While our garden supplies a variety of 300 species of fruit, nuts and vegetables, many of which are choice delicacies rarely found even in expensive health-food stores, the greatest yield we obtain from our Permaculture garden is our interaction with nature. We love watching the fleet of deer, turkeys, a huge variety of birds, groundhogs, squirrels, voles, moles, shrews, deermice, rabbits, toads, snakes, fox, owls, bats, etc. and a micro-managerie of colorful, whirling invertebrates who are all frequent guests in our garden.
A uniquely human but certainly in-humane concept.
Really, there are quite a few individuals, friends, we’ve come to recognize as co-habiting, co-tending and even co-creating this habitat with us. Who are we to say its “ours?”
Only us modern “civilized” humans would be so freakishly controlling and neurotic as to attempt to lay claim to a bit of land and only allow select individuals to serve our needs exclusively, strictly omitting all other species from meeting their needs off our “property.”
Why must we battle so with our non-human cousins?
This struggle only makes us poorer, when we would be much better served by a diverse and healthy ecosystem, filled with willing volunteers from a wide swath of species, all making “our property” richer, more diverse, healthy and abundant.
We don’t need Ecologists to tell us that diverse ecosystems are healthier and more productive, and that they grow more healthy, fertile, and rich over time as they catch each drop of energy and store it in a network of species. We need only walk into a forest and compare it to our drab, needy, sick human landscapes.
Permaculture is a system of design based on three ethics. The first ethic is “care for the earth.” A Permaculture garden aims to be more than a vegetable garden, it’s also an orchard, a medicinal garden, a pleasure garden, a recreation space, a garden for crafts and building materials, fuel for heat, and most importantly, a wildlife garden – all rolled into one. Most importantly, it’s a way to “care for the earth.”
But Permaculture’s second ethic is “care for people,” and we want a garden that will obtain a good yield for its human stewards, rewarding and incentivising good earth care. We recognize that there’s a place for everything, including deer – and that place probably isn’t your Hosta garden. So, this article will look at how we can design a system with a place for wildlife, including the hungry, vegetable-eating kind like deer and rabbits.
The standard American garden is a deer and rabbit paradise.
First, it’s typically way out in the backyard somewheres, far from where they’re likely to run into those obnoxious, angry two-legged animals who are always yelling and chasing everybody else away. I mean, WE HUMANS hardly ever go out there, and we haven’t even marked it as our territory, so obviously we didn’t put it out there for us!
Next, it’s so neat and tidy, where everything’s easy to see and find and all their favorite plants are placed together in a nice neat rows like a buffet. There are no weeds or anything in the way that might confuse them. No spots where predators might be hiding to be warry of. Usually there’s a clear line of sight to the house to see if the grumpy humans come out.
And there’s no place else like it! It’s a unique, distinctive environment that’s set aside from everything else in their habitat – something that’s sure to stick in their minds and attract a lot of interest and attention. It’s so obviously a special place JUST for good deer and bunny food.
They’re sooooooo happy you made it just for them!
And so long as we do things like that, we should just plain expect deer, rabbits, etc. are going to be spending some Q.T. in our gardens. Really, we’re just being silly if we don’t.
(Wild beastie, Mu, sleeping by my leg while I write.)
Get Zoned Out
One of Permaculture’s most important design concepts is arranging land and uses into “zones” based on how often each space is naturally visited and how much energy each takes to work. Basically, the uses that require the most human energy and attention, should go in the places that we naturally visit most often.
For example, the garden plants that require daily attention could be placed right next to the door you use every day when you go to work so that you naturally see those plants without having to make a special, separate trip. Meanwhile, plants that only require weekly or monthly visits can be placed together in locations you naturally visit once a week or once a month. Now, you don’t have to waste time or energy on any special trips.
This “cares for the earth” because it replaces fossil fuel energy like tilling and chemical interventions like spraying with easy human energy like daily hand-weeding and “spot mulching” (placing a little mulch to smother out emerging weeds.) And it “cares for people” because it naturally saves us time and energy and makes life easier.
(Sketch of zones for Lillie House)
But the idea of “zones” is also Permaculture’s first line of defense against “pests and weeds,” including deer and rabbits.
Actually, this was the MAIN strategy for dealing with pests and weeds in almost every human culture throughout history right up until the 1920s/30s, when the US government enacted a policy of drastic agricultural reform intended to evict farmers off their family farms to create an army of poor and needy, low-cost labor for urban industrialization. Since then, we’ve taught governments around the world to commit the same crime against their citizenry. In my opinion, this was probably the cause of the single greatest loss of technology, wisdom and knowledge in human history. But I digress….
Here’s how that forgotten common-sense technology used to work:
Zone 1-2: Close to the home, the main outdoor living area.
Look familiar? This is the classic homestead pattern found world-wide prior to The Great Stupiding of the “green agricultural revolution.”
How about this one:
First, this area closest to the home, with the most human traffic is naturally suspect to wildlife. It’s the riskiest place to visit for a snack. But it’s also a place where a quick sprinkle of cayenne pepper or garlic tea can help protect nibbled plants. Since critters are naturally warry of this zone, anyway, extra deterrents go a long way, and a plant that unreliably smells and tastes bad isn’t worth the risk.
(A Zone 1-2 garden guild including sensative plants.)
Finally, if you’re going to fence or hedge an area, zone 1 is the easiest place to do it. A small fenced or hedged area is all you need to grow all the crops that really require protection from deer and rabbits, and the hedge can itself be a multi-species, food-producing area.
(Colorful edible hedgerow surroundsd our zone 1-2 garden)
What goes here? Everything you’d complain about getting eaten by rabbits or deer. Basically, if we’re going to be neurotic humans trying to exclude other species, it’s going to go better if we keep that strategy to as small a space as possible.
What additional control measures do you use? Sprays of comfrey or nettle tea with garlic or cayenne pepper added. Powdered cayenne pepper. Not much else should be necessary.
Zone 3-4: Everything beyond the immediate “home garden” area. Areas that will receive maintenance once per week or less.
(A “wild” natural food forest of deer-friendly species at a church. No “pest-deterrent” being used on this bike-trail through deer country, but it yields a large quantity and variety of fruits all season long. )
Typically, zone 3 refers to crop areas, especially market crops and “calorie” crops intended to provide carbohydrates. Zone 4 refers to managed “semi-wild” areas where crops are grown in forests or areas returning to forests (“agriforest” systems.)
This also includes any “public garden” areas, business, workplace, churches and other public landscapes.
The key is a shift in perspective: in these zones, the wildlife are your greatest asset, your aids and teachers. They are there to help tend your land, fertilize, provide pest and weed control through increasing diversity, and prune your plants for you.
They’ll sure teach you about which plants are truly “wildlife proof!”
They also teach you the vital lost knowledge of what it means to be a member of an ecosystem with a direct natural relationship with nature – deep wisdom that almost all of our human ancestors treasured, but that is extremely rare today.
You pay for these valuable services by allowing these non-human neighbors to “make a living” off of a small share of “your” crops.
In these zones there is only one tool for dealing with wildlife, to work together to evolve a STABILIZED ecology that integrates wildlife interactions and productivity – a complete ecosystem, where we are just one point in the web of life.
(Another wild beastie lurking in its natural habitat.)
To co-create your deer-stable agro-ecology, what you plant is of utmost importance and while I can give you some pointers based on research and my own experience, your best teachers will be your wildlife. Remember, you’re co-creating a stable ecology, and their feedback is vital. They’ll teach you what kind of system will stabilize with them.
The other key is high diversity. In any given year, if one crop or plant is harmed by over-predation, others will fill in the gaps. With enough diversity, overtime the system will “pop” in such a way that it will be productive to humans and integrate the positive interactions of wildlife.
(Garden of Deer-Stable crops in our zone 3 area.)
There are two categories of plants that are most useful for these zones:
Deer/Rabbit TOLERANT Plants? WHA…?
These vigorous plants will get browsed by wildlife with relative frequency, but are almost never killed by them. They quickly recover and can grow and thrive despite ocassional browsing.
I’ve often recommended these as deer-resistant plants and had people exclaim “but deer eat that at my place!”
To which I respond: “did they KILL the plant?”
Remember, the point isn’t to completely exclude all other species. We’re not trying to win a war against nature, what we want is a truce.
Here’s a SHORT, INCOMPLETE LIST of FANTASIC DEER-TOLERANT FOOD PLANTS for a zone 3-4 Permaculture system or forest garden. These will probably work best in an integrated, decentralized polyculture system like a forest garden, rather than planted in clean, tidy, centralized monoculture deer-buffets of single plants. Most of these are often found on researched lists as “infrequently browsed” or “rarely browsed.”
Chestnut. This gets its very own mention, as the single most important Permaculture plant we can grow in the Great Lakes region, on any property where there’s enough room for it. Chestnuts are an expensive, valuable commercial crop. But more importantly, they’re our most important sustainable staple carbohydrate crop in cold climates, and our most viable option for growing calories outside of energy-intensive tilled fields of grains. For properties much larger than 3/4 of an acre, I always recommend trying to find a place to plant it. It will require caging as a deterrent as it gets established, but once mature, the tree will be impervious to wildlife assault. The crops will be shared with deer and other wildlife, but there will almost certainly be plenty left over for the humans to take advantage of.
Asparagus (pay extra for larger “crowns” in deer-prone areas to get them established.)
French Sorrel (on the edge, sometimes this gets severely set back, but I’ve never seen it killed.)
Ground Nut (Apios Americana)
Annual crops for an “extensive,” low-maintenance garden
Squash plants (Cover the seeds with Burdock leaves to protect them prior to germination.) I particularly recommend Long Island Cheese and Seminole pumpkins in our climate.
Zucchini and summer squash
Tomatoes (deer often prune our vines, but wild varieties like Galapagos are worth a try.)
Potatoes (These are perennialized at our site and the deer almost never bother them.)
Black Walnut (buy varieties selected for easier cracking.)
(Allium unifolium kickin’ it with walking onions and Turkish rocket, all holding their own against grasses and “weeds” in a heavily deer and rabbit area in our zone 3.)
Deer-RESISTANT Fruits and Vegetables:
These are the stronger category of plants that I have never once seen browsed, even with our overstock urban deer population. Even if your deer get a little crazy some night and try a nibble or two, they’re almost certainly not going to ravage your entire populations of these. Our zone 3-4 garden is overrun with deer, rabbits, groundhogs and so on, but I have never seen these touched:
Egyptian walking onions
Cammas (great vegetable!)
Potatoes (these are perennialized in the sunnier areas of our zone 3/4 garden
And finally, here’s a list of plants to experiment with. These are still being tested here, but have shown good potential of being deterrent/resistant thus far:
And that’s just a start. There are more fruits and vegetables that can be grown in such a wildlife-friendly garden. Beyond this, there are a whole great variety of HIGH VALUE deer-stable crops for a for-profit system, if you expand into plant stock and medicinal herbs that can really add value to a Agriforest.
Which brings us to Permaculture’s third ethic: “Fair Share.” These days, it’s frequently also expressed as “re-invest the surplus” or as it was originally stated: observe and respect natural limits. Really, these are all the same. If we can produce a system that values the diversity of plants and wildlife, and mindfully “reinvest” in our non-human partners, then this abundant, self-maintaining system will provide for us better than any corn field ever could. But that requires us to step back, observe limits, and make some room in this world for our non-human cousins.
All of the plants mentioned in this post are, conveniently enough, available through our Lillie House Community Supported Permaculture program, where we help you create your own Permaculture design, supply you with plants and teach about Permaculture gardening techniques. If that sounds interesting, you can learn more here: