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Deer Proof

September 30, 2020

There were flowerbeds in cages, planters in cages, trees in cages from the sidewalk to the canopy, trunks imprisoned in thick chain-link. Even the flowers hanging from storefront eaves were protected in pendant cages.

And down the middle of the street walked the mule deer, large, scruffy-looking things browsing the grass in the median, heading toward the green hill at the top of the street, beyond the stores and cafés where tourists gathered. This was Waterton, in Alberta, Canada, just across the border from Montana’s Glacier National Park.

At Waterton Lakes, we stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel, a grand, enormous luxury hotel dating from the late 1920s. Its view of the mountains and Waterton Lake is astounding, the window off the grand parlor seeming five-stories high, polished clear as the lake’s waters. It was set high on a bluff, and the flower gardens were unmolested by the deer who seemed to prefer urban life.

We had tea in town, in a less-than-grand café, but it had a table open, so we took it. This was the first and only time I’d ever had a properly brewed pot of tea – the china pot warmed with hot water before the tea leaves were spooned into the bottom, more hot water, steaming, poured over, the tea steeped a perfect four minutes marked by the little timer the waitress left on our table.

Outside, were the deer, peering into the cages of unreachable foliage. I peered into the cages, too, and wondered at the persistence of human beings making beauty, planting flowers in tantalizing view of the browsing deer, but not yielding to their potential depredations. A downtown tourist town needs beauty, so they planted it however they could, and caged it.

A few years ago, white-tail deer invaded our neighborhood after nearby fields and woods were dug up, paved over, and luxury homes erected where the deer used to browse. Our neighborhood gardens became salad bars for deer, and only weeds remained. Showy hydrangeas, frothing pink azaleas, fragrant roses, stunning rhododendrons to rival those at Augusta have all been stripped bare. Families of deer wander the streets in broad daylight, ignoring the gentle beeps of automobile horns, sounded to urge the deer along.

I think of the caged town of Waterton, and wonder if I could be happy caging flowers, too. Can you buy a cage, or do you need to fashion it yourself? Where do you buy the supplies? What skill do you need to erect the enclosures? How do you get inside to tend the plants? I’d like to see the blossoms, enjoy the fullness of the flowering islands of shrubbery in the yard, taste a tomato from the vegetable bed. But that time has passed. A family of five deer now bed down in my former flowerbeds, each night curling up in shadowed crannies where the flowers used to be.

Is a caged garden like a caged bird? Does it sing? Does it have beauty to share? My first impression of Waterton’s cages was one of astonishment, amusement. Since then, I’ve found myself experimenting with what May’s Greenhouse assures me are deer-resistant plants, only to discover that deer-resistant means that those are the plants the deer save for last, after they’ve eaten the choicest greenery. My neighbor has planted cages, and her yard looks like a zoo for vegetation. But her flowers and shrubberies bloom, the vegetables ripen, unmolested by the four-footed invaders that pillage my property.

I have been tempted to pave over the flowerbeds, fill them with rocks, replace them with green sod, but part of me remains hopeful that next year will be different. It won’t, of course. The deer are people-resistant, and my yearning for a stunning garden may yet be tempered by companion plantings of chain-link cages.

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