The deer own the neighborhood. They go everywhere at night, and wherever they think they can escape notice during the day. Fences help to a certain extent, but deer are brave and strong, and can jump higher than you think. They are cautious about jumping a fence uphill, and about jumping into enclosed areas. They prefer well fertilized plants. The high nitrogen content tastes good to them, like salt on French fries!
Besides finding shredded leaves and bitten off stems, you might also notice hoof prints in soft ground or little piles of deer scat as calling cards of their presence in your yard. You might see them browsing in your garden, or even on a low porch or deck.
The best defense against the deer is an olfactory defense. They dislike the smell of putrescent eggs, moldy coffee grounds, cow’s blood, and most herbs. Products such as Plant Skydd and Liquid Fence are pricey, but they protect your plants while until the plants get established. You can shield plants to a certain extent by growing smelly herbs like lavenders, rosemary, basil, mints, and sages around them. And some plants, like lantana, Artemisia, Hellebores, and Vinca taste so bad the deer just leave them alone.
A quick survey of the neighborhood is sometimes enough to get a wealth of data about which plants are growing well in lots of yards, which plants are pathetically nibbled, and which are largely absent. Seeing wire cages around shrubs in so many yards in our new neighborhood should have been a clue to the problem. Old timers call our azaleas “lollipop bushes” because the bases of them are so badly eaten, and only the parts the deer can’t reach freely flower.
Some experts suggest just forgetting growing tasty morsels like Hostas entirely, and plant only things the deer are known to shun. It is cheaper, and much less stressful, to chose varieties the deer avoid. Since I’m not willing to forgo growing roses and Hostas, I’m still fighting the battle to keep deer away from favorite plants. Actually, it is a challenge to successfully grow the plants I love in adverse conditions, and I’m still up for the challenge.
Here is a list of strategies my friends and I have used with success in our gardens:
1. Keep tasty plants out of reach. This might mean pruning up branches of fruiting and flowering trees so deer can’t reach them, or it might mean growing your tomatoes in pots on a deck the deer can’t access. Parents understand this principle, and can come up with creative solutions. I’ve grown cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets and grown beans and eggplant on a second story deck.
2. Confuse deer with nasty smells. Like us, deer use their sense of smell to decide whether or not to eat something. My friend brings home bags of human hair from her hair appointments, and sprinkles this around her garden to keep deer away from large areas. I use Plant Skydd spray on particularly tasty treats like rose buds and Hosta leaves. I also spray this concoction at access points to my yard where I think deer may be coming in. http://plantskydd.com/Plantskydd-Deer-Repellent.html
Some gardeners buy blood meal, an organic fertilizer, and sprinkle this over whole beds of plants to discourage deer, rabbits, and other small mammals.
Another good product is Neptune’s Harvest. This is an organic, water soluble fertilizer made from fish emulsion and sea weed. A dilute solution used as a foliar feed also offers protection, until it’s washed off in a heavy rain. This is an excellent fertilizer and gives the plants lots of resistance to various infections and infestations. Use a tablespoon to a gallon of water. http://www.neptunesharvest.com/
These products, and other organic garden products are available at The Homestead Garden Center in James City Co. http://www.homesteadgardencenter.com/
Coffee grounds, left out in a closed container for several days, can be sprinkled around beds you wish to protect. Concoctions made with putrescent eggs, bovine blood, garlic, and hot pepper seem to be effective. Some people use shavings from a bar of soap, and the previous owners of my property left piles of used kitty litter all over the back yard. The cat litter didn’t break down, and left a huge and nasty mess.
Moth balls are also good protection against deer, rabbits, and squirrels. Punch holes into a lidded plastic container, like a yogurt cup. Make 2 additional holes in the bottom or top of the container to hold a loop of wire or twine for a hanger. Drop in two or three moth ball packs, close the container, and hang it in or near the plant you want to protect. The sealed container protects the moth balls packets from rain and prevents them from leaching into your soil.
3. Startle deer with human sounds. Wind chimes hanging in a tree near a deer path, a radio left playing in a garden, children playing, and a squeaky wind driven whirligig can all make cautious deer avoid an area.
4.Shield a tasty plant with other plants. This has only worked for me when I’ve created a fairly wide border around the plant I’m trying to protect. If the border is too wide for the deer to reach comfortably, two feet or more, it is effective. Good shielding plants have a strong aroma and coarse texture. Effective shields include Rosemary, Lavender, ferns, and Lantana. Most good shielding plants prefer full sun, so if you’re working in shade, use ferns.
5. Keep tasty plant close to the house. The closer to your home, the less likely deer are to approach and nibble your prized plants- at least in theory. Again, human noise, lights at night and sudden movement, provide some protection for foundation plantings and potted plants on decks, patios, and porches.
6. Build a fence around plants you want to protect. Keeping the Bambis away with a fence is still a good plan. Whether you try to fence your entire yard, or just a small patch for a vegetable garden, keep in mind that it needs to be tall and needs regular maintenance. Some neighbors build wire mesh cocoons around new shrubs; some enclose their whole back yard. The deer will try to jump anything under 8’, so plan on making an investment with this option.
7. Plan the bulk of your garden around plants deer avoid. There are many beautiful and useful plants the deer will never touch. Roses and tomatoes don’t happen to be on that list, but lots of other wonderful plants are. Using an abundance of deer resistant plants, especially poisonous ones, make gardening in the forest much less stressful. Special care should be taken to use deer resistant, thorny and poisonous shrubs, like Ligustrum or Kalmia, around the perimeter of the property to discourage deer.
The best resource I’ve found for gardening in a neighborhood with deer, and other hungry critters, is 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs that Deer Don’t Eat by Ruth Rogers Clausen, and Alan L. Detrick.
I love this book because it goes into great detail about habits of deer and offers various approaches to foil them and discourage them from your property. The plant entries are categorized by the type of plant, the cultural information is detailed, the photos beautiful, and numerous ideas are given for plant pairings in your garden.
Another excellent new book brimming with practical strategies to keep wild animals of all kinds away from the garden is Secret Garden of Survival by Rick Austin. This is a short book, but is packed with information, useful illustrations, and the sort of wisdom only born of hands on experience.
Plants the Deer Generally Leave Alone
This is a list of plants which are mostly ignored by our herd of deer. They are well suited to our climate (USDA Zone 7B), our soil, and the partial shade most of us have in our gardens. Some of my gardening friends and I have been compiling this list over the last few years.
We have observed that plants which grow extremely well in some of our gardens, such as Camellias and Hydrangea get eaten in others. My mature Camellia bushes are left alone, but I’ve had tremendous damage done to some, but not all, new Camellia bushes.
Newly purchased shrubs and trees have a high nitrogen content, which makes them very tasty to deer. It is liked salted French Fries for us. Plants which have been in the garden a while tend to have less nitrogen, and so aren’t as tasty. When considering how much extra fertilizer to spread around your shrubs and trees, if any, this is an important consideration. Growing your garden on the lean side might offer additional protection from grazing.
Flowering Trees and Shrubs
Native Holly and English Holly
St. John’s Wort
Perennials and Bulbs
Alocasia (Elephant’s Ear)
Caladium (Elephant’s Ear)
Colocasia (Elephant’s Ear)
Iris (Bearded, Dutch, Louisiana, Siberian, etc.)
Joe Pye Weed
Red Hot Poker
Annuals and Biennials
Geranium and Pelargonium
New Guinea Impatiens
Plants that will need extraordinary measures to protect in a forest garden include: Azaleas, Hostas, daylilies, Oriental Lilies, Roses, impatiens, some sedums, Tomatoes, squashes, sweet potato vines, cucumbers, beans, and mophead Hydrangeas.
All Photos by Woodland Gnome