The Deer Fence: A Sculptor’s Alternative

At our house, the back is a small world with a climbing tree for the boys, a garden, and a yard defined by mismatched fencing in various stages of repair. Beyond lies swampy woods. 

It’s my husband’s garden that occupies the heart of our backyard world — not unobtrusively tucked away or off to the side, not removed like in the way-back, but right there. Right there when you drive up the driveway, right there when you walk down the walk; it definitely scored prime real estate. 

Yet even close as it is and under the watchful eye of my husband, the garden needs a certain level of protection. A certain high level of protection. I know this because one spring some years ago we returned from a rare trip away from East Hampton and deer had completely and totally ravaged the garden. My husband was despondent in the deep and wide way produced only by loss. He’d raised the plants from tiny seeds that he’d started inside on a sunny windowsill. He suffered loss of a part of his being through loss of something he’d helped come to be.

That was when we put up the deer fence.

But since the back is really in our laps, and the garden is central at that, the idea of cordoning the garden off presented a problem. For me, any cordoning with that go-to, eight-foot high, steel, or sometimes plastic deer fencing would feel, actually, like a terrible encroachment. Like it was actually me that was being fenced. This is a strange thing about fencing in general. If it’s right, it feels like security. If it’s wrong, it doesn’t really depend on which side you’re on — the fence is a reversible trap. It would be strange to have a fence that the kids would have to be told not to climb. They are kids of the fence-climbing kind, and I wouldn’t like an off-limits one at the center of their backyard world. Even though the garden is my husband’s, and its protection must be mainly his domain, I claimed veto power. No fencing that creates outsiders within and without.

And so the garden has become a place within a place. After research and discussion, we went with the double fence philosophy. It’s less of a barrier method and more of a suggestive, psychological approach. The deer have a choice. To jump or not to jump. They would rather not jump into a double fenced area and become trapped.

I feel the same way.

This is the result: The garden is surrounded by a nice four-foot-high picket fence. A double fence is created by lengths of 2x2 board supported on each end by 4x4s; these are set about four feet apart from the picket fence, and are used as supports and trellising for various crops. On the east side, the house runs parallel to the picket fence with a corridor of about seven feet in between — flower beds line a walkway to the back door. A small garden shed is on the fence line of the garden on the west side, providing some height and acting as a tall, wide, deer jumping obstacle. At the garden gates (there are two, one at each end), there are seven-foot-tall arbor-like structures that are about four feet deep and also keep the deer from jumping. On the arbors we had intended to grow kiwi, a vine like the ones my husband’s grandmother grew in Japan, but we’ve not gotten around to that. The arbors, however, make great jungle gyms for the kids, who have developed a series of tricks and flips on them. So the no-climb deer fence became an okay-fine-swing-on-it jungle gym. Much better in terms of the soaring incidents of “No” from me when it comes to testing the limits around here.

After the new fence was installed, the deer stopped coming. Naturally prone to conditional thinking, I secretly believed that the fence construction was actually working in consort with our two dogs Chi-Chi and Yama, who were big, and barkers. But Yama died a year and a half ago and Chi-Chi followed three months later of a broken heart, and much as I miss the dogs it turns out that deer deterring was not among their many jobs: The deer fence holds. It works. It works beautifully. Except, naturally, when someone leaves a gate open. Then, the garden becomes the pleasant picket fence room of a five star deer restaurant.

But I suppose if your fence has a gate — and all fences probably should, metaphorical or otherwise — that gate is bound to open to a less than totally welcome guest every once in a while.