How to live (peacefully) with deer in a mountain oasis

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — Leroy and Sally Hall found their slice of paradise on a steep parcel in the Sierra foothills. They love it — and so do the deer.

Avid gardeners in their 70s, the Halls turned an acre of weeds outside their back door into a stunning forest garden, brimming with azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas and other shade-loving shrubs. In the front of their property, they created a series of enchanting garden rooms, walled by shrubs and linked by a meandering path.

In every direction, there’s something in bloom and beautiful to see. That’s just what they had in mind.

“They called this tract ‘Buena Vista’ — ‘Good View’ — on the old (maps), so that’s what we call our place,” Leroy said. “Everything you see here we did ourselves. Except for some of the big trees, we planted every plant and moved every rock. We did it all.”

Somehow, the Halls and the animals live in harmony. The deer graze in the forest surrounding the Halls’ main garden, bypassing hundreds of flowering plants that must look like a colorful all-you-can-eat buffet. The Halls enjoy the free wildlife show.

“We have five to a dozen deer hanging out here all the time,” Leroy said. “If we leave the gate open, they’ll walk right in. It’s amazing how smart they are; I tell them to leave and they go back through the gate.”

Married 52 years, the Halls work together in their garden every day. They’re continually adding and refining their forest oasis.

“I love the lupine-columbine combination,” Sally said. “Leroy’s favorite is the roses. We both love flowers. Just about everything we grow has a flower on it.”

When they first bought their Grass Valley property 25 years ago, it looked not so good. Their home had been an abandoned chicken ranch with five huge, dilapidated barns. Weeds and vines covered much of their 37 acres.

“We had two rose bushes growing near the front door and we didn’t even know it,” Leroy said. “They were so buried by overgrowth. … The place was completely neglected. You would have a hard time walking through the forest; the woods were so thick with trees and weeds. Cedars were everywhere.”

Now, the Halls have dozens of rose bushes blooming in a square of sun where a few large trees once stood. A windstorm wiped out some oaks and firs, opening a hole in their forest shade. Another sunny spot is reserved for vegetables.

“All that chicken manure (from the old ranch) did have its benefits,” Leroy said.

Thousands of daffodils cover a slope in their own version of Daffodil Hill. The difference in their golden bulb beds? There’s silver in there, too.

More specifically, there’s silverware – butter knives, forks and spoons poked into the ground as plant and bulb markers.

“Leroy’s mother collected silverware,” Sally explained. “After she died, he inherited thousands of pieces.”

“We didn’t know what to do with it all,” Leroy added. “So, we started using old spoons and knives to mark where the bulbs and perennials are planted.”

In pastel pinks and purples, an enchanting mix of columbines, lupines and foxgloves bloom in pockets of sun underneath Japanese maples. A rainbow-hued belt of bearded irises — something deer won’t eat — rings the outside fence. Brightly colored peonies flower in dappled shade among rows of white firs.

“The former owners used to have a Christmas tree business,” Sally explained. “So, a lot of our trees grow in rows.”

By Leroy’s count, more than a hundred varieties of flowering shrubs and perennials are part of their garden. “Some of the columbines, trilliums, hellebores and Oregon grape are native to this property,” he added.

A retired contractor, Leroy tackles projects with a can-do attitude. He turned an unused swimming pool into a sunken patio that doubles as a rain-catching reservoir. He built rock walls and paths from hundreds of stones found on the property. As a birthday gift to Sally, he created an observation deck 20 feet above ground.

“It’s like you’re in the trees,” Sally said. “We come out here and watch the deer come and go. They never look up – they have no predators from above – so they never see us. This morning, we watched a little fox come through the garden. Of course, there are loads of squirrels. We had a bear and lots of racoons. It’s so much fun.”

Up with the birds, they see plenty of feathered friends, too. Dozens of hummingbirds buzz from flower to flower while songbirds frequent several feeders strung on trees. Adding to the chirping are two dozen tame canaries and finches that live in their own patio aviary.

“They’re happy here,” Sally said of her canaries, “and they just love to sing.”

As for the deer, the Halls initially tried to fight them. A 7-foot fence surrounds the main garden.

“Nothing is really deer-proof,” Leroy said. “If they get hungry enough, they’ll eat anything.”

But as the years went by and the garden grew, the Halls realized the deer could compromise. The couple let the bucks and does hang out in the shade of the one remaining chicken barn, where the animals can escape the summer sun. The deer also frequent a pond on the property and seem content to respect the fence. They don’t get a chance to eat the roses.

“They’re not tame but they’re sure not scared,” Leroy said. “We live with each other. This way, we’re all happy.”