Gardening brings me great joy; doing it at the cottage makes it all that more special, surrounded by the great beauty of the lake and all that it brings. This is a joy that is met with its own special challenges at our little piece of heaven on Coney Island at Lake of the Woods. Two of the biggest challenges, I find, are growing plants in the sandy, rocky soil conditions in this part of the country, while protecting the plants from wildlife– especially the deer.
Dealing with the Sand
The soil at the lake is unique in that it primarily consists of sand amidst very rocky terrain. Planting in these conditions can be a challenge, especially if you’re used to gardening in the heavy clay soils found in the city. On the positive side, sandy, rocky soils provide good drainage and warm up quickly in the spring, giving the plants a head start. On the downside, the soil dries out quickly, is typically low in nutrients and can be quite acidic in places. Having a rocky soil can also make it harder for certain plants to take root. To combat these negative aspects, amending the soil becomes necessary. Good amendments include compost, peat moss, grass clippings, vermiculite and manure.
Rocks in the Garden
While adding large rocks to a landscape can be considered desirable, they can become quite the nuisance when they are found naturally just below the soil surface. I am forever finding and pulling little broken bits of slate or shale that have broken off a larger slab. I built a wire mesh sieve with a frame larger than my wheelbarrow to remove some of the stones, but this is a very painstaking process. I must also be careful when digging with a shovel or using a tiller so as not to hurt myself or damage my tools.
It is important to remember that rocks can create microclimates that may either help or hinder plant
growth. It all depends on what is being planted. If, for example, vegetables are the desired crop, it might be wise to plant in raised beds or containers. However, in my opinion, choosing plants to suit your location is the best strategy. Taking the above conditions into consideration when planning a garden at the lake, I chose plants that like acidic sandy soils, like alpine plants that are well suited to rock gardens.
Plants for Sandy Soils
There are many types of plants that will grow at Lake of the Woods. I started by collecting native plants I found growing on the island and transplanting them into my rock garden. Next, I started introducing plants from my garden in Winnipeg, always observing what grows well and what the deer won't eat and what will grow in the sandy soil. Some of the plants that I have growing at the cottage are: aster, artemisia, bachelor buttons, blackeyed Susan, chives, coneflower, columbine, daisy, daylily, devil’s paintbrush, giant mullein, hens and chicks, lady’s mantle, lambs’ ears, lamium, lavender, lupine, monarda, moss phlox, oregano, peony, portulaca, purslane, sedum, soapwort, sweet William, sage, sedum, tansy, thyme, tiger lily, Veronica, and yarrow.
Dealing with Deer in the Garden
To discourage deer from grazing on your tasty floral buffet, here are a few tips to consider. Firstly, deer do not like fuzzy, hairy or prickly foliage. If you can feel the small hairs on the leaves, whether soft or bristly, chances are so will the deer, and that makes for a good plant choice for the garden. Deer don't like these textures against their tongues. Examples of such plants include globe thistle and sea hollies and moss phlox, pulmonaria, lamb's ears and verbascum. Secondly, deer tend to avoid plants with leathery or fibrous foliage as it is too hard to chew and digest. Plants in this group include iris, peony, begonia, bergenia and some viburnums.
Thirdly, heavily scented foliage will also deter the deer, as they are like us and eat with their nose first. If something smells off to them, they move along. Aromatic foliage tends to confuse Bambi’s sense of smell and discourages them from feeding. Many flowering herbs do well because of their fragrance. Plants with unpleasant odours such as tansy and oxeye daisy are also good planting choices; however, care must be taken when planting them close to areas where people may linger, such as decks or patios.
Fourthly, toxic foliage is a must-have for the deerresistant garden. Plants such as ferns, bleeding hearts, daffodils, monkshood, spurges and poppies all contain compounds that upset a deer’s stomach and thereby make them intolerable. However, use caution with these types of plants as they are also toxic to humans and pets. And lastly, deer much prefer to eat flowers over grasses and woody shoots. They can't survive on grass alone and will only consume young grass as a last resort. Therefore, ornamental grasses are a great choice for deer-proof gardens.
Besides plant choices, there are also other means to deter deer and other animals, such as bears and racoons, from the cottage garden. Planting in pots and contain-
ers on docks or decks is one such method as deer will not walk on these surfaces or climb stairs. Fencing can also be effective, providing it is tall enough (at least eight feet) or solid, such as a stockade fence that deer can’t see through. Fencing off individual plants and electric fences can also work.
Next, animals can be kept out of the garden through scare tactics. There are various products on the market that achieve this, such as devices that emit ultrasonic sounds, or motion-activated sprinklers. Several cottagers on the island use these with great success, as well as the giant scarecrow eye. Many of these solar sprinklers are powered. Lastly, there are repellents. There are different products available at the local garden centre and natural remedies that can be found online. Some of these are:
Coyote urine granules. Sprinkled on the soil, the smell can keep deer away.
Blood meal. Applied to the soil, this can be a deterrent for animals and a fertilizer for plants. A mixture of five parts blood meal to one part cayenne pepper would be sprinkled on the soil. Blood meal placed in a stocking and tied to a stake and kept moist can also deter deer.
Irish Spring soap. The strong scent can repel deer if hung from mesh bags near plants or in stockings.
Foliar sprays. Option one – mix four ounces of peppermint oil with four ounces of lavender oil and jojoba oil and 40 ounces of water. Spray on plants. Option two – mix garlic powder, red pepper flakes, eggs and dawn soap and apply to plant leaves. (Please note that it may be necessary to re-apply after watering or rainfall.)
What to feed the birds and how to keep the bears away from the garden
The town of Kenora and Lake of the Woods have strict bylaws about feeding the wildlife. Birdseed is the only thing recommended for feeding because bears are such a problem. Cottagers deal with occasional feeder pests, from mice and squirrels to raccoons. Bears, on the other hand, are more than just a pest.
A bear’s diet consists of plant material, seeds, fruits, and grains, making birdseed and feeds ideal for a quick snack. Bears have a very good sense of smell and can detect even the smallest amounts of food. Certain precautions must be taken to insure your safety and theirs. Bears are most attracted to suet, therefore it is not permitted in the Lake of the Woods area. Nyjer seed or safflower seed is bitter-tasting and bears do not enjoy these, but the birds do. Adding liberal amounts of red pepper flakes to the birdseed mix can also discourage bears. They don't like the hot flavour. Sprinkling cayenne pepper over the ground or using vinegar or ammonia on the area around the feeder can also help deter bears. We personally don’t feed wild songbirds, just the hummingbirds.
Choose feeders made from solid metal or tube feeders surrounded by a cage. Always store your seed properly in airtight secure containers which bears cannot access. There are other ways to encourage backyard birding at the lake, including putting up nesting boxes, birdhouses and birdbaths.
Once a bear discovers you have a feeder, he will keep returning for the delicious buffet you are providing him. If you do decide to put up feeders, they should be over six feet off the ground. Ideally you should use 10 to 12 foot metal poles and these should be securely mounted in the ground at least four feet deep so that they cannot be knocked over.
Feeders must be kept clean, with seed cloth underneath or trays to catch the seed. If bears become a serious problem, remove feeders from April till October. If possible, set up cameras to monitor the bear and learn its habits. Automatic sprinklers at night or lights on motion sensors will also help scare them off.
From sparse soil and rocky ground, to having a cottage on an island, to the abundance of wildlife in the area, the gardener faces many challenges when planning a garden in Lake of the Woods cottage country. However, the rewards are also great.
With hard work and determination, it is indeed possible to have a little piece of heaven in one of the most beautiful regions of Canada.
Tansy can get away from the gardener, but it smells heavenly.
Lupine, which grows wild in the Canadian Shield.
Smooth aster is another tough native.
Deer can be a problem, but there are plants they don't particularly care for.
Monkshood is poisonous to deer.
Deer tend to dislike the texture of lambs' ear.
Deer tend to avoid plants with fibrous foliage like begonias.
Deer typically avoid most ornamental grasses and ferns.