Deer: A Beautiful Disaster For Your Shrubs

Deer are both beautiful and frustrating. They are charming to watch, but they can also wreak havoc on your garden. Deer can pose an aesthetic and economic threat. When food is scarce, deer will eat anything to survive. Unfortunately, the first to go are your ornamental trees and shrubs. Deer will even eat right down to the bark!

Deer damage plants by browsing on vegetation throughout the year and especially during the dormant season when there is less food available. The first damage is noticed in the spring on new growth. Deer lack upper incisors, which causes browsed plants to have a torn appearance. They strip the foliage of a tree leaving no teeth marks; rabbits leave a sharp 45 degree cut, and rodents leave narrow teeth marks. If your twigs and stems show a rough or shredded surface, it is a direct result of deer damage.

Because many newly developed areas are off limits to hunters, many deer never leave developed areas. Deer have essentially adapted to living in suburbia due to the presence of wooded areas in close proximity to open areas. During the day, most deer stay in the thickest vegetative cover possible. At dawn and dusk, deer venture out in search of forage. Deer begin by browsing from the top down, eating the most preferred plants first (concentrated forage). In areas with a high deer density, there is a visible browse line, where vegetation is trimmed from the ground up to the deer height (3-6 feet above ground). Deer create an enormous amount of damage to woodlands. When an area is over browsed, there is no regeneration or under story. The habitat for other critters is virtually destroyed.

Deer become more destructive as their hunger increases. During severe winters, all available plants are browsed. Browsing of ornamental plants may increase after heavy snowfall because their mobility is limited and other food sources are covered by snow. Snow forces the deer to move to lower elevations where plants are more accessible. Normally deer will not dig below eight inches of snow to obtain forage. However, as forage dwindles deer will dig deeper for food.

There are various management practices to help prevent deer damage. Fencing is the most effective method for exclusion. Electric fences are inexpensive and useful in protecting your trees and shrubs. The fence shocks the deer and trains it to avoid the fenced area. Another alternative is the permanent woven wire fence, which requires more maintenance and a larger investment. A solid fence such as the stockade is generally more effective because deer won’t jump over a fence when they can’t see what is on the other side. Fences should be at least eight feet high, and extend underground to prevent fawns from crawling underneath them.

Repellents are another option to reduce browsing of prized ornamentals. They are commercial products that make plants distasteful and deter deer from an area based on odor. There are two types of repellents: contact and area. Contact repellents are directly applied to plants and repel deer by taste and odor. They use inedible egg solids, cayenne pepper extract and garlic to repel deer. Area repellents are placed in a specific problem area. They repel by foul odor, and are more effective on less preferred plants. The key is to alternate repellents. Deer become accustomed to the same repellent over time and may begin to ignore it. Deer will altogether ignore the taste and odor of the repellent if they are hungry enough. Repellents work best when applied before feeding patterns develop and when they are reapplied every month.

Deer are neophobic (afraid of novel objects). Scarecrows, bright lights and noisemaking devices (exploders, whistles, wind chimes, radio) can all be used in combination with other strategies to reduce deer damage.

Landscaping with deer resistant plants is another alternative. Whether or not a plant will be eaten depends on a variety of factors: the deer’s nutritional needs, previous feeding experience, plant palatability, time of year and availability of wild foods. Ornamental plants are highly preferred by deer and receive the worst damage. These plants are notoriously susceptible to deer damage: hosta, azaleas, yews, arborvitae, apple trees, eunonymus, rhododendrons, tulips, and hydrangea. Susceptible species should be planted near your home in a fenced area. Deer resistant plants should be planted on the outside of the fence. Plants that are bitter, spicy, and thorny are extremely unpalatable to deer. These plants are known to be resistant to deer browsing: pachysandra, daffodils, birches, Japanese andromeda, boxwood, spruces, oleander, rosemary, mountain laurel and autumn sage.

No single tactic works on all deer, and no plant is “deer proof”. These damage control methods will not achieve perfect deer control, but they will significantly reduce deer damage.

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