Just ahead of the rainy Memorial Day weekend, I put on my grungy outside sneakers and went digging in the dirt in our sweet little garden plot. I’d been to the local greenhouse a few weeks before, but had waited for exactly the right time to plant bell peppers and jalapenos, Japanese eggplants, sweet basil and a couple of tomato plants. I figured the imminent rain would give them a fair shot at taking root and maybe, just maybe, we’d get a modest harvest of fresh, home-grown produce. That would be such a lovely thing, given the challenges of staying well-stocked with fresh food in our few-and-far-between grocery visits.
But I’m sad to say that I’m not all that hopeful. It’s my annual exercise in futility—planting the garden. It shouldn’t be a wasted effort, given that we have a terrific climate and growing season, and plus, I grew up with gardens. Through the years, I helped my grandmother tend to her various backyard crops. I did more than my share of digging and weeding in the four (yes, four) enormous plots we had at my father’s rural home in upstate New York. And I even had moderate success in my adult years with zucchini, cherry tomatoes and especially fresh herbs. I don’t have the greenest of thumbs, but I’m no novice.
Yet for the last four summers, I’ve found gardening to be a colossal waste of time, energy, square footage and money. Why, you ask?
When my husband and I got together, I was overjoyed with the idea of doing more with the small raised bed garden he’d constructed in the side yard. He had grown various things, but mainly varieties of sweet and hot peppers, which he canned for the winter and gave as holiday gifts. (OK, what guy does that? It’s reason #19 why I fell in love with him, but I digress.)
We had big dreams of cultivating the garden together—between his penchant for canning and preserving, and mine for cooking and creating, we were going to be the power veggie couple of the neighborhood. We researched the best plants for our Zone 7 climate, measured the yard to identify the most sunny spots, amended the soil and planted. Then, like expectant young parents, we watched and waited. We monitored the rainfall, nourished our tender plans with organic fertilizers and did our best to naturally ward off the invaders that threatened to steal our joy. The darn squash bugs were the worst, laying their bazillions of eggs on the undersides of the zucchini leaves. I resisted using pesticides so (naturally) we lost those. And, thanks to the (apparently starving) family of deer living in the woods just behind our rustic fence, the tomatoes were confiscated as well. That first summer together, we ended up with only about five eggplants and a dozen or so hot peppers.
It was disappointing, but no biggie—we’d plan better and be ready for action next year. We expanded the garden to nearly double the original size, amended the new plot with compost and fresh garden soil. We transplanted our little seedlings, including eight varieties of tomatoes—red and yellow cherry, Roma, Amish heirloom, San Marzano plum. It was going to be an amazing harvest.
And this time, I did more homework on keeping the deer at bay. The garden experts all recommended the motion-sensor lights and noisemakers, but we enjoy a pleasant relationship with our neighbor, whose bedroom window overlooks the garden, so those options weren’t viable. Rather, I focused on the odiferous alternatives. It seems that deer, like most other animals, have a very sensitive nose. I concocted a mixture of garlic, cayenne pepper, dish soap and rotten eggs. In theory, you’re supposed to shake up this stuff and sprinkle it on the leaves of the vulnerable plants every so often, and the deer will use their common sense and keep their distance. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to properly explain what happened when my heat-parched husband found and guzzled that vulgar mixture from a sport water bottle in the door of our garage refrigerator. After burping up a few rotten egg bubbles, he learned pretty quickly to come inside the house when he’s thirsty.
The deer seemed to be learning, too. The garden was going gangbusters, but just to be sure, I went the extra mile and decorated it with more of the wives’ tale deterrents I’d discovered on the internet—mesh bags filled with shredded Irish Spring soap and bags of freshly snipped human hair, donated to the cause by my stylist in exchange for a promised portion of the bounty I was sure we would have. It was like a white trash carnival out there, but it was working.
On a sunny late June afternoon, I went out for pictures and counted the tomatoes. We had 47 of them, plump and green and fleshy, safe and protected from the creatures of the wood. By this time, we were married and the garden seemed a symbol of our synergy—look how well we are working together! Just look at this garden, will you!
And then the next day—yes, one day later—I went out to water and noticed a green Roma on the ground. On closer inspection, I realized with complete exasperation that it was literally the only one left. The deer had taken every tomato. Every. Freaking. One.
You know that scene in the classic A Christmas Story, where Ralphie’s father loses his mind following the pillaging of the family’s turkey by the neighbors’ dogs? That was me that day, standing in the garden with my fists raised to the sky and screaming at the top of my lungs…“Bumpasses!!!!”
After all that effort, all that planning, the painstaking measures I’d taken to keep the deer away, it was for naught. Because once the grazing began, it only got worse. I may as well have hung a neon sign announcing an all-you-can-eat salad bar. If those deer had smartphones, they were leaving fantastic Yelp reviews for our garden, boasting about the amazing selection and lovely accoutrements.
So in 2018, we didn’t bother with tomatoes at all. We planted hot peppers and eggplants, which the deer didn’t seem to care about. And we planted zucchini and yellow squash, with the realistic expectation that we’d only get about 6 of each before the squash borers annihilated them. And we planted marigolds—lots of marigolds. At least they grow well, and they do make the garden look pretty when the deer come grazing. And we planted lemon balm because the deer supposedly hate it. Unfortunately, it’s part of the mint family, and I didn’t know it would completely take over the entire garden, hoarding the moisture and nutrients from the plants we were trying to protect. To make matters worse, by the middle of July, we discovered a rot problem with several fence posts, which necessitated removal of a 20 foot length of fence. Just come on in!
In 2019, those
brazen little bastards precious, starving deer chomped the top leaves and blossoms right off our tender peppers and eggplants before they even had a chance to produce fruit. We tried (and failed) to grow container tomatoes in the safety of the fenced-in back yard. There isn’t enough sun back there, and to be honest, the deer would have no trouble scaling our fence to get at them anyway. It’s bad enough they have decided our garden is the best take-out spot in town. Let’s just not tempt them to come in the doggie door, OK?