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Emails to my Therapist

The Tough Life Lesson My Garden Is Trying To Teach Me

Dear Nicholas, I am a very discouraged gardener. I feel defeated. Since last winter I’ve been letting nature take over. But I want to recover and get back out into action.  The reason I’ve stayed inside reading even on pretty days is that I’m tired of feeding deer, rabbits and voles.  This past year they ate more of our plants than ever before, wiped out whole bushes and entire beds, ravaged the periwinkle ground cover.

Solomon’s seal, leaves chewed

I need to learn to keep going, undeterred, in spite of losses that keep happening.

As it happens, this is an important and tough life lesson, especially for anyone of advancing years. #keepingon

A couple of years ago when a huge bed of lavender mums was cut down to three stems, I said to myself: Peggy, the Polish rebuilt Warsaw after World War II. You can replant a bed of mums.  But I haven’t.  Instead, I planted a shrub too big to eat. At least that time I didn’t give up.

Summer 2021, Black-eyed Susans

Putting Plants Behind Bars

I know a woman who gardens in a woodland location much like mine. She built a chain link fence maybe ten feet high around her house. She said it was either build the fence or give up. Her home looks like a little prison camp in the woods.

Recently I visited another rural house that had a beautiful flower garden in front. What? I said. No deer? Turns out a neighbor family hunts the land when they’re not at home, has been doing so for three generations.

Summer 2022. Same spot, weeds, not one Susan

I don’t want a fence. I don’t want to kill the lovely deer. And I don’t want to have given up gardening. Anti-deer spray, chimes, and dangling pie pans only go so far to solve the problem. Our dogs, who will bark at guests, seem uninterested in other mammals. Nothing stops our  voles. And so, #ohdeer,  depredation….


Such Wasteful Creatures

It grieves me even more when the creatures tear up plants they don’t like and won’t eat. They hate basil because the taste is so strong. So I find the plants shredded into a wide pile of leaves.

But Most of the Plants Live On

One important fact: there are always plants left undamaged. And this past spring, the flowers were glorious in spite of my neglect.  But I don’t want to leave them to flourish on their own; that wouldn’t last long. I want to get the gardening spirit back.

Bottom Line

So I’ve got to learn to keep caring about plants that are likely going to be destroyed. Hard to get excited about this. But it’s an important life skill: to know the losses will keep coming and keep on planting and watering.






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  • Brent Bill
    September 1, 2022 at 2:16 pm Reply

    Good stuff, as always. The joy of rural gardening. Our daughter (who lives next to our farm) battles the deer, raccoons, et al constantly with live traps (for little critters) and pie pans, etc. She wants a pretty fence. I remind her it’s the country. And so our gardens are not as pristine as hers. Their edges are ragged and wild. But I see the three young bucks who feed on our pawpaws, the wild turkeys and their littles who wander through looking for yummy bugs and tender leaves, and all sorts of good things. And right, in this stage of life, that feeds my soul more than pristine.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 3:39 pm Reply

      You have a good attitude, Brent. And I could focus more on the wildlife. But my patch is so far from pristine that it’s not entirely recognizable as a garden. I do think I’m moving a bit toward getting out there again, though. Writing these missives always helps me with whatever I’m carrying on about.Writing them and talking about them here.

  • Mary Ellen Scheidt
    September 1, 2022 at 2:23 pm Reply

    Oh I can relate to this. I’m in the city but have a nice little landscaped yard I love. The bunnies, as adorable as they are, eat some of my plants. It’s discouraging, but I have learned what they do not eat and replace with those, where I can…Deers would be another story. I think they all have lost so much natural habitat and miles of it, that they have come closer to civilization, so it’s not their fault and I don’t resent them in the least. They have no choice.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 3:35 pm Reply

      I don’t want to kill the deer, Mary Ellen. But I do resent their mowing down so much of what I’ve planted when there’s a wealth of nice weeds available. And we have herds of deer, passing by the window in loose groups. They are beautiful. I just wish I could feed them pet food and they’d leave the Black-eye Susans alone. I’m glad they’re not bothering your yard.

  • kenju
    September 1, 2022 at 3:59 pm Reply

    I had togive up gardening when I became unable to bend, stoop and kneel. I unapologetically allow the plants and weeds to thrive or die – with no help from me. Luckily where we live now has lawn people, and they do prune the bushes, and keep the grass trimmed. They are less careful about edging, but it is so hot out that I have to cut them some slack.

    Where we used to live, we had so many wild animals – deer, fox, opossum, bunnies, etc. that any flower that dared to bloom outside our fence was eaten as soon as it opened. I tried to replant things they didn’t like to eat, but even marigolds took their favor when all else was gone. I gave up and now I let nature take its course.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 4:05 pm Reply

      Marigolds! That’s a possibility. I already have a lot of hellebore, which the animals avoid. Cutting yourself and the lawn people some slack sounds like a really good strategy, kenju.

  • September 1, 2022 at 4:41 pm Reply

    WS Merwin said that even if the world was going to end tomorrow he would still plant a tree.
    That said, great and huge posses of deer have cut our back yard down to the bone. I worry about how the trees are being affected by all this destruction. I keep thinking about a fence but the realiies involved knock me back. I am sitting with it.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 6:17 pm Reply

      Deer fences have to be very tall. I do believe deer can fly. Have thought about writing a novel about deer that fly and small people who ride them. (Maybe the heat and the herds are affecting my brain.) Maybe Merwin was hoping there would be a miracle and the world would not end, after all. Otherwise, the advantage of planting the tree would be, what? A satisfying last experience of intimate contact with earth? On such a day, I might just sit and look at the trees–or the ocean–with those I could gather of my people. You’ve stirred my thinking, as usual. Thank you, Amey!

  • September 1, 2022 at 7:00 pm Reply

    And thank you —- you stir my thinking as well! A friend and I were talking today about going to beautiful places amid the pain of their fragility —- she is a scuba diver. So that’s what the Merwin quote means to me: just carrying on loving and being part of the world as long and as well as you can.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 7:43 pm Reply

      I like this interpretations, Amey. It’s what we need to do.

  • Nancy Smith Marks
    September 1, 2022 at 7:34 pm Reply

    Wht a speciallife plan — Love and prayers —

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 7:42 pm Reply

      Thanks, Nancy!

  • September 1, 2022 at 7:54 pm Reply

    Most gardening is too much like work for me, so I’m pretty sporadic and low key about it. And I can enjoy the fruits of the long hard work you’ve put in and will again I bet. When you ask, I’ll help some with some things out there. I do love to see your flowers out there and in the house.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 7:56 pm Reply

      Thanks, Bob. You’re encouraging. I do mean to deal with this and get back out there. Once I get going, it’ll likely be easier.

  • Gail Chesdon
    September 1, 2022 at 11:26 pm Reply

    The deer ate the almost blissing phlox. Ate them down to five inches or so. My heart cried out. The lovely stalks of pink, deep pink, and white resided in some deer’s belly. I was crushed.
    I left my phlox alone except for cutting off the stems down to the next layer of leaves. I whined to anyone who’d listen. Then one morning I noticed new buds. Sure enough a few days later tiny blossoms appeared. Nowhere near the beauty of what the earlier blooms would have been. More like dots on green stalks. But I rejoiced. A bit of color restored to my life and all was well. I quit comparing present and what might have been. I simply thanked the blooms and my neighbor who quit putting out corn for the deer. I was no longer on the buffet line.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 1, 2022 at 11:44 pm Reply

      You and everybody else commenting has a much more balanced and benevolent view of all this, Gail. I’m trying to catch up.

  • Lee Grohse
    September 2, 2022 at 12:38 am Reply

    I’ve seen some pictures of thing you grew that were just lovely. I’m in town, so do not have problems with deer, and my dogs are terriers with quite high prey drive so they’ve largely controlled rabbits, raccoons, voles and smaller animals. So I can’t blame the wild things for gardening shortcomings. It’s clearly neglect. I am cursed and blessed with a tendency to be fickle and lazy. Somehow over time I got ok with that. I love the early spring and summer show of flowers and thoroughly enjoy digging in the dirt and the sporadic efforts I put in during that time of year. But I quickly lose interest and am not going to discipline myself to do the work needed to maintain this through our long, hot summers. So I give myself permission to enjoy what my yard will give me based on my slipshod care. I have some wonderfully beautiful peonies. About half the perennials I have planted are surviving and lovely. I have a few gorgeous rhododendrons and a lot of sorry looking played out azaleas, big luscious hostas and brown, dried out ferns. Birds got all my blueberries, but I like birds better than blueberries and the bushes still gave me some pleasure when they were growing. At some lucky point it sunk in that if I just do what I want, the world and my garden will give me plenty of delightful things to enjoy even if I’m miles away from anything that’ll get me a magazine spread, a garden tour, or most people’s admiration. Hope you can find the balance between work and giving up on your garden that provides enough pleasure. And don’t forget that not everyone gets to have fawns around to feed.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 2, 2022 at 2:01 am Reply

      Here’s the part I’m going to hang onto, Lee: “At some lucky point it sunk in that if I just do what I want, the world and my garden will give me plenty of delightful things to enjoy even if I’m miles away from anything that’ll get me a magazine spread, a garden tour, or most people’s admiration.” This is wonderful. And I’m at best a slapdash gardener, far more forgiving of myself than I am of the wildlife. I plan to get out there again this weekend and just enjoy the process, in spite of my own hit-or-miss methods and the deer who think, with some justification, that they own the place.

  • alcooke
    September 2, 2022 at 10:22 am Reply

    “Know the losses will keep coming and keep planting…”. Your last paragraph echoes something i used to tell people who had to ask: gardening is more about an activity than about aproduc or result

    • Peggy Payne
      September 2, 2022 at 12:51 pm Reply

      Very wise, Al! And well-said.

    • September 6, 2022 at 4:14 am Reply

      LIKE !

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