The trouble with deer
How to stop deer from devouring your landscape
By George Weigel, Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist (PCH)
Anyone who’s ever had deer in the garden knows that these cutesy marauders — which author Rhonda Massingham Hart calls "Agent Orange on hooves” — can decimate a landscape like no other pest.
Safe from hunters in the suburbs and well fed by the shrub and flower buffets set out by kindly gardeners, deer are becoming more and more of a problem in these protected pockets.
Penn State University wildlife specialist Dr. Gary San Julian says just five male and five female deer can produce up to 200 deer in just five years. "The reproduction ability of this animal is huge,” he says. What’s more, a typical adult deer eats four to eight pounds of food a day, according to San Julian. That’s a lot of hosta!
As we continue to convert forests and meadows into housing, we shrink the distance between deer and us. And deer are adapting quite well, realizing we’re not as scary as they originally thought.
The backyard carnage is especially bad in winter when there’s little else to eat, although deer damage can happen anytime of year. Just ask your tulip buds and daylily blossoms.
So what can you do to fight back? Try some of these...
1. Be careful what you plant.
"The first rule of deer-o-scaping is to avoid plants that deer actively seek out,” says Hart, who wrote Deer Proofing Your Yard & Garden (Storey Publishing, 1997). "Deer will make pigs of themselves when they find their favorite foods. And they will do it over and over again.”
The problem with supposed "deer-proof” plant lists is that various lists often contradict one another. Also, deer don’t read these lists. The reality is that if deer are hungry enough, they’ll eat anything. Maybe even your SUV.
Nevertheless, most deer seem to have a particular fondness for tulips, hosta, daylilies, yews, burning bushes, azaleas, rhododendrons, arborvitae, most roses and most fruits and vegetables. They generally don’t like strong-tasting, strong-smelling, toxic and/or fuzzy-leafed plants. See the sidebar for a list of reasonably "deer-resistant” plants.
2. Repulse them.
Most garden centers have a shelf full of products that repel deer either by adding a scent they don’t like (blood, garlic, rotten eggs, etc.) or by coating the plants with a bitter or other yucky taste (Bittrex, hot peppers, the fungicide Thiram, etc.) Some products use both. Some of the brands that some gardeners swear by are Plantskydd, Bobbex, Deer-Away, Deer Off, Liquid Fence and Deer Scram.
The key is applying them often enough to keep the repelling scent or taste current — sometimes a challenge when it’s raining a lot or when plants are growing quickly. Don’t try to tinker with the labeled dilutions of repellents, apply them in early morning or early evening, and test them first on small areas of plants before coating everything. Hart says it’s also wise to rotate and alternate different repellents before deer get used to them.
3. Other ways to stink them out.
A deer’s first priority when food shopping is making sure he doesn’t become dinner himself. So picking up the scent of a possible predator may be enough to scare him away.
Examples are the old farmer tricks of hanging sweaty shirts around the garden or hanging out muslin bags filled with human hair. Some gardeners have had pretty good antideer success by fertilizing with Milorganite, a granular product that’s made from treated Milwaukee sewage sludge. Apparently there’s still enough human scent in it to make deer wary.
Another scent repellent favored by Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center Director Sally Ferguson is "Swedish Skewers,” made by soaking cubes of floral foam in a "soup” of bloodmeal, ammonia and water. To make, mix 2.5 pounds of bloodmeal in a bucket of water and add 1 cup of ammonia. Impale foam cubes on bamboo stakes or skewers, soak them in the bloodmeal/ammonia mix and then stick them around plants you’re trying to protect. Ferguson says you may need to redip them weekly.
4. Surprise them away.
Some gardeners have saved plantings by using motion-activated gadgets that automatically spray a burst of water when something enters the watch zone. Others have used the same startling-action theory by employing motion-activated lights, radios, pie plates strung on wire and even mini-cannons set to go off at intervals (which might diminish your popularity with the neighbors).
Then there’s the basic get-a-dog advice. Dogs usually scare away deer, but the effectiveness will depend on the dog and whether you’re letting him/her outside and unchained when deer normally come by to feed.
5. Fence them out.
This is the ultimate plan. Deer-plagued public gardens such as Hershey Gardens in Dauphin County and Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County gave up and just erected tall fencing around the entire perimeter. That works great, provided there are no openings and the fence is at least 7 to 8 feet tall.
But perimeter fencing — even the less obtrusive black plastic kind — can get expensive and can give your landscaping that San Quentin feel. Fencing works best when you can tack it to trees in a wooded area, where it blends into the background better than in a subdivision.
Electrified fences can be smaller and a little less expensive, especially if you bait it with peanut butter to lure deer in for a sample shock. But it’s still not exactly attractive and has the potential to shock you and the grandkids if you’re not paying attention.
Another option is a double fence — a pair of 4- to 5-foot-tall fences placed parallel to one another 4 to 5 feet apart. Deer think twice about being able to jump far enough to clear both.
And the simplest fence of all is a single strand of heavy-duty, deep-sea-fishing line strung between trees or posts at two to three feet off the ground. Many gardeners swear by this one, saying it confuses deer when they bump into it.
Yet another option is erecting barricades around sensitive plantings. This approach works great when you use 6- to 8-foot-tall barricades of thick burlap, poultry netting or sturdy deer fencing.
If all else fails, have you ever thought about rooftop gardening?
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Plants for Pennsylvania gardens that are among the least likely to be browsed by deer
St. Johnswort (Hypericum)
Japanese umbrella pine
Anise hyssop (Agastache)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias)
Flowering onions (Allium)
Meadow rue (Thalictrum)