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Deer Herd Got Your Tomato Vine? This Gardener Has Some Sage Advice

Matthew Hersh

The garden of earthly delights is, it turns out, right in the middle of a quiet residential portion of Princeton Borough.

And get this: wanton deer looking for a quick bite are repelled by the garden. They sniff, they may even prod, but there is at least one garden in Princeton that could be immune to town's still sizeable deer population.

"It's not an organized garden – and part of the chaos is the protection," said Dorothy Mullen, a Wilton Street resident who maintains a large garden on her property at the corner of Wilton and Patton Avenue that is shared by the entire neighborhood.

She fends off deer predators, not through "contraptions," "chemicals," or "all-natural cougar urine," but through the use of medicinal plantings on the periphery of the garden. Generally, Ms. Mullen said, deer will pass by plants that are "spiny, fuzzy, and smelly" and unappetizing. In short, Ms. Mullen has some sage advice for all her fellow gardeners.

"Deer hate simple culinary basil, so we plant it all around the garden," she said, adding that mints, lavenders, garlic, chives, monarda, cleomes, and some rudebeckias are also successful in staving off the deer population, that, while a problem largely associated with the Township, has recently become identified with the Borough.

Initiatives like Ms. Mullen's offer Borough residents a way to take back their gardens without having to resort to a public safety-based deer-culling program like the Township's – and her plan has been working for the better part of five years.

In 2000, shortly after she purchased her property, Ms. Mullen cleared away what had been a dense forest of hemlock, replacing it with what has turned into a thriving garden that her neighbors have enjoyed as well.

"Last year, I would stop by here and snitch a handful of herbs," said resident Charlotte Lawson, who was encouraged to help herself to herbs – participating in a pruning process necessary to the growth of any garden.

"This is such a warm, friendly gesture," she said, as she made off with some ripe tomatoes.

"This happens all the time," Ms. Mullen said, adding that she has met a large contingent of her neighborhood through such chance encounters.

Besides, she added, she would rather have humans chomping basil leaves than deer uprooting the entire plant. When she first started the garden, Ms. Mullen said sunflowers, tomatoes, and green beans all would disappear in the early dawn hours when deer most frequently go looking for food. So, while some parts of the garden where the more vulnerable plantings lie are still surrounded by netting, the natural buffer of deer-repellent plantings supplies a certain level of protection.

"If you think of it in terms of damage reduction rather than having a perfect garden, that's the right attitude: I don't kill bugs, I don't trap rabbits, I don't do anything except companion plant. "All life has value in the garden, and it's all next year's fertilizer."

Ms. Mullen puts her philosophy to use just a few blocks away at the Riverside Elementary School, where she teaches her instructional organic gardening K-5 classes. At the gardens she maintains at Riverside, she keeps rosebuds – a delicacy for wildlife – protected with a four-foot border of mint and tansy.

Of course, in addition to fending off pests, Ms. Mullen's garden is an exercise in self-sustainability. Organic gardening in the community, she said, benefits just about anyone who experiences it.

"It's like a living laboratory, and yes, it functions as a resource in the community." In fact, she keeps signs posted indicating that she will accept compost from neighbors including anything from egg shells to coffee grinds.

"The neighbors get into the spirit and make the contribution."



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