Gulag Garden (Image)


It has been a long and discouraging ordeal–just having a simple vegetable garden in a remote place infested above ground by crows and deer, below by moles and shrews. And this, in a cold shady creek valley where the soil temp lags two weeks behind even average gardens in much of the county. Something has to change, and it isn’t likely to be to concede defeat and never eat a homegrown tomato ever again.

So we began last summer thinking about moving the garden OFF the septic field and closer to the house. In addition to getting more sun, there we could sink 10 foot posts 2 feet in the ground and build our Gulag Garden to replace the Deer Salad Park of the past few years–an ungulate-proof fortress that, while no guarantee of a good garden, at least will spare us from the heart-sickness of seeing early morning cloven hoofprints in the soft loam next to where the beans once almost grew.

It’s a very simple plan, really: the basic rectangle of garden 24′ x 32′ using 16′ cattle panels and a 8′ x 16′ rough pine enclosure, two 8×8 “rooms”–one open to the garden for everyday tools, the other open to outside the garden with a sliding lockable door for tiller, mower, garden cart, et cetera. (Image in the image is just for visual effect to go with my list of tools, it isn’t the shed we’re planning. Way too fancy.)

It will be a minor miracle if we can get this done for this year’s garden, especially given we’re going from sod to garden in a single bound. Be that as it may, we at least have the vision as I’ve begun to sketch away at it in January. I’ll probably say more about it as things move along. Or not.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. With respect to gardens, I’m in pretty much the same boat. We see several deer every day and there are plenty of groundhogs and raccoons around too. I guess I’ve been lucky with my combo electric/chicken wire fence. The deer could easily hop the three feet height, but curiosity about the chicken wire on the inside slows them down until they put a nose on the electric wire. I’ve seen them do this. Once they’re “trained”, they avoid the garden altogether, and I think they teach their young to stay away also. But as I said, I may have just been lucky. I did build a new garden last year, higher up on the hill, where it gets more sun, and they’ve stayed out of this one too. I must say I’ve felt well compensated for all the work that went into it by having sunnier, warmer, blight-free soil, that has produced great vegetables right up to the present time.

  2. Our deer learned after the third or fourth year to jump our four strand electric…and taught it to their mulitple offspring.

    Now the entire deer community is onto the trick and we must escalate. We needed more sun at any rate and should get that in the new (and only other possible) location. Lots of danged work for those “free” veggies. — FF

  3. Well, with the skyrocketing price of food, particularly organic food, you’ll probably still be coming out ahead.

    I must be blessed with stupider deer around here, because the chickenwire/electric fence has fooled ’em for 12 years! Knock on wood.

  4. Fred! Make a lasagne garden, quick quick! Get a bunch of manure and lay it about 2″ thick over the existing sod (right over the snow if you have snow). Then cover the whole thing with soaked cardboard or newspaper. Then leaves, then grass cuttings if you have any, then more manure, etc. Your entire set of layers should be about 1′ thick. Then wait till spring; you won’t have to turn the soil, just plant straight into it. You can at least save yourself that backbreaking step! Let the earthworms work for you!! (And build a real fence against the deer.)

    My battle against the pocket gophers is far from over but I’ve been pretty happy with the gopher baskets you plant your tomatoes in I got from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply…

  5. If you haven’t already, check out the retail location of Pine Creek Structures on Route 220 in Rocky Mount. You may be able to get a more competitive price than other shed retailers because their location is owned by the Amish family that builds the sheds. A very nice family runs it and we’ve bought a run-in shed and a potting shed from them. Phone: 877-743-3489

  6. I’m a big fan of 8′ plastic deer fencing. Ron at Seven Springs Farm right here in Floyd sells it and the 10′ posts are available several places in Floyd. It’s easy to put up, priced right and it really works! For years before I built the fence I fed the deer, now I don’t. Just use the larger mesh fencing, the smaller mesh catches snakes, no fun for you or the snakes. And I use that lasagna method, easy and effective. Good luck.

  7. Another note about deer fencing. It really is almost invisible. I just fenced two acres for my poodles with deer fence. I was a big worried about the gulag look but it’s not bad at all. And now I can think about growing fruit trees, impossible because of the deer before.

  8. hey, about the manure recipe, I just disc plowed a fallow garden spot and now need several truckloads of manure. I know this is a January entry, but does anyone have any leads?
    Also, Fred, what is the historic name of that store building on your masthead? (thanks)