Preventing deer damage

White-tailed deer are beautiful creatures but there are simply too many trying to survive in Connecticut woodlands. My south-central Connecticut town is listed in Connecticut hunting zone 12 which includes shoreline towns from Milford to Stonington and Connecticut River towns of Lyme and East Haddam. Zone 12, along with zone 11 towns in southwestern Connecticut, has extended white-tail deer hunting seasons because of high deer density – as many as 60 to 70 deer per square mile in studied areas of these zones. Considering that deer eat 5 to 10 pounds of plant material per day, deer density exceeding 20 per square mile is enough to significantly alter forest undergrowth.

I’ve observed a rapid rise in deer numbers in my small section of Zone 12. Prior to 2009 winter deer herds contained about 3 to 5 deer on average. During winters of 2009 and 2010 – years of heavy acorn crops – herd size averaged 8 to 10 and 15 to 17, respectively. Photos from this January 2010 post show local deer activity.

When you do the math – 5 to 10 pounds of plant material per day times the groups of 15 to 17 deer frequenting nearby woods – it becomes clear why deer seek more food from gardens right now. There’s nearly no acorn crop this autumn so the 75 to 170 pounds of plant material deer need each day to survive must come from somewhere.

Deer-browsed amsonia-3No wonder they’ve been eating plantings they never used to touch in my yard … a topic I’ve whined about frequently this year (That’s a deer, granddaughter dear and Do Deer tweet?)

I’m on a constant search for information from others regarding deer resistant plantings and deer repelling activities. Over the years I’ve added the books Deer Proofing Your Yard & Garden by Rhonda Massingham Hart and Gardening in Deer Country by Vincent Drzewucki, Jr. to my library. Both give basic deer habits, deer repellent and deer fencing information for beginning gardeners but I’ve found deer eat many of the plantings each book lists as deer resistant.

I’ve read many articles from reputable publications about deer resistant landscaping like:

  • Deer? Oh, Deer … Try Herbs written by a gardener in Texas who suggests both basil and parsley as plants deer will avoid – not so in my experience – or planting barberry (Berberis vulgaris), a shrub that is highly invasive in Connecticut.
  • Damn You, My Deer which suggests trying many commonly used tactics like motion activated sprinklers, deer repellent sprays, keeping a dog, or installing fencing … nothing new … and also suggests invasive barberry as a resistant shrub.
  • A Practical Program for Combatting Deer which reviews generally useful deer-deterring seasonal tactics but also suggests spreading sewage sludge-derived Milorganite, a product I do not recommend and will not use because of it’s source.

I’d love to report any of the books or articles I’ve found as a definitive source, but the reality is that deer have individual tastes and display region- or even herd-specific differences. Even conferring with educated and experienced staff at your local garden center can reveal differences in useful repellent tactics. For example, I’ve used diluted salmon or fish emulsion spray to keep deer from munching echinacea buds, but a local garden center owner found fish emulsion spray an ineffective deer repellent.

I’ve tried many tactics that work for other gardeners:

  • surrounding deer faves with deer repelling plants, but deer simply trample the plants they don’t like to get to the plants they do.
  • covering plants with netting, but hungry deer will push through netting to access leaves.
  • hanging stinky soap, stinky sprays, bags of human or dog hair, and shiny objects or wind chimes. Some worked temporarily. None, even alternating between these tactics, work permanently.

The only true deterrent I’ve tried is fencing. I’ve resorted to circling welded wire cages around newly planted trees until branches rest higher than deer can reach. Even newly planted deer resistant shrubs like Blue Point Juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Blue Point’) get caged for the first few years. Any deer-candy plants I want to grow live inside the 5-foot ornamental fence surrounding our back yard. Deer have yet to try jumping this fence because I have it’s outer and inner edges heavily planted. Supposedly deer hesitate to jump into closed in spaces if they don’t perceive ample landing room. So far … knock on wood … this has been the case.

And, before the ground freezes each autumn, I surround mature rhododendron shrubs with wire fencing and protect azaleas with wire cages.

Two repellent tactics I’ve not yet tried is placing welded or chicken wire on the ground in front of planted beds and surrounding planting beds, or even the yard, with a trap rock filled swaths. Supposedly deer don’t like to walk on surfaces that might catch their hooves or on highly uneven surfaces. I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried either of these means, or any other deer repelling tactics that may work.

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That’s a deer, granddaughter dear.

I was reading to my two-year-old granddaughter yesterday afternoon when the motion detector alarm by the front porch entry beeped. From our reading chair we looked out to find a four-hooved, instead of a two-legged, visitor. After allowing my granddaughter her first through-the-window close-up look at a white-tailed deer, we ventured to the glass storm door leading to the front porch. There my budding gardening companion had her first experience chasing deer away. A few loud knocks on the glass sent the deer scurrying off towards the woods. My granddaughter was taken aback by the deer’s sudden movement, but praise that she had done a good job helping grandma chase the deer away soon changed her tone. She proudly informed grandpa she had chased the deer into the woods. That’s my girl!

Deer are frequent visitors to my south-central Connecticut gardens. Generally, over the last 13 years in this location, I’ve been able to garden in spite of deer. Through much trial and error, and more expense than I care to tally, I’ve learned what annuals, perennials and shrubs are least palatable to deer in my area and what greenery local deer might munch and when. With this knowledge of local deer feeding habits, I’ve maintained attractive planting beds and shrubbery in areas not fenced to keep deer out, and have done so without spending much of my gardening budget on deer-repellant sprays.

My system worked well until this year. Deer browsing has increased to include a whole new set of previously deer-resistant plants.

I’ve had Amsonia ‘Blue Star’ in unfenced beds for all the years I’ve lived here. This is the first deer have browsed it.



Geranium sanguineum were previously browsed only in early spring when greenery is scarce. This year deer have repeatedly browsed them to the ground.

deer-browsed geranuim sanguineum-1


Deer have not yet shown interest in native hay, Christmas or Ostrich ferns but nibbled the tops off these Japanese painted ferns.



Local deer used to ignore peony. This autumn they’ve browsed and re-browsed this and a small, new peony.

deer-browsed peony-2


Two annuals local deer traditionally left alone were ageratum and snapdragon. Not this year. They also found verbena quite palatable in spite of a quality normally thought to confer deer-resistance … rough, hairy leaf texture.

deer-browsed ageratum-3     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Notice the perennial Lady’s Mantle at the top of the photo above? Deer also ate them down multiple times during late summer and autumn.

Deer chomped on a low-bush blueberry, a native shrub that was growing in it’s current spot when I began landscaping here; they ate the dry flower stalks off astilbe, and nibbled leaves off late-blooming anemone.

They also chose to munch on newly planted  Leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum), Star magnolia (magnolia stellata centennial), and juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Blue Point”), which prompted me to surround each with wire fencing.

Why increased browsing this year? I speculate it’s a combination of a growing deer population and the fact that surrounding oak trees dropped few acorns this year after producing heavy mast the previous two years. With few acorns as food, deer look for sustenance elsewhere.

Elsewhere happens to be whatever is green, even if green is sitting on a porch. Yep … deer came onto my porch to feast on potted tropical hibiscus, and potted mums. My neighbors report similar experiences.

It’s not unusual to chase deer out of the yard many times a day, whether light or dark … a lesson my granddaughter is learning at a very early age.

So I’m curious … what is your experience with deer this year?

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Snow-weighted shrubs often bounce back: a GOOPs lesson

Here we are at the start of another month, the day I share a GOOPs – a Gardening Oops. I fess-up a gardening blunder of my own from my 30-plus years of trial-and-error gardening and give readers a chance to share a GOOPs saga.

This month’s GOOPs revolves around angst and heavy snow.

Leading up to the October 29-30 Nor’easter snowstorm that still has thousands of my New England neighbors without electricity and heat, I heard lots of predictions of shrub and tree damage. In many cases these predictions were correct. Trees are  snapped and split all over Connecticut and other New England states. Because we were fortunate enough to not lose power, I had time to focus more on the fact that normally upright shrubs rested near or on the ground. Shrubs like these bayberry were seriously weighted down by snow.



This dogwood tree (center of photo) had branches nearly touching the ground and a five-foot tall winterberry (foreground of photo) was reduced to a ground-level mound of branches.


I was convinced these sights meant I was in for some serious pruning chores.  Lilac, laurel, boxwood, and ilex shrubs were similarly weighted down.

I used a broom to gently shake snow from bowed stems and branches. I supported each branch from the underside and carefully shook each free of its snow burden. Then I let the sun and warming temperatures do the rest.

By the next day most had recovered quite well.

Bayberry shrubs stood nearly as straight and tall as before the storm which means I can continue with my plan to prune them after their leaves drop.



The winterberry lost a few leaves and berries but generally looked as if nothing had happened. (It’s lower branches are missing because of deer munching.)



The once droopy dogwood again stood tall, its maroon leaves offering stark contrast against the snow.



Lilac, mountain laurel, boxwood and ilex shrubs likewise recovered with little branch breakage.

Yes, some luck was involved. My shrubs mostly bowed rather than snapped under the weight of the snow. My GOOPs was not having faith that my shrubs would recover. I immediately expected the worst when I should have known better. Shrubs and trees are often more resilient than doting gardeners expect.

After witnessing many, many split trees and shrubs in surrounding yards I can’t say I’ll have less angst when the next heavy wet snowstorm hits.  But next time I’ll try to recall how well so many shrubs and trees bounce back.

Do you have a GOOPs, a gardening faux pas or blunder to share? Do so in the comments below or leave a teaser comment that directs us to your GOOPs on your blog.

Here’s hoping my GOOPs do not become yours.  Garden thoughtfully.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 Joene Hendry