Now that we are securely ensconced into the oft-maligned month of February, I think it would be apropos to take up two of the most distasteful subjects in the gardening world, at least as it pertains to us in northwest Tennessee. The two? Tree topping and deer, or horned rats.
Let us take the latter first. Some 70 years or so ago, the wildlife officials who do yeoman service in managing our game species decided it was not fair that deer hunting was available only (mostly) to people in east Tennessee. I can remember when hunters from here made treks east to harvest, hopefully, a buck deer. If they were one of few successful nimrods they would drape the deceased on the front fender of the car and proudly parade around town with their bragging rights. They got a lot of attention.
If we (they) had only known what the future held here in West Tennessee, perhaps they might have thought again about a proposal to trap deer from the east and stock them in the lush farmlands of the opposite end of the state.
What a success(?) the stocking has turned out to be. We now have deer virtually peering in our windows at night and eating every kind of crop they can get their filthy hooves on: i.e. corn, soybeans, milo and others, on down (or up, depending on your view) to azaleas, hostas, monkey grass, hollies, and on ad nauseum, yes, to virtually every living bit of flora on your place and mine.
There is little recourse that is both affordable and effective. On a small scale there are liquid concoctions on the market that repel the horned rats, if spraying is started in time, that is, before the damage is far along. Then the deer will be trained to avoid the taste and smell of the liquids, which can be applied with a garden sprayer. Liquid Fence is one brand of repellent that has worked for me.
One other option is a 7-foot fence that deer can’t, or won’t, breach. On a large scale a fence is the best answer if one can afford it. I have had such a fence for about 30 years now, after the deer problem became unbearable. It was my garden or the deers’ it seemed, so I fenced them out.
Back in early summer, the infamous tornado that hit our garden downed several huge oaks and some of them fell on the fence, renting it asunder.
Almost immediately, the hungry deer made their way through the sizable gaps and right into the banquet table. First to go, as is almost always the case, were hostas, followed by Japanese acuba shrubs, hydrangeas, and numerous other woodies. To this day they continue to devastate.
I’ve railed about tree topping for these 40 years or more, to little avail. A lot of people seem determined to cut the tops out of perfectly fine trees, no matter what. Even such an authority as Jason Reeves of the UT ornamental gardens in Jackson, heads his website with the slogan “Stop the chop.” He started at first on the inane practice of cutting large crape myrtles back to stubs with regularity, leaving a thicket of second growth little twigs instead of enjoying the trunk structure inherent in the genus. It is a more valuable feature than the flowers, pretty as they are.
Others trees fall victim to such a practice, even up to aged oaks with perhaps 100 years on them. They are flat-topped, sometimes with regularity, by those ignorant of what an unblemished tree really should look like.
A tree that has taken the better part of a century to achieve character can be literally ruined in a few minutes with a chain saw. Once main branch structure is cut back carelessly it takes seemingly forever to grow back into a presentable shape.
It is interesting to hear owners of topped trees respond to the question of why they had their trees topped.
It ranges from, “Well, it had been years since they had been topped and it was just time.” Huh? To this one, “I like my trees bushy.” Duh. Why not plant a bush? And this: “I wanted them topped before they got too high.” Again, duh?
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.