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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12 comments for “Preventing deer damage

  1. November 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Joene, I know from accidental experience that the hooved rats, aka deer, stay away from unstable surfaces. I bought 16 tons of traprock because I liked the texture. After a year or so, I noticed no plantings in the traprock had been grazed. Years later, that’s still the case.

    That said, I’d be hard-pressed covering my acre of gardens with traprock.

    • joenesgarden
      November 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

      Lee, I had your traprock area in mind when I wrote this post. You are the only gardener I’m aware of using traprock, albeit inadvertantly, as a deer deterrent. I find the idea intriguing from a design aspect, though I suspect only the so-called 1% would be able to afford installing a traprock barrier instead of fencing.

  2. November 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    We are lucky that we do not have a deer problem. The reason we do not have a deer problem is that our backyard is on a slope and fenced, and I believe it is difficult for the deer to jump the fence from downhill. However, we do have rabbits, groundhogs, and raccoons that, from time to time, wreak havoc on our plants and veggies. I try a myriad of solutions…some work, some don’t, and some I must diligently reapply for them to be effective. The bird netting seems to work best, but it can be very unattractive. Good luck!

    • joenesgarden
      November 7, 2011 at 10:22 pm

      Sage Butterfly, I consider myself lucky to not have to deal with rabbits and groundhogs. There’s an advantage to having fox, coyote, and fisher hunting my area.

  3. November 8, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    You have tried everything I have, and it is clear there are no resistant plants or foolproof methods. What they damage here each year varies. I do know that anything new, freshly planted out of its nursery container, will immediately be sampled (high nitrite content from the container fertilizers attracts them) After a season they may leave it alone, but will always eat anything just planted.

    I have tried battery operated stakes with a scent lure that deliver a zap when licked. Worked for a season but they have to be moved about for novelty and won’t re-stick into frozen winter ground. Battery operated electric wires stretched around beds works for a friend. Barking dogs in the yard at night work, but that’s not an option here.

    I loved your post about your granddaughter learning to chase the deer away. I need a helpful granddaughter!

    • joenesgarden
      November 9, 2011 at 8:14 am

      Laurrie, thanks for the info on the scent lure zap stakes. I’ve wondered about their efficacy and figured they would work only for a while … like all repellents. Battery operated wires are not an option for me. Don’t want to risk zapping my granddaughter, and a barking dog is definitely not an option here either. I guess it helps to know others are having der issues similar to mine.

  4. November 8, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Joene, I’m convinced that deer preferences are so specialized and vary from garden to garden. And of course, plants on their prefered pathways throughout gardens are tyoically eaten, regardless of their ‘deer resistance’. I’m going back to basics this fall and using soap pantyhose- a trick i haven’t deployed in years.

    • joenesgarden
      November 9, 2011 at 8:19 am

      That’s interesting, Debbie. I’ve done the same and also hadn’t used the technique in years. Testing how well it works to prevent browsing on a climbing hydrangea. After a couple of weeks the hydrangea leaves seem to be regrowing but now something keeps nibbling on the soap! I’m using Irish Spring .. what type of soap are you using?

  5. November 14, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Hi Joene, after many smugly deer free years I’ve moved to a neighborhood crawling with them – yikes! So far the noise and smell of my dogs has kept them at bay, but I’m afraid to go on vacation :)

    • joenesgarden
      November 14, 2011 at 10:57 am

      Best of luck, Cyndy. I hope your dogs continue to keep deer at bay. You may have to resort to temporary fencing when you leave your Asylum-South.

  6. November 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Deer hunting is the most cost effective management tool and goes until the end of January and there is no land size restriction for archery. We invite you to visit http://www.FindAHunter.com to locate a hunter in your area to help you manage the deer population on your property. FindAHunter.com is a national program linking landowners to available hunters.

    • joenesgarden
      November 21, 2011 at 8:44 pm

      Renee, Thanks for the info.

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