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.
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.