Gardening with Deer: Select, Protect, and Inspect
As an avid home gardener, I feel like a kid in a candy store when I visit my favorite local plant nursery. With so many types of beautiful trees, shrubs and perennials to choose from, it’s hard not to buy up the whole store! But, by keeping a few important factors in mind, I’m able to limit my shopping sprees — at least a bit.
What to Buy
First, I try to select native plants whenever possible. Species indigenous to this region are hardier, less susceptible to pests and diseases, and less likely to become invasive pests spreading beyond the garden.
Next are the more typical considerations of location for the new plants and growing conditions there. Does the spot get direct sun most of the day, or is it shady? Is the soil heavy clay that holds water like a sponge, or sandy and dry? What bloom color, leaf texture and ultimate size would complement existing plants in that part of the garden?
And last — but certainly not least! — I consider the likelihood that these lovely new plants will become a midnight snack for the white-tailed deer that frequent my yard. Deer populations in our region are at unprecedented, ecologically unsustainable levels. As a result, deer have become the ultimate arbiters of what grows in my yard … and our region.
What’s a homeowner to do? To help us live more harmoniously with these hungry herbivores, Tim Burris, Natural Lands Trust’s wildlife management coordinator, recommends a select, protect and inspect approach.
Select. While it may seem like deer eat everything in sight, certain plants are more likely to be left alone (“deer resistant”). Others can sustain some damage and still survive (“deer tolerant”). Species with a strong fragrance, hairy leaves, or pungent tastes are generally deer resistant.
Also keep in mind that deer appetites are a bit like humans: they have regional preferences. Plant species eaten in one location may be left alone several miles away. Deer browsing habits can also depend on the time of year, alternative food sources and inquisitiveness (deer may nip at a new plant just to see what it is).
Protect. Like many property owners, Natural Lands Trust’s large preserves make it too costly and impractical to fence out the deer. Instead, we install tree shelters whenever we plant new seedlings — and we plant thousands of trees every year!
Tree shelters are photodegradable plastic tubes that protect the vulnerable plants from deer until the trees grow above the “browse line” — the point at which deer can no longer reach to feed on the foliage (usually about five feet).
Even when fencing is an option — and you’ll need an eight-foot high fence — it can be expensive and must be maintained. Repellents can be effective on a smaller scale, if applied regularly, especially in late winter and early spring when deer are at their leanest and have the fewest alternatives. Don’t buy the gallon jug, but rather alternate repellents since deer get used to a single variety. If you spray frequently, invest in a high quality sprayer for the best coverage. Natural Lands Trust staff members like back-pack sprayers.
Inspect. You have invested time, effort and money into your trees and other plants, so don’t walk away now! Inspect them regularly. Check your fencing and repair it, if necessary. Remember to reapply repellents after rain and alternate types.
Diligence is essential if you’re going to give your new plants a chance, especially in areas where deer browse heavily. Your attention will be rewarded with plants that thrive!
Natural Lands Trust is the region’s largest land conservation organization, preserving open space in eastern PA and southern NJ. The organization’s Center for Conservation Landowners offers consulting services about creating more sustainable landscapes. 610-353-5587;