I am sipping coffee and watching the deer mosey about the clearing in the early morning light. I want to know what their favorite food is so that I can plant PLENTY of it; my theory is that if there is a huge surplus of something they really want, that they will refrain from sampling other things to see if they like them.
Deer are notorious ‘browsers.’ They eat like I did in my teens and twenties: better eat all you can now, because you might get hungry later. In places where food is in short supply they will eat anything–on Orcas Island in the San Juans, where there are so many deer they are the size of golden retrievers, I have watched deer chew the blooms off of daffodils, vomit up the toxic flower, and eat some more. Deer are voracious and don’t always have a discriminating palate.
In the front, ‘free and full use’ portion of my landscape, I have azalea, fothergilla, Japanese Maples. The new fronds of painted fern are unfolding among the black mondo grass. Cherry ‘Shirotae’ has shed its blossom and the Shiro plum is due to flower. Here and there, ilex crenata “Sky Pencil” provides an exclamation point of verticality.
Hoof prints in the mulch lead right up to nibbled branches, but they do not seem interested in making a multi-course meal out of the front garden. I can tell they wander through nightly, taking the occasional dainty bite; they seem to be only on their way from my native plantings to someone else’s patch of woods.
The deer now have taken an amuse bouche from virtually everything that is growing, from Vine maple to snowberry, red osier dogwood to the fiddleheads of sword fern uncurling in the misty morning. They ignore the young conifers, apparently leaving them for the resident buck to scrape the felt from his antlers in the fall. The plants browsed by deer are finely cut, and at about a 45 degree angle–as though they were in a pruning workshop on how to make your trees and shrubs go ‘bushy.’ In fact, while I have seen them eat a bit of everything EVERY time they have passed through, they have only gone after anything with any gustatory enthusiasm a couple times in the dead of winter. My coffee has gone cold as they disappear into the forest fringe. I can’t stop them from passing through, nor do I want to. I don’t want to feed them, to distract from my choice plants; they are accustomed to humans but I don’t want to tame them or fatten them for ‘harvest.’ Although contrary to common conversation among gardeners, maybe they self-regulate their feeding habits where there is ample food. Maybe this means my forest is working.