived since then.

I've now reached the point where I have to stop planting trees as we are running out of space. I have to consider how big they will grow eventually and give them adequate room. In addition, some areas we are keeping open to make sure the vegetable garden gets full sun and other area are left for future non-garden developments.

What is wonderful now is that some of our trees are big enough to create shade and so the Back 40 is no longer a hot, stark nursery but a welcoming place to watch and listen to the birds flitter amongst the branches.

I consider the trees like members of the family. I know I won't see a lot of them at their peak but I have come to terms with that. After all, as Russell Page says,

To plant trees is to give body and life to one's dreams of a better world

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