Two years ago, I planted a mock orange shrub in the backyard. It had tiny white flowers that smelled good enough to eat. I guess our neighborhood deer were of the same opinion, because they soon ate them all. As well as the leaves. And some of the branches. It’s only this year—probably through pure luck—that the deer have left the bush alone long enough for it to grow a couple of new (small) branches.
On the other hand, maybe they’ve been leaving it alone because they’ve been chomping on my newer plantings: the peach and English walnut trees I put in this past March. I was so thrilled with the way those bare-root sticks were finally leafing out. Since March, each of the English walnuts had developed two large, pinnate leaves stretching a full six inches above last year’s growth. I was already trying to imagine where I’d be in six years when they rained down their first harvest. And then one day I walked out to the front yard to admire them only to discover they’d been nibbled down almost to stubs. Only one of them had an entire compound leaf spared. My reaction? How on earth do saplings survive in the wild?
They have a fair number of different tactics, I imagine. The spiky leaves of holly trees, for instance, tend to discourage deer; ours have never been touched. (The berries, on the other hand, are made for eating, and I recently watched a swarm of cedar waxwings polish off every last berry hanging on the holly trees on either side of our front door.) And I’m sure some other trees have chemicals in their leaves that don’t taste good to deer. But it seems that a fair number of species are attractive to the deer palate. (I’ve seen the total number–trees and other plants–estimated at 600.) And I guess that’s as it should be. After all, herbivores do need to eat something. But how is it, then, that the tasty trees survive? And why can’t mine?
I think it comes down to a numbers game. Have you ever looked at a maple tree in spring and marveled at the number of seeds it was producing? Thousands upon thousands of samaras hanging from its branches. For a long time, I explained this seeming profligacy as a hedge against the fact that the tree couldn’t predict which of its seeds were going to land in just the right spot to grow into trees. It produced a lot of seeds in the hope that a few of them would get lucky. But now I think this doesn’t just have to do with the seeds’ finding a patch of fertile ground with enough light, water, and nutrients to support them. It also has to do with the fact that trees, even once they’re up and growing, very often get eaten! The parent tree, if it wants to see any of its babies make it to adulthood, has to make quite a lot of them.
We human beings, on the other hand, have taken a different evolutionary route. We don’t produce many offspring, but the ones we do produce, we guard ferociously. And so I guess it only makes sense that, when we set our minds to gardening, we do so in the same manner: “I’m going to plant this one peach tree, and I expect it to grow to be thirty feet tall.” If we were thinking like a tree, we wouldn’t spend $30 on a single sapling. No, we’d get our hands on a bucketful of seeds and go strewing them around a very wide area, accepting as a matter of course that some of our offspring were destined to help feed the local deer.
Well, I did spend about $30 apiece for my trees. So I’m not going to be so laissez-faire about their welfare. After I saw the deer damage, I immediately went to the shed for some chicken wire and made some tall, narrow cages to protect them. They seem to be working so far (except that I need something to hold them in place in a heavy wind). And my trees don’t seem to be complaining about being treated like human babies!