Snow + solar panels + deer fencing = A Gardening Oops

Welcome to the first day of March 2013 – Gardening Oops (GOOPs) day here in Joene’s Garden. On the first of each month I share a gardening faux pas hoping you can learn from my experience, and give you the chance to share a faux pas – or GOOPs – of your own. My March 1, 2013 tale is the result of three, seemingly unrelated, objects. When combined the three became a gardening oops.

Study this photo to see if you can predict what happened.


This GOOPs tale begins with two rhododendron planted, about fifteen years ago, as small shrubs on either end of our front porch. With time they grew to over six feet tall and about 5 feet in diameter because each autumn I install chicken wire fencing around each shrub to prevent winter browsing by resident white-tale deer. Each spring I remove the fencing at about the time deer move deeper into the woods to fawn. Using this method, I’ve had no deer browsing on either shrub … until now.

A couple of years ago we had roof-top solar panels installed over the garage and along the roof-peak of the central section of the house. The panels were installed well after I planted the foundation shrubs.

During the first winter, when we had small snowfalls, we learned that snow slid – with considerable force – off the garage roof panels and landed on the boxwood shrubs planted below. Fortunately the shrubs incurred no damage from the sliding snow that first year. To prevent shrub damage from heavier snowfalls my husband built a-frame forms that I now place over the boxwood shrubs before the first predicted snow. Our observations also told us that most snowfalls would slide off the solar panels with enough force to miss the rhododendron and its protective winter fencing.

All was fine until the blizzard of 2013 hit our south-central Connecticut region. In less than 24-hours we received a period of powdery snow followed by a period of sleet and rain followed by another extended period of snow. Snowfall amounts totaled three feet, snowdrifts reached 5-6 feet.

We had one day to clean up as much snow as possible before leaving for a pre-planned vacation. We left home suspecting that snow falling off the solar panels might flatten the fencing meant to protect the rhododendron. We returned to find this,


and the previously fully-leaved rhododendron looking like this.


Here’s the deer-browsed rhododendron (left) compared to it’s sister shrub (right) still protected at the other end of the front porch – under the section of the house without solar panels.



During my younger, less seasoned, gardening life I would have been devastated at the sight of this rhododendron. My more seasoned self has learned to go with the punches. Rather than mourning this turn of events I see this as an opportunity to plant something more deer resistant and less likely to grow out into the solar panel avalanche zone.

What can we all learn from this GOOPs?

  • Roof-mounted solar panels present unique hazards to plants directly in the line of avalanching snow.
  • Deer will take advantage of any opportunity to munch on greenery during the winter. This is a lesson northern gardeners in deer territory learn again every year.
  • Instead of crying over munched leaves look at the bright side … the chance to try new plants that better suit the conditions.

I have a few rhododendron replacement ideas but would love to hear any you may have for my zone 6 garden. I’d also love to learn of any snow-related or deer-related GOOPs you’ve experienced in your gardens. Share your suggestions and/or your GOOPs in a comment below or share your GOOPs on your blog, leaving a teaser comment below.

Garden thoughtfully,


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7 comments for “Snow + solar panels + deer fencing = A Gardening Oops

  1. March 1, 2013 at 8:37 am

    I planted a school garden in an unhospitable parking lot strip along the wall of the school gym. It transformed the space and is (was) quite pretty. In the 35 years the school has been there, there has never been the need to shovel the roof. Until the winter after I planted the shrubs there of course. All were flattened 2 (or was it 3?) years ago. I pruned them back and many grew back well and everyone told me it would be fine-what are the chances of that much snow again if it never happened in 35 years? Well now 2 years later they are seemingly smashed from the force of the snow being shoveled from above again. (still can’t quite see the damage as they are still buried-but I can see broken sticks poking through) Time to rethink this garden–my idea? Way more herbaceous plant material, less woody shrubs!

    • March 1, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      Diane, Those not designing for northern gardens – not receiving significant heavy snow – do not understand the need for planting plans that can handle such snows. It seems unexplainable to those without true heavy northern snow experience that weight of these snowfalls can destroy any non-herbacious perennials. After all, should we really expect southern garden designers to understand how iron fences, sturdy mailbox posts, and other ‘sturdy structures’ can be moved/bent/deformed/broken by plow-pushed snow? Most, if not all, woody shrubs suitablde to our zone do not survive such abuse. Thank goodness for medium- to low-growing grasses!

  2. March 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Solar Panel Avalanche Zone! Love the term.

    I am always amused at the pictures in magazines of gardens that border driveways, or foundation shrubs that are under eaves, or woody plants that line a walk — my first thought is where will the snow go? I know that’s not a concern for garden designers who publish in magazines, but it’s a reality for every inch of gardens here!

    I like your optimism about the opportunity for new plants, and will look forward to seeing your replacement ideas (any replacement still has to take an avalanche drop now and then!)

    My GOOPs is on my blog today. It’s about coneflowers.

    • March 1, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      Laurrie, I encountered this issue – that of driveway edge plantings – in my landscape design lessons. While it is good design to plant along driveway edges, it is not always practical for northerners. The force of snow, specifically heavy wet snow, when massed into a plow push is not fully understood unless one actually witnesses it. The weight/force is usually underestimated which leads to wrong plant, wrong place, and damage. My designs take snowfall depths and snow management into consideration. This is why I’m rethinking the foundation plantings beneath our solar panel avalanche zone. Right plant, right place could not be more appropriate for such situations.

  3. March 1, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    Maybe I’m not seeing what you intend to show in those pictures, but don’t you think the rhododendron will bounce back from its “pruning”? I agree it may not be the best plant for the location, but do you think it was killed outright by the deer? As for shrubbery along a driveway, I grew peonies along the driveway at our old house. They had a shrubby presence during the growing season, but died down to the ground for the winter, and did not at all mind the snow shoveled on top of them.

    • March 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Kathy, I expect the ‘pruned’ rhododendron will bounce back, but it will not be as vigorous as its sister rhododendron that did not suffer deer browsing. The area in which these shrubs are planted is now full sun after the removal of many trees in preparation for the solar panel installation. When originally planted, it was partial sun. I would continue to allow the rhodies to grow in their now full sun conditons, but deer ‘discovering’ one gives me impetus to make some landscape changes. Potential replacements must meet the following requirements: narrow growing patterns that will not be affected by solar panel avalances, deer resistance, evergreen growth patterns and, if not deer resistant, needing needing minimal, narrow deer fencing. It’s time to listen to such clues to create less maintenance intensive plantings in ther areas of my property faced with deer browsing.

      Peonies sound like a perfect choice as driveway edge plantings. Last autumn I added peonies to the bed now covered in solar panel avalance snow. I hope to plant more peonies in this and the sister bed on the other end of our front porch since their growth patterns accomodate northern snow falls.

  4. March 4, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Joene, My rhodis look like that, too. I’ve never seen deer-browsing quite this bad on rhodis before and we’ve been here for 20+ years. I’m hoping what Kathy says is correct and the spring will bring some much-needed new growth. If not, I’m going to be seeing an awful lot of rhodi-knees from now on. 🙁

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