Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dealing with Deer

This little fella is a cutie, no doubt about it.  But as I watched him and took pictures, he wandered around the woods, stopping to munch a tender leaf here and there.  And unfortunately, his favorite leaves were on the native plants!  Well, to be fair, the area was wooded with few invasives so it was 95% native anyway.

I live in a neighborhood that has 2 acre lots and is surrounded by lots that are even bigger.  There are a fair number of natural areas – certainly over 50% of the land is not landscaped.  Add that to the fact that there are fewer predators than ever and you can understand that we have a large deer population with many new babies each year. Oh and some of my neighbors feed them corn.

This blog entry is about what I do personally to deal with the potential for deer browsing in my yard.  Because that’s what they do, by the way, they don’t “eat”, they “browse”.  Picture them wandering around the neighborhood, grabbing a bite or two as they go along.  If you see them with their nose to the ground, they are likely not eating grass, but eating acorns or something else that is in the grass.

Know what they like: I know what they like by what other affected people say (for example, experienced gardeners consider hostas to be “deer candy”), and I also know because of personal observation in the 8 years that I’ve been here.  Hydrangeas (native and not) are a favorite, Alumroot (Heuchera americana), Azaleas, Ginger (both Asarum and Hexastylis), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Trillium, and early spring (tender) leaves.  Which means they eat almost anything if it is tender enough!

Deer damage on a perennial

And learn what they don’t like – they don’t eat ferns much, plants with stiff foliage like Agarista and Leucothoe (sometimes the tender new growth), aromatic foliage like Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) and Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), and I have not seen them eat the prickly foliage of junipers and creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) – BUT they will eat anything if they are hungry enough, plus they might try something “once”. 

Siting – don’t put the plants they like out in the open.  I have one hosta, for example, and it is behind the ONE piece of wooden fence that I have.  Other potentially tasty plants live up close to the house where the deer are LESS likely to go (but sometimes they stop by for a nibble!).

Fencing – you might consider this a type of “siting”.  Fencing is not just to prevent the deer from browsing on the foliage, it also can protect young tree trunks from being rubbed in the fall.  So you may want to fence a young tree that they might eat ... or to protect the bark (rubbing can be fatal to a young tree because it damages the cambium tissue under the bark, interrupting the flow of nutrients).  There are also plastic tubes that you can place around the trunk for this reason.

Damage from rubbing (now healing)
Wire cage

Smelly sprays – my family hates these sprays but they work.  The smell fades after a few hours from a human’s point of view.  I have used brands like Deer Off! and Liquid Fence.  They seem to work equally well so it is just a matter of which one is more available or cost effective. I apply it at least four times a year on the plants that I know are potential targets - during the spring on tender growth, in early summer on plants like ginger, alumroot and trillium, in early fall to protect the flower buds of azaleas, and again during the winter on azalea flower buds.  Excessive amounts of rain may require re-application as well - it's kind of a trial and error situation, but one rain alone won't wash it off in my experience.

There are do it yourself recipes on the internet, but be prepared to screen the liquid to eliminate chunks or the sprayer will clog.  Actually, even the ready-made products can get lumpy over time.  But they do work and apparently if you do it consistently, the deer will learn to circulate elsewhere ... like to your neighbor's house!

If I can make it until fall, then copious amounts of acorns fall from the many mature oaks that the area has, and the deer will happily switch to eating them instead.


  1. This is also a problem in my studio garden. I grow roses there, as the soil is a mixture of clay and chalk, which is sublime for roses.
    The deer are after the rose buds, and many's the time I have been left without a single rose until late in the season.

    Two things: first, fence them all in. The roses, not the deer :-)

    Second: get friendly with the local barber/hairdresser. Human hair, preferably unwashed, is anathema to deer. Roe deer anyways. I have a friend with a salon who lets me have the sweepings. Talk about recycling. I hang them in nets around favourite plants.

    Third, most effective and hardest to obtain: lion poo. If you don't have a local zoo that will oblige, you might look into buying the distilled liquid now for sale.

  2. In my own landscape I found I had more deer damage when plants were young and sparsely spaced. There were areas in my yard that were more open making them feel comfortable to browse and see potential predators coming. Now that the landscape has grown up and is more mature, I hardly have any damage other than in early spring before the tree leaves emerge.

  3. That's good to know, Heather, and I hope that is true over time for me as well.

    Lion poo - who would have thought it! I certainly have plenty of cat poo that I could distribute .... I will have to look into the hair suggestion more seriously as the zoo is too far away. ;)

    I don't have any roses, but I have seen them chewed up too down the street where they are readily available to the deer passing by.

    Thanks to you both for tips and support!

  4. Oh no, I just noticed we posted on a similar topic but from different ends of the spectrum. I'm sure to have plenty of new enemies now! Oh well. I can however recommend Deer Out, it's mint based, all natural, and works great for us, and as you can see from my photos, we have plenty of deer. I also agree with Heather, the deer seem to do the most damage when things are new and sparse.