Recall from my previous post that I’ve noticed deer will eat almost anything if they are hungry enough, or if the whim overtakes them. That being established, I’ve definitely noticed preferences among the deer that have regularly visited my five acres over the last quarter century.
Trees and Shrubs
Almost any tree or shrub that remains green in winter will be at least tasted by deer. Camellias will be devoured, along with gardenias. They’ve nibbled on my Leyland cypresses and my prickly hollies, although not seriously. Even the non-prickly hollies, such as inkberry, are usually mostly ignored. They have eaten the leaves off all the branches they can reach on my evergreen dogwood.
Non-native evergreen azaleas are eaten, especially if they are fertilized. The ones on my property were here when we moved in. I never feed them. The smaller-leaved ones are rarely nibbled. The larger-leaved ones must taste better. If you grow these in deer country, you must spray often. On the other hand, evergreen Southern Magnolias are never touched.
My biggest problem with young trees and shrubs is antler rubbing. Every fall, male deer rub the fuzz off their new-grown antlers by scraping them against young tree trunks and branches. In my yard, they favor trunks and branches with a diameter of 2-3 inches. Before I realized this was a problem, males girdled the trunks of several recently planted saplings. When you remove bark around the entire circumference of a tree (called girdling), the tree dies, because bark contains the conduits that ferry nutrients between roots and leaves. I’ve found two successful preventive methods:
- Wire cage barriers high enough to prevent deer from reaching the trunks.
Cages are ugly, serve as supports to unwelcome invaders such as Japanese Honeysuckle and Japanese Stiltgrass, and if you stop paying attention, the cages will eventually constrict branching, thereby contorting growth.
After trunk diameters exceed 4 inches and the trees/shrubs are growing well, I remove the cages. Often, the deer will at least nibble on the newly freed plants, but usually they survive without protection after this.
- Plastic tree wrap products that spiral around the trunk. These are usually sold to prevent rodent nibbling on fruit tree bark, but they work equally well for deterring antler abrasions.
The kind of wrap I use expands as the trunk grows. It is white, which helps protect young trunks from freeze/thaw cycles, which can split bark. However, it’s a good idea to remove the wrapping periodically to insure that bugs haven’t moved into the cozy space between trunk and wrapping. Again, as soon as the diameter of the trunk is beyond the favored size for antler rubbing, I remove the wrapping.
Note: Although spraying deer deterrent sprays does prevent nibbling of leaves, it does not deter male deer in a hormone-driven frenzy to de-fuzz their antlers on tree branches and trunks.
Shrubs the deer routinely eat if I don’t spray include Virginia Sweetspire. This lovely native must taste very good. My floodplain specimens are now large and wide enough that the deer can’t reach all the way across. Their shapes are strange, but I do get their lovely flowers and fall color every year now. Roses are a favorite food – prickly stems, leaves, and all. I only have a couple that other folks gave me. If I don’t spray, they are gone for the growing season. I’ve written about my Oakleaf Hydrangeas before. Well-timed spraying deters most of the damage most years.
Hostas are deer candy. Only plant them if you like feeding deer. If you are deeply in love with these non-native old-fashioned (in my opinion) southern landscape clichés, your only option is to barricade them or spray them year-round after every rain.
Daylilies are another popular perennial flower. Wonder Spouse became enamored with them and planted quite a few in our yard. It took the deer a few years to find them, but once they did, they began eating every flower bud off the tall flower scapes. And now that they know where the plants are, they and the bunnies graze on new leaf shoots in early spring before much is growing. The flowers are beautiful and widely diverse in color and form. I spray mine. If I forget after a rain, the flower buds are always eaten. The deer must cruise by and check them often.
Dahlias must not taste as good, but mine are nibbled if I don’t spray them early in the growing season.
Hellebores are poisonous, but in late winter new leaf growth is sometimes sampled by starving deer. I’ve never observed flower nibbling on these plants.
Native Purple Coneflower flowers are eaten if I don’t spray, but native Rudbeckia flowers are generally ignored. Native Eastern Columbines are a food of last resort in my yard. Occasionally, all the flowers are devoured. If I spray early in the season, the deer usually go elsewhere.
As I mentioned in the previous post, my native Mayapple stand is partially eaten every year. I’ve never observed any nibbling of my extensive stand of Bloodroots. Both of these wildflowers are poisonous. Native milkweed flowers are routinely eaten if I don’t spray, even though these plants are poisonous too. Lobelia flower stalks are occasionally eaten, but usually ignored. Tradescantia is snubbed.
Fern fiddleheads – the emerging new leaf buds in spring – are eaten. Deer have eaten those on my Christmas ferns, as well as my Royal and Cinnamon ferns. I spray them when they first start popping up, and that usually protects them. My native asters are never nibbled; I’m guessing that their spicy-scented leaves don’t taste good.
Deer don’t like herbs, probably because most are strongly resinous. Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, mints, oregano – all are ignored. All perennial and annual salvias are ignored, probably for the same reason. All have fragrant leaves and gorgeous flowers in an array of colors and forms. I grow a lot of salvias.
Anise hyssop is also ignored for the same reason – potently fragrant leaves.
Daffodils must be very poisonous, because they are always ignored. Crocuses are routinely eaten. Snowdrops are ignored. Lilies are eaten occasionally. Flowers and leaves on my dwarf crested irises are eaten if I don’t spray. New growth that emerges in late winter on my Louisiana irises is eaten to the ground. By the time they bloom, the flowers are usually ignored. However, the deer delight in eating the flower buds of my bearded irises if I forget to spray them.
I know this sounds like a lot of spraying, but most of you have much smaller gardens, which helps immensely. Also, I only must spray certain plants at certain times of the year when they are most likely to tempt deer. For me, it’s worth the unpleasant task of spraying a smelly deterrent to ensure I can enjoy my flowers. But I don’t plant new daylilies or iris in my yard anymore. I’ll protect what’s already here, but anything I plant now is either inside a deer fence or has a high likelihood of being mostly ignored by deer.
Unless the coyote pack I’m hearing nightly eliminates my deer predation problem, I’ll continue to practice these strategies. And, frankly, if I’ve got a choice between their eerie yipping and howling and predation of pets and wildlife or outwitting hungry deer, I think I’d rather battle the deer.
Either choice serves to remind me that gardening is an unpredictable hobby. Gardening involves a dynamic, ever-changing interplay between plants, animals, weather, and climate. Every day brings something new. To be sure, I am never bored. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.