Posts Tagged deer-proofing

Deer Don’t Negotiate

Leila's buck

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.

A devoured variegated hydrangea

A devoured variegated hydrangea

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.

A closer look at a damaged variegated hydrangea

A closer look at a damaged variegated hydrangea

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.

Oakleaf hydrangea damage

Oakleaf hydrangea damage

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.

A mangled oakleaf hydrangea branch

A mangled oakleaf hydrangea branch

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.

They slept, dined, and excreted not five feet from my front door!

They slept, dined, and excreted almost at my front door!

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.

Evergreen azalea branches are always nibbled.

Evergreen azalea branches are always nibbled.

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.

Daylilies are also a favorite food group

Daylilies are also a favorite food group

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.

Nibbled evergreen Kousa dogwood branches

Nibbled evergreen Kousa dogwood branches

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.

It had a lovely full shape and was full of flower buds.

It had a lovely rounded shape and was full of flower buds.

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.

The bucks rub their antlers all the way around, removing the bark and ensuring that the branch dies.

The bucks rub their antlers all the way around, removing the bark and ensuring that the branch dies.

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.

Just a few branches of the mother Royal Star magnolia were mangled.

Just a few branches of the mother Royal Star magnolia were mangled.

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.

Fall broccoli thrives safely within our deer fence-enclosed vegetable garden.

Fall broccoli thrives safely within our deer fence-enclosed vegetable garden.

 

 

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What Deer Harm in my Garden

Daylilies are a favorite food group.

Daylilies are a favorite food group of deer.

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.

Evergreen Chinese Dogwood in bloom. Leaves of its lower branches are routinely eaten during winter.

Evergreen Chinese Dogwood in bloom. Leaves of its lower branches are routinely eaten during winter.

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.

The only native evergreen in my yard that is never nibbled.

The only native evergreen in my yard that is never nibbled.

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.

Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet' is routinely eaten in my yard.

Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ is routinely eaten in my yard.

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.

Flowers

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.

Fat flower buds are eaten by people, so it's no wonder that deer love daylily flower buds too.

Fat flower buds are eaten by people, so it’s no wonder that deer love daylily flower buds too.

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.

Dahlias may have been ignored because I interplanted them with salvias.

Dahlias may have been ignored because I interplanted them with salvias.

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.

The poison in Hellebores must be fairly potent, because deer mostly ignore them.

The poison in Hellebores must be fairly potent, because deer mostly ignore them.

Native Perennials

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.

Flower buds of Purple Coneflowers are often eaten by deer in my yard.

Flower buds of Purple Coneflowers are often eaten by deer in my yard.

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.

My Tradescantia cultivar, 'Sweet Kate,' is ignored.

My Tradescantia cultivar, ‘Sweet Kate,’ is ignored.

 

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.

Fiddleheads are sautéed in butter and devoured by humans, so it's no wonder that deer like them too.

Fiddleheads are sautéed in butter and devoured by humans, so it’s no wonder that deer like them too.

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.

Salvias are never eaten.

Salvias are never eaten.

 

Anise hyssop  is also ignored for the same reason – potently fragrant leaves.

Irresistible to pollinators, but snubbed by deer.

Irresistible to pollinators, but snubbed by deer.

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.

Never touched by deer or bunnies

Never touched by deer or bunnies

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.

Dwarf crested iris must be sprayed.

Dwarf crested iris must be sprayed.

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.

Bearded iris buds are favorite deer delicacies and must be sprayed. Once the flowers are fully open, they are ignored.

Bearded iris buds are favorite deer delicacies and must be sprayed. Once the flowers are fully open, they are ignored.

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.

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Bambi versus My Garden

Leila's buck

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.

Fresh tracks usually mean trouble.

Fresh tracks usually mean trouble.

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.

Note the raccoon tracks interspersed with the deer prints.

Almost certainly evidence of more than one deer.

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.

A deer fence gate on my north slope garden.

A deer fence gate on my north slope garden.

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.

Base of north-slope deer fence gate. Note how the bottom is less than an inch above the ground.

Base of north-slope deer fence gate. Note how the bottom is less than an inch above the ground.

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.

Deer fence gate to vegetable garden.

Deer fence gate to vegetable garden.

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.

Close-up of base of vegetable garden gate. Note how the wire extends past the metal poles to touch the ground and also across the gap between poles, thereby deterring hungry rabbits.

Close-up of base of vegetable garden gate. Note how the wire extends past the metal poles to touch the ground and also across the gap between poles, thereby deterring hungry rabbits.

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!

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