Posts Tagged garden defenses against deer
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.
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!