Published on: Monday, August 1, 2016 Takoma Park Newsletter

Securing your garden when deer are about

By Diane Svenonius, Takoma Horticultural Club

Like homo sapiens, the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is a highly adaptable mammal equipped to learn from experience. Thus lists of “what deer won’t eat” must be regarded as provisional. A deer should eat seven pounds of forage a day, and lacking enough tulips and roses, it will eat the next best thing, down to the “rarely browsed” category. Also, tastes vary from herd to herd, place to place, and perhaps with what’s trending on the deer grapevine.

If deer are taking the joy out of gardening for you, there are two approaches you can take to remedy the situation: 1) modify the vegetation or 2) secure the space. (But first… was it deer? Lacking upper incisors, deer pinch and tear the leaves they eat. If there is a neat bite, it’s likely to be something with front teeth like a rabbit. But deer will take flowers off their stalks neatly. )

Plant things that you like which are not deer priorities. Deer are widely thought to avoid plants with these characteristics: fuzzy leaves, thorns/hairs/prickles, pungent odor (even if delightful to you), fibrous stems and leaves, and toxicity. Thus ferns, many ornamental grasses, euphorbias, Castor oil plant, aconitum, and strong-scented herbs like lavender, sage, rosemary and thyme are good choices. You can plant borders of them around beds of tastier plants to deceive deer.1 Meanwhile, fertilize and water ornamentals sparingly. Over-fertilized, overwatered plants have lush, tender, appealing foliage.

Many of us love our blooms and are loath to lose them. These flowering plants appear on published lists as those “rarely” or “seldom” damaged by deer: daffodil, bleeding heart, peony, lily-of-the-valley, moss phlox (phlox subulata), hardy orchid (Bletilla striata), garden pinks (dianthus), Siberian iris, red hot poker, lavender, salvia, beardtongue (penstemon), rose campion, daisy; alliums, butterfly weed, blazing star, threadleaf coreopsis, blanket flower, lamb’s ear, yarrow, Russian sage, goldenrod, spotted mint (monarda punctata), sweet Autumn clematis, Stella d’Oro daylily. Shrubs and trees include lilac, butterfly bush, juniper, spruce, boxwood and heather.

Secure the space with hardware, potions, lights and pets. If we can’t live without roses, tomatoes, and so on, fencing is the most reliable barrier. Use wire mesh on metal poles, or poly deer netting, which can be mounted on an existing shorter fence or on supports. It should be fastened down at the bottom. Cover fruit bushes and vegetable crops with netting (holes must be large enough not to trap birds). Monofilament fishing line can be strung at various heights; deer feel it’s there but can’t see it, so they don’t jump.

Repellents rely on ingredients that taste terrible or smell like a predator. They’re most effective if started at the first sign of a problem. Follow package directions, replenish after rain, and change brands to keep the element of surprise. Home remedies include human hair hung in net bags, Irish Spring soap on a string, and others. You can also get creative with mechanical “frighteners,” shiny noisy things, sound and light effects to frighten or discourage deer, but these become routine and are ignored unless changed. A barking dog can also be a deterrent. Finally, male deer rub their antlers on the bark of small trees and shrubs in late summer into fall to remove velvet from their antlers. Prevent this, which can kill your tree, by placing wire mesh around the trunk, up to five feet, supported with wood stakes.

Notes 1

To make attractive landscape combinations with deer resistant plants and for advice on cultivation, see 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants, by Ruth Rogers Clausen, Timber Press, 2013. 2 For other mammals in the garden and up to no good, see “Oh, Deer” by Kathy Jentz, Takoma Voice newspaper/Washington Gardener Magazine

This article appeared in the August 2016 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.