GREEN THOUGHTS: Oh deer, finally here

AFTER 24 YEARS, my gardening honeymoon is over. While I’m nowhere near throwing in the trowel, I’m sorry to say that the deer have truly arrived. And while living with deer is standard practice for many gardeners in the Hudson Valley, I certainly have enjoyed my almost quarter-century gardening largely without them.

I must admit feeling rather smug in the past. I figured that the busy road in front of the house and the wooded cliff behind were discouraging to deer. While our neighborhood on the edge of suburbia is very green, most folks surrounding me are not gardeners, so there is little of unusual horticultural (and culinary) interest to attract the hungry horde, other than my place. And while I certainly sympathized with my green-thumb chums who face deer damage daily, I also counted my blessings and thanked my lucky stars.

A dahlia behind a deer fence. Photo contributed

Gradually, though, things have changed. A few winters ago, the deer ate the bottom four feet of my arborvitae hedge, which runs between our side yard and the house next door. I didn’t notice this until one day when I could see Mr. Moore’s Pontiac much better than before. After that, a few leaves might disappear here, a flower or two vanish there, but it was no big deal. Then last winter, our giant backyard oak dropped an Armageddon of acorns. The deer visited nightly, making deep hoof prints in the snow covering my hosta garden and the one good patch of lawn we had, turning it all into a minefield of mud. Word among the herd must have gone out that this was the dining place to be. Now this summer, the hostas have lost their leaves, the tomatoes their fruit, and I my patience.

Deterring browsing by deer offers two primary options: repellents and fencing. For now, I’ve gathered the stray bits of fencing from the shed and cordoned off some of the surviving hostas and all of the dahlias. I’ve also invested in a jug of deer repellent. I say “invested” since it cost almost as much as my first car, all for some putrescent eggs, thyme, garlic and soap. And wow, does it stink, the kind of stench that stays in your mind’s nose for days. But after deploying the smelly solution, we had the first night without a loss from the tomato patch, so I am pleased.

I’m also pondering a fence. Deer can jump almost eight feet high with ease, as well as shove under or shoulder through a wimpy fence, so any construction needs to be well-planned and sturdy. Black plastic mesh comes in various sizes and is a popular option. I need about a 300-foot length to enclose most of the backyard, and at eight feet high, with 21 posts and two gates, this system would cost about $2,000, self-installed. While I could buy a lot of tomatoes and hostas for that amount, this looks like the price I must pay to remain a gardener.

To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email

Chaseholm, Little Seeds are ‘Good Earthkeepers’

HUDSON—The Columbia County Environmental Management Council (EMC) recognized the recipients of its 2020 Good Earthkeeping (GEK) Awards in a short ceremony that kicked off their July 27 online monthly meeting.

This year’s winners are Sarah Chase and Jordan Schmidt of the Chaseholm Farm which spans Ancram and Pine Plains, and Claudia Kenny and Willy Denner of Little Seeds Gardens in Chatham.

Nominated by Kim Tripp on behalf of the Ancram Conservation Advisory Council, Chaseholm Farm operates on 500 acres in Columbia and Dutchess counties. A third-generation dairy farm that is USDA certified organic and 100% grass-fed, it is dedicated to restoring soil and microbial diversity, fertility and vitality through intense pasture management and a comprehensive rotational grazing system. They offer public programming that demonstrates how their regenerative approach to farming provides inspiration, instruction and specific examples of how small local farms can be essential to environmental stewardship and preservation. Read more…

THROUGH the WOODS: ‘Ghosts’

Indian pipes (“ghost flowers”). Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT IS NICE TO BE one of the fortunate people in the world, not rich in dollars, but rich in family who provided a wonderful place to retire, right here at home in Columbia County. The best dreams and childhood memories were always of wandering about their dairy farms and observing nature, and now it is here to do again on a secluded portion of this land. Through the woods describes the drive from the road to the house (or, vice versa, out to the world), then through the trees at the edge of the field and back into the greater and deeper woods containing several small ponds.

The entire circumference of the long, narrow property totals almost a mile of opportunity. The old wood roads/bridle trails took many days to restore to passable condition. The motion of the horse’s walk, the reflex duck, and bend to pass trees that dip down to the small stream flood back from memory by the Duchess’ grave. She was a crazy big pinto mare that no 11-year-old should ever have ridden but was too much temptation to resist.

That was more than 50 years ago. There are no horses here today, but all the native diversity of life remains and has thrived. A favorite uncle logged the main woods, which has undergone the usual cycle of growth that has almost returned it to its original state of large trees with enough brush cover for deer and other wildlife. The high point near the new house is at 1,200 feet elevation and is a solid knob of rock consisting of layers of shale and quartz topped by clay soil, berries, and wild roses that are typical of the Town of Austerlitz. Just down from the top and to the south is the old cellar hole and foundation of an early settler’s home. It is so small it is hard to believe grandfather’s tales of the Grimm family he remembered living there before 1900. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Tickled by ornamental grasses

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A SUMMER DROUGHT to make my already grand appreciation of ornamental grasses grow, since most tolerate lack of rain and plenty of heat without missing a beat. Beyond toughness, they’ve got other virtues in spades, coming in a range of colors, textures, forms and heights. Most are totally pest free, can tolerate poor soils and demand little care. What else can we ask for in a perennial plant?

This is only one way to display ornamental grasses. Photo contributed

Native switchgrasses (Panicums) grow four to five feet tall and have airy, fine textured seedheads. Red foliaged ones include ‘Rehbraun’ and ‘Warrior,’ while bluish foliage types include ‘Dallas Blues’ and ‘Prairie Sky.’ Blue fescues (Festuca species) make cute, spiny-looking clumps growing to about 12 inches, perfect for the front of a hot, dry border. Mine, in fact, refuse to grow in the garden soil but have moved into the gravel driveway, where they actually don’t mind getting run over occasionally in exchange for the sharp drainage. And Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans) is a tough native with surprisingly large, yellow flowers that appear as summer starts to slip toward fall. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Listen to the mockingbird

Northern mockingbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ONE DAY YEARS AGO we were walking through the cemetery back of St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Spencertown next to the old firehouse. We heard a muted version of the fire whistle, looked around, and there atop a bush was a Northern mockingbird singing his heart out and mimicking the fire whistle. It was amazing, even though he couldn’t quite reach the correct decibel level.

Mockers get their name from this ability to learn and repeat sounds and the calls of other birds. They originated from our southern states and moved north, bringing with them a repertoire of southern bird calls like the yellow-breasted chat, Carolina wren, and others. Since we do not normally have chats and some of the other southern birds here, the young start learning these calls from their parents and keep passing them down to their young. I once worked with a doctor who loved to try and stump me with bird questions, and one day he asked me, “What is the mockingbird’s actual song?” I stood speechless and he smiled and went on. I later learned they do have a few calls of their own, a hew, a nest relief call, chats and a begging call. Of course, the dead giveaway is their singing of many other bird calls, one after another.

The mother of a friend in Missouri loved to hear the “mockers” sing and once sent me a tape of one in her yard, and it sang 53 different songs without stopping. Studies have shown that they usually have two sets of songs, one for the spring, and the other for the fall. They also keep learning and adding new ones all through their lives. Read more…