Deer damage to ornamental plants is a recurring problem in many areas. Deer populations in many neighborhoods have grown due to suburban sprawl. In areas with heavy snowfall in the nearby woods, front and backyard plantings can serve as easy winter forage. It can be difficult to keep your landscape deer free, but it’s not impossible.
“Deer are selective feeders that eat leaves from flowers, shrubs and ornamental trees,” explains Tchukki Andersen, BCMA, CTSP* and staff arborist with the Tree Care Industry Association. “Damage to larger trees can extend up to 7 feet off the ground.”
In some areas, deer damage peaks in winter when snow cover reduces the food supply. Most areas with overpopulated deer herds experience problems year-round. The availability of natural food sources and the taste preferences of individual deer make deer-proofing a landscape a difficult task in many areas.
“Deer will eat almost any plant rather than starve,” says Andersen, “so damage control measures will be needed in addition to careful plant selection. Use of fencing and repellents also can help control deer damage to landscapes.”
Fences and plant protectors
An 8-foot-tall fence is generally sufficient to deter deer, but a double fence (fence within a fence) is most effective. In the latter case, space the fences about 4-feet apart to prevent deer from jumping both. If the cost and appearance of a double fence seem overwhelming, try tree protectors or wraps. These help to discourage deer from browsing on young trees. Plastic tree wrap, woven-wire mesh cylinders or burlap can be used to protect individual or group plantings. Be sure to unwrap shrubs at the end of the winter to allow for healthy plant growth.
Repellents may help deter deer, but they do not eliminate damage completely. Homemade repellents include rotting eggs (mix two eggs with a gallon of water and spray the mixture on ornamentals). The eggs rot on the plants and the smell repels deer. Human hair hung in mesh bags makes a simple repellent. Hang the hair bags on the outer branches of trees about a yard apart and replace them monthly. Bars of strong-smelling soap hung in the same way will also work. This is a good way to make use of all those aromatic Christmas gift soaps you don’t plan to use. Most repellants have limited effectiveness, so switch them up to keep the deer guessing.
Once deer taste your garden, it is difficult to rid them of the habit. Replacing your current mix of trees and shrubs with plants that are less appealing will help move the herd along to other sites. The Tree Care Industry Association recommends planting trees that have a history of surviving areas of heavy deer activity, such as:
Downy serviceberry, redbud, hackberry, pinion pine, juniper, paper birch, Japanese false cypress, magnolia, silver maple, peach, plum, willow, Japanese cedar and Colorado blue spruce.
Best shrubs and climbers
Larger, tall shrubs tend to withstand deer browsing better than low-growing ones because they have more leaves, making them able to withstand some defoliation; and taller plants are out of reach. Try these shrubs:
Barberry, pawpaw, boxwood, caryopteria, American bittersweet, red osier dogwood, Japanese plum-yew, creeping wintergreen, hollies, leucothoe, European privet, Japanese andromeda, Virginia creeper, blueberry elder, lavender and rose of Sharon.
Check with your local garden center or tree care company for a list of trees and shrubs in your area that are the least appealing to deer.
Find a professional
A professional arborist can assess your landscape and work with you to determine the best trees and shrubs to plant for your existing landscape. Search for a qualified tree care professional in your area.
*Board Certified Master Arborist, Certified Treecare Safety Professional