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Garden Q&A: What’s this pumpkin spider on my branch, and should I worry about deer neighbors?

The business end (silk-spinning, that is) of a Marbled Orbweaver spider in a leaf shelter.

Q: Who do we have here? I noticed a bunch of leaves on a branch tip bundled together with silk and this jewel inside.

A: This is a marbled orbweaver spider. Since these colorful, often orange or rotund adults are commonly seen late in the season, they have also earned the nicknames “pumpkin spider” or “Halloween spider.”

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Instead of hanging out in their webs like some orbweavers, they retreat to a secluded shelter and wait for vibrations on their signal line to indicate the web has caught prey. Webs are dismantled and rebuilt or repaired overnight, and given the size they can attain, that’s a lot of hard work. Watch where you’re walking in the woods so you don’t make life more difficult for these ladies. Their time is almost up, unfortunately, but their egg sacs overwinter and hatch in spring. Self-perpetuating free pest control, what could be better?

Q: I’m new to the area and hear that deer sometimes visit our neighborhood yards. There’s patchy woods near us but no large stretches of park land. Are they really worth worrying about?

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A: In short, probably. We might not see them as often during the day, but they definitely visit or pass through at night. In some cases, they’re actually never very far from home gardens or the grounds of multifamily housing. Those that become bolder over time because of frequent human encounters may even brazenly browse the garden right in front of you.

A couple years ago I watched a buck nibbling crape myrtle foliage (which they supposedly don’t even like) right in front of a condo building, next to the sidewalk and parking lot. Just last week I mock-charged four deer from a front yard so they’d stop sampling a garden (of deer-resistant plants, by the way) who then moseyed a few feet away and just looked at me. I could all but hear the “really?” in that gaze. We are in their territory, after all, and what else is left to eat once our housing developments alter much of their habitat? There’s a fair number of unpalatable invasives in those woods and meadows.

This proximity doesn’t just endanger the native plants and other species we grow in our gardens. It can potentially increase our exposure to ticks and the diseases they transmit — one good reason not to have trick-or-treaters cut across yards or take shortcuts though natural areas. (You think they’re done for the season? Not black-legged ticks. Happy Halloween.)

Recently published University of Maryland and USDA research found that “deer in suburban environments often bed down and spend the night within 50 meters of residential properties.” You know the saying (which is a myth, by the way) that “you’re always within three feet of a spider?” Well in this case, suburban residents actually might always be within 160-odd feet of one or more deer.

You don’t need to restrict yourself to only growing species they don’t like (not that that’s foolproof anyway), nor do you need an eight-foot fence (except for vegetable gardens), but do keep deer in mind if flower buds go missing or growth disappears. Your unpruned azalea grew well last year but didn’t bloom in spring? The bottom few feet of that arborvitae is slimmer than the top? Sounds like nibbling. A tick check after gardening is also a prudent idea; not a lot of time to invest to prevent a lot of headache later.

For a summary of the research, visit the Maryland Today article “Deer Neighbors Live Closer Than You Think.”

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.


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