Posts Tagged deer predation
As soon as bow-hunting season began a few weeks ago, I noticed that I was startling lounging deer from various overgrown spots in my landscape. I’d be walking along when, suddenly, a deer I hadn’t noticed no more than a few feet from me would jump up and bound away.
I saw almost no evidence of deer from summer through early fall. We had so much rain this year that all the native vegetation remained greenly lush throughout the growing season. I suspect most of my local deer opted to remain in the floodplain forest on the other side of my creek, rather than dine on my landscape.
Over the years, Wonder Spouse and I have used deer fencing to protect areas we consider to be likely deer targets. Our vegetable garden is well protected, and so is about an acre on the north side, where native magnolias, azaleas, viburnums, and other beauties flourish unmolested.
Adding deer fencing changed the trails deer used to traverse — and dine upon — our property, so much so that beds with vulnerable plants in my front garden are largely ignored, as long as I spray them with deer repellant once early in the growing season when new shoots prove too tempting for the hoofed marauders to ignore.
When I noticed that deer were spending most of their time in my yard, I meant to go out and spray my vulnerable plants. But Life’s complications distracted me, and I convinced myself that it wasn’t a priority. After all, the deer had ignored my beauties all summer. Why would they eat them now, when their leaves were fading toward winter anyway? Who was I kidding? Deer don’t negotiate, and they don’t reason. Their focus is survival. So they used my yard as a hideout from hunters, and dined on whatever was handy.
When I returned home at an unusual hour a day or two ago, one was sleeping in my front garden — not five feet from my front door, and right next to my beautiful oakleaf hydrangeas. I didn’t have time to spray the shrubs then, and they paid the price.
Abundant rains this fall kept my variegated hydrangeas that grow near the oakleafs especially lush. The deer ate nearly every leaf on both bushes, leaving petiole stubs adorning the sides of branches. The deer were a bit more covert with the oakleaf hydrangeas, which they nibbled enthusiastically on the side farthest from my house, where I’d be less likely to see them, and where they could make quick getaways if startled.
After I cussed a blue streak upon seeing my denuded variegated hydrangeas, I walked around the front garden more carefully, looking at plants I know to be favored by the deer clan. Of course, the few evergreen azaleas in my landscape had been nibbled. They are deer candy, and I haven’t planted any for over two decades.
Most falls in my garden are very dry, so the daylilies retreat into the earth for another season. But the abundant rains this fall caused all the daylilies to push out fresh green growth — growth I hadn’t noticed, but the hoofed ones did.
When I saw the mangled variegated hydrangeas, I knew the truce I thought I had negotiated with my neighborhood deer was a delusion of my overactive imagination. I then undertook a careful survey of my yard to see what else had fallen victim to the voracious appetites of deer.
- The oakleaf hydrangeas were mostly eaten on one side. Enough leaves still remain for the late autumn color show they are famous for.
- Evergreen azaleas have been nibbled, but not devoured.
- Daylilies were nibbled, but they will live to sprout another day.
- The evergreen Kousa dogwood was another popular hangout while Wonder Spouse and I were away. We startled a deer sleeping beneath this tree early one evening. Some years in late winter if I’m not paying attention, the deer will eat every leaf of this tree they can reach. It is unusual for them to start nibbling on it this early.
If the deer had stopped here, I might not have even mentioned this latest intrusion. But when I was inspecting my evergreen Kousa dogwood, I realized that the beautiful little Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ that was thriving near it had been almost completely annihilated. That’s when I really got mad.
This is buck damage. They remove the fuzz off their antlers by obsessively rubbing them against branches of a certain diameter and orientation. Apparently, my once-beautiful little ornamental magnolia was ideally configured for them. Ripped branches littered the ground, clearly uneaten. The bark of the central leader branch was shredded completely.
This tree is an offshoot that rooted from my original Royal Star magnolia — a 25-foot tall specimen nestled beneath tall loblolly pines. Out of curiosity, I inspected it after I saw what they did to the baby. A few lower branches had in fact been pulled off in a way that resembled the damage to the little tree. But the big one is so fully branched and large, I think the buck abusing it got frustrated and moved on.
After I finished cussing, I got out the deer repellant I keep in our garage. I’ve had best success with Liquid Fence. I sprayed it on anything that had been eaten or that I thought might be eaten. Then I sprayed it on a few plants that hadn’t been eaten but that I thought might serve as a stinky territorial message to the hoofed marauders: KEEP OFF! I even sprayed it on their little piles of excrement, hoping that by covering over their scent with the stink of the repellent they would be repelled.
That was yesterday. Today I walked the yard again seeking evidence of further damage and/or fresh deer tracks. I found neither. If you get close to the oakleaf hydrangeas, you can still smell the stink of the repellant. I think I coated every remaining leaf. Whatever it takes. I want that beautiful deep garnet late autumn leaf color!
Deer don’t negotiate, but they will take the path of least resistance. Now, while their haunts on the other side of the creek are still green thanks to autumn rains, they can find food. They must watch for hunters, but they can eat. For now, the lure of fresh green food untainted by repellant sprays will keep them mostly on the other side of the creek.
But when late winter ices over the stream and turns every leaf brown and tasteless, they’ll be back. And I’ll be waiting, ready to protect any green lovely rash enough to brave the chill for an early start on spring. Deer don’t negotiate, so I won’t either.
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.
I know, they are cute, especially the speckled fawns as they frolic on my floodplain while their mothers graze nearby. But we all know how much of a challenge gardening in the southeastern piedmont region has become as our deer population has grown exponentially. When I find a treasured young tree with its bark shredded and branches broken beyond repair because a buck used it to rub the fuzz off his antlers, I admit that I am moved to contemplate Bambi-cide. Instead, I’ve spent the last quarter century devising gardening work-arounds for my five acres of green chaos. This is what I have learned.
There is no such thing as a deer-proof plant, except for almost all non-native invasive exotic species. I’ve never seen evidence of deer grazing on privet, autumn olive, porcelain berry vine, Japanese honeysuckle, or Japanese Stiltgrass. The only exception to this rule in my yard is English ivy. During very harsh winters, deer nibble off every green leaf on the vines crawling across the ground in my backyard. Eradicating this ivy is on my infinite gardening to-do list, but standard strategies won’t work, because an expanding stand of native Bloodroot occupies the same areas. Thus, I am delighted to have the deer slowing down the progress of the invasive English ivy, which was already here when we moved in.
If I don’t protect a tree/shrub/perennial/vegetable I care about, sooner or later one or more deer will devour it. The only logic I’ve discerned is that when native food supplies are low, my local deer much more aggressively explore my plantings for dinner options. Deer will take a few bites out of any plant, just to see if it tastes good, or if they are very hungry. Every early spring before native trees and shrubs have leafed out much, one or more deer eat about a fourth of an expanding area of Mayapples. This native wildflower is so poisonous that Native Cherokees called it the Suicide Plant. I’ve never found any unexplainably dead deer lying nearby, so I assume they eat until they get stomach aches, then move on elsewhere.
Fertilized plants are preferentially eaten by deer. I suspect they can smell the extra nutrients. Or maybe when they’re randomly sampling plants, they find the fertilized ones taste better. A few years back, a California-based development company erased 1000 acres of beautiful forest very near my house. They replaced it with suburbs full of over-fertilized grass lawns and ornamental trees and shrubs. When the forest was destroyed, many of the deer that lived there moved to my land. For about two years, I routinely saw a dozen deer a day, and they ate everything. But now that the houses are up and the fertilized landscapes are in place, those deer have returned to that area to dine upon the unprotected fertilized goodies growing there. The only plants I fertilize in my yard are the ones growing in my vegetable garden, and the annual flowers I grow in the bed along my front walk. How do I protect these? Read on.
Deer-repellant sprays will deter deer predation, but you must re-apply the spray after hard rains, and you must thoroughly cover all parts of the plant. On my Oakleaf Hydrangeas in early summer when the leaves are fresh and tasty, if I miss a leaf when I spray the plants, the deer will find and eat that one. I find that I don’t have to spray all the time except during really heavy deer population years. Usually, if I spray during early to mid spring, the deer go elsewhere and find other things to eat through the summer. They usually return and start nibbling in middle to late fall, which is when I spray my hydrangeas again to ensure we get to enjoy their spectacular autumn leaf color.
The noxious, but nontoxic sprays used for deer repellent also deter other plant nibblers. Cottontail rabbits won’t touch sprayed plants; neither will groundhogs. One year during a severe summer drought, deer were devouring my beautiful weeping cherry tree. The leaves of this tree turn a spectacular orange-gold in early fall, but the deer were about to make sure the tree displayed no fall leaf color at all. I thoroughly sprayed this small tree anywhere I thought the deer could reach, which was most of the tree at that time. Immediately, I noticed that another problem pest of that tree – Japanese beetles – disappeared. Evidently, they didn’t like the taste of the sprayed leaves either. I now routinely spray this tree in late spring to remind the deer to leave it alone. During big Japanese beetle plague years, I spray the tree again to deter these invasive exotic pests. Japanese beetles love grape vines too. If you’re trying to grow your own grapes and you have trouble with these pests, try spraying the foliage with one of these repellant sprays.
The repellant sprays only smell bad until they dry. But you want to be very careful about how you spray. From personal experience, I encourage you to avoid windy days, especially when the wind is erratic. I also always wear gloves that I don’t mind getting rid of afterwards. Somehow, the bottles always manage to leak a bit onto my hands. If you are more adept, perhaps you can ignore this advice. You’ll find recipes for making such sprays from scratch. This is messy, stinky work, and because I only spray a few plants a few times a year, I don’t mind investing in the commercial products.
For larger landscapes and especially valued plants (think vegetable garden), barriers are the only effective defense I’ve found. For many years, this meant surrounding all new woody plants with wire cages. This was not only ugly, but invariably the plants grew beyond the confines of the cages before I could provide a larger cage. Deer nibbled the protruding branches, growth of the overall plant was inhibited, and noxious invasive species, such as Japanese honeysuckle and Japanese stiltgrass used the cages for their own evil purposes. Finally, we invested in deer fencing. I wish we had done it sooner.
Deer fencing comes in several forms. We paid a professional landscaping company to install 7-foot-tall plastic deer fencing around about an acre on the north side of our yard where I had planted most of my most treasured woodies – deciduous azaleas, deciduous magnolias, choice viburnums, Stewartias, etc. Freed from their wire cage prisons, all of the plants doubled in size in two years. I think their root systems had been growing, but their top growth had been inhibited by the cages. Once freed, they exploded. I felt like a fool for not figuring this out sooner. The company that installed our fencing built us several sturdy gates for easy access to my beauties, and for the first year, they repaired any holes that developed for free. Every winter, they offer discounts on repairs. Most of the damage to our fence – and there hasn’t been all that much – has resulted from falling branches from the large canopy trees within the enclosure. Only once did a deer try to jump the fence, which resulted in some tearing. The installation of the fence changed the regular paths the deer used to cross that part of the yard. Now that we’ve forced them to detour around the large enclosed acre, they only visit certain parts of my yard when they are very hungry and thus willing to go out of their way to seek food.
We had the same company enclose the vegetable garden in plastic-coated chicken wire fencing of the same height used in the other area. On our fence-enclosed north slope, squirrels immediately chewed holes in the plastic fencing along the bottom. We repair the holes, but the squirrels make more. We didn’t want this issue in the vegetable garden, knowing that the rabbits would happily use the squirrel-created entries for their own purposes. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that on early summer days when my spring lettuces and carrots are productive and juicy, I often spot a rabbit sitting at the garden gate, wiggling its nose wistfully at what it cannot reach. The plastic-coated chicken wire was definitely worth the higher cost for this area.
Certain ornamental plants are just not worth growing in my yard, because I know that deer/rabbits/groundhogs will eat them faster than I can protect them. I’ll give you a list of those plants as well as a list of plants my deer don’t seem to favor in another post soon. This one is already too long.
Have you devised other strategies that work for your garden? If so, please share these in the comment section of this post. They outnumber us, so we gardeners must stick together to thwart them!
My patch of piedmont
As a life-long gardener, I am fond of many plants. I have a bias toward the natives of my North Carolina piedmont, probably because I grew up in piedmont forests. Oaks and hickories, loblollys and sycamores — these are the lasting friends of a childhood spent climbing trees, wading creeks, and digging toes in cool moss on torrid summer afternoons.
When spouse and I bought our five acres over two decades ago, we chose the land because of its rich array of microenvironments, its mature deciduous trees, and the wetland and creek that bordered our property. In spring, the frog chorus is deafening, nearly overpowering the sweet refrain of the love-sick whip-poor-whills. Winter moonlit nights echo with the manic calls of barred owls. Summers thrum with the voices of myriad cycadas. It is a rich, vital piece of land.
But that’s not to say we haven’t added our own touches. The previous owner of our property landscaped it like a park. He left the large deciduous trees — oaks, river birches (enormous ones), tulip poplars, hickories, sweet gums, sycamores, pines, ashes, and maples — but cut out all the smaller understory trees, except the native dogwoods.
Structure of a healthy piedmont forest
Although I can sort of understand the aesthetic appeal of such a landscape, it is sterile and unnatural for my region. Healthy piedmont forests are layered. At the top are the giant canopy trees. Beneath is the understory layer of smaller trees and larger shrubs. The next layer down is the shrub layer, and finally, flourishing at the bottom in the rich humus made of fallen leaves is the herb layer, where all the woodland wildflowers dear to my childhood abound.
I’ve been planting mostly understory species for the last two decades, trying to rebuild my forest layers, so that I can create a habitat favorable for woodland wildflowers. I am happy to report that we have made definitive progress toward that goal.
More layers means more bird species
One big plus of this work has been the response of the local bird population. Now the land is filled with habitats suitable for just about every bird species native to the region. And as the forests near us have been felled to make room for suburbs, more and more feathered refugees are seeking asylum among the added viburnums, vacciniums, rhododendrons, magnolias, spice bushes, Virginia sweetspires, hydrangeas, wax myrtles, and the list goes on.
Coping with deer predation
The process of restoring our land’s optimum vegetation layers has not been without challenges. I had never encountered serious deer predation until we moved to our current home. New trees and shrubs had to be surrounded by tall wire cages for the first five to ten years of their lives. This usually is enough time for them to grow large enough to withstand some browsing by the antlered hogs of the forest.
Coping with aquatic assaults: beavers!
Because of the creek adjacent to our property, we experience periodic invasions by beavers. They once flooded the back acre of the floodplain. The trees there were in danger of drowning, and any woodies within 100 or so feet of the creek were felled by these industrious rodents. We tried to live with them, but the wildlife officer I talked to explained that beavers strive to create a ten-acre lake. If we had had a hundred acres, I would have given them ten. But we didn’t, and so the beavers were eradicated. But before they left, they cut down and devoured several choice trees we had planted along the bank of the creek. Now any trees located in that region are surrounded at their bases with hardware cloth to a height of three feet. They now flourish despite occasional beaver returns.
Coping with a limited budget
Of course, cost is a primary consideration when acquiring new plants. I buy very young, small trees. Most are bare-rooted from a nursery in South Carolina that specializes in native plants. Starting so small means it takes about ten years for most new arrivals to begin to make an impact in their new homes. But now that 20+ years has passed, some of the earliest planted newbies are really beginning to shine.
Benefits of deer fencing
Two years ago, I became frustrated by the deer predation on my north slope plantings. In this area, I’ve planted every deciduous native magnolia species plus almost every native deciduous azalea species — plus a few hybrids and named cultivars of these species that I couldn’t resist. But the plants weren’t growing very quickly, and any growth that protruded outside their wire cages was grazed by the voracious deer. Spouse agreed that we would try enclosing this approximately three-quarter-acre area with deer fencing. The response of the plants astonished me. As I removed them from their wire cages, you could practically hear them breathing sighs of relief. In one growing season, they doubled or tripled in size — all of them!
The other big win with the deer fence is that its presence changed the foraging patterns of the local deer. Instead of waltzing by my front beds every day (eating my coneflowers, daylilies, etc.,), they now take a route much further out, because the fence cut off their usual path to the creek. Deer predation of unprotected areas was nonexistent until late summer last year, when the drought drove them toward any plant still green.
Smaller yards are easier
In case any gardeners of more modestly sized spaces are reading this, let me assure you that you can accomplish much of what I’ve done on your smaller scale. It won’t cost you as much as I’ve spent in time, money, or frustration, and you’ll be amazed by the birds that move in to share your space. I’ll write more about this another time. But know that if two middle-aged, part-time plant nuts with only occasional help from others can transform five acres in 20+ years, homeowners of typical suburban lots can transform their yards into piedmont paradises much more quickly.
You decide: Is the native piedmont forest worth preserving?
As deforestation continues to accelerate in the southeastern piedmont, I believe the only hope for our native wildlife — and our native plants — is to welcome them into our backyards. You must decide if the call of the wood thrush on a summer evening should be a part of your child’s memory. You must decide if your child benefits by knowing the difference between a red maple and a sweet gum, or that sourwood leaves really taste sour. I decided long ago, and so I plant, and protect, and dream.