No Thanks, Deer -Winter 2016
by: Hilary Newell
Depending on what you think about white-tailed deer and their place on the island, they are either a force to be reckoned with, or their presence is to be embraced.
Regardless of your position in this debate, the fact remains that they are here, and they will eat plants in your yard. They will eat tender, young, thriving shoots, or buds that are just about to open to their full glory. Or entire shrubs. We have no choice but to coexist with these creatures. A little education and consistent vigilance go a very long way in keeping deer-browse damage at bay, but deterring deer is a four-season job, and if you are serious about having a flower or vegetable garden, the effort is worth it.
The most foolproof method for keeping deer out of your plants is to install a fence. Opinions vary, but it is widely accepted that most white-tail deer can’t jump eight feet in the air, and so an eight-foot fence is high enough to keep them out. Aesthetics vary from person to person, and while permits are required for permanent fences here on Nantucket, off-island readers will have fewer restrictions in choosing materials. There are pros and cons to so-called invisible fences, wire fences, wooden fences and plastic fencing. There is no “onesize-fits-all” solution, but there are good resources to find out what works best in your area. Your state extension agent will be very knowledgeable, and fencing companies like Wellscroft Fence Systems have multiple solutions that will work with your budget. You could also consider a thickly-planted shrub hedge combined with fencing or invisible netting.
But fences aren’t for everyone. If you aren’t going to put up a fence, know this: no deer has ever read that list with the title “Deer-Proof Plants.” If a deer is hungry enough it will eat just about anything, including some plants which are extremely poisonous to humans. How they can do this is still up for debate, but
they will eat aconitum, rhododendrons, and plenty of other plants that would kill people. There is no single failsafe technique to protecting your plants from deer damage, but using a multipronged approach can go a long way to having a garden where deer are less likely to browse.
There are more than 20 commercially-available deer repellents on the market today, and some of them are very effective. Repellents work by making plants taste and smell bad to deer. Putrescent eggs, dried blood, fish meal, meat meal, capsaicin (hot pepper extract) and garlic are all highly effective when used regularly. While Bobbex, Liquid Fence and Repellex have all worked in our yard, that is not to say they are the only effective repellents out there. Bobbex needs to be applied very regularly, as it acts like a coating on plants. New growth that happens after the plant is sprayed is not protected, so reapplication is crucial. It also needs at least six hours to dry, so don’t apply before it rains or your effort will be wasted. I last used Repellex systemic tablets several years ago and the results were very, very good. The tablets go in the ground near the roots of the plant and it gets absorbed up into the leaves and flowers, so one nibble by a deer is enough to make them move on. We’ve been using Liquid Fence for a couple years and that has kept the varmints from eating some delectable hydrangea “Shamrock” that was previously devoured. Again, consistency is key. Follow the label directions to see how often you need to apply. The systemic tablets are not recommended for vegetable plants, as the taste of the final product will be adversely affected. Be sure to read the labels to find out if the product you are using is approved for food crops.
And now, I need to mention the um...aromatic qualities...of these products. There’s no blunt way to say it, but many of them really stink when they are being applied, and they continue to stink until they are dry (usually 6-8 hours). This is what makes them work. In order to survive, deer have developed an enhanced olfactory system that allows them to sense the presence of predators. The good news is that once it dries, humans can no longer smell it, but the deer can. So be sure to wear some kind of clothing protection when you apply, or be prepared to toss everything you are wearing right into the wash.
There is one more barrier-type deterrent that has been used with success. It’s a sort of “shock therapy” for the deer, and it works because deer have sensitive snouts. When the deer tries to sniff or taste the bait on a rod, a mild electric shock is delivered directly to the tongue or nose. Only about as strong as static electricity shocks from clothing right out of the dryer, it’s very humane enough to make the deer remember to “stay away from this spot.” The rods should be placed near plants that deer like to browse on and they can be moved around your yard as you see damage occurring. Again, consistency and vigilance are key here. Freshen the bait and be observant to where damage is occurring, and change the batteries regularly. Three rods are enough to control the deer in a small to medium yard. They are
available from garden centers and online retailers. Using these certainly mitigates the short-term odor issues that result from sprays. Vary your methods and products to keep the deer confused. I know a large property where they employ a number of defenses including a sprinkler set-up that is triggered by a motion sensor, so as deer (or people or a flock of geese) enter the yard, the sprinkler starts to spray and everything runs or flies away. It works great until someone forgets to turn it off before invited guests arrive!
So besides physical barriers like fences and repellents, the next most obvious step in preventing deer damage is to not plant things they like. They love Hedera Helix (English ivy,) several varieties of holly, lilies, pansies, yews, azaleas, hostas, daylilies, young tender phlox, tulips, clematis, hybrid roses, oakleaf and bigleaf hydrangeas, evergreen azaleas and some varieties of deciduous rhododendron, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. In the tree world, apple, crabapple, cherry, pear, plum and Japanese maples are favorite snacks. If you can manage to get these trees to grow above six feet tall, the deer will only nibble the lower portions, though I observed a doe standing on her back legs snacking on the fruit of our crabapple tree one winter. Several books list American holly as deer-proof, as it is toxic and thorny. However, Nantucket deer seem to thrive on it. There are some large specimens on the island (in Squam Swamp in particular) that have escaped being mowed down by deer, so I guess it’s safe to say that like the trees mentioned above, if your holly reaches a certain maturity, the deer may nibble the bottom leaves, but anything over six feet should be safe. Bird feeders are also attractive to deer, so if you are inviting the birds to a feeder near your garden, deer will be enticed to come into the yard.
Because of their advanced sense of smell, plants with a strong aroma are great choices for your garden. All plants in the Allium family, like onions, garlic, shallots, leeks and chives are likely to be left alone. By extension, the ornamental types like Globemaster and Gladiator and the more diminutive yellow Allium Jeannine provide deer resistance, upright interest and long-lasting blooms in the perennial garden. Other herbs and scented plants like ginger, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme are usually safe bets, too.
Deer usually steer clear of thorny plants as well, so cleome, some roses, locust and hawthorn trees, and certain succulents like agave, are safe to plant. Deer generally don’t eat any members of the Viburnum family. They will eat roses, particularly thornless ones, so choose roses with more thorns if you just have to have roses.
There are plenty of perennials and annuals and bulbs that are generally left alone by deer. Of course, the ubiquitous daffodil is at the top of the list, and while they are harbingers of approaching warm
weather, they don’t make for a great summer garden. So what else can you plant that the deer won’t eat? My front yard is a deer runway, so I can tell you what has worked for us. They don’t touch the epimediums and ferns that line the front porch and walkway. We’ve had success with ostrich ferns, Christmas ferns, hayscented ferns, sensitive ferns, wood ferns, and holly ferns. I had a brake fern get nibbled once, but it may have been a curious rabbit, as the fronds were just lying there where they fell. Japanese painted ferns will likely get eaten, too. Grasses are also a great choice, and while they don’t have splashy flowers, their seed heads are attractive from mid-summer through winter. We’ve had success with fescues, pennisetums, Carex and several Miscanthus varieties. Try Miscanthus zebra grass and silver grass. And remember they will need to be divided every couple years. Abelia grandiflora, with its long-lasting, fragrant white blooms and Vitex agnuscastus with its August-September lilac spikes are both located on our deer thoroughfare and they emerge unscathed every year, along with spring blooming Enkianthus. Wild elderberries at the edge of the woods
provide us with fruit for pies and it appears the deer don’t like them either. Proven Winners has introduced four ornamental types that they claim are deer-proof, too. The ornamental qualities make up for the lack of fruit in Black Beauty, Black Lace, Lemony Lace, and Instant Karma. Hypericum (St. John’s Wort) and Angelonia (summer snapdragon) round out the flowering plants in our yard. Angelonia, has no discernable scent, no thorns, is quite pretty and blooms all summer. It seems like the perfect deer food, but they don’t touch it. Hypericum’s long-lasting yellow blooms also seem like they would be perfect snacks for deer, but they walk right by it, preferring to eat the hydrangeas.
Even if you have deer pressure, you can still have flowering annuals and perennials, too. Our back yard is fenced, and the deer come right up to the outside of the fence where Rudbeckia Goldsturm and Echinacea purpureum are planted. Bunnies sometimes nibble the young shoots, but once they are established, the deer don’t eat the flowers. And I find fresh prints right next to the plants. I tempted fate and nestled a Queen Elizabeth rose in the middle of that bed, and it seems the aroma of the Echinacea keeps them from touching the rose. The overgrown Viburnum Doublefile on the deer highway in that yard is a testament to their distaste for that particular plant. It could stand a good trim, but the deer just leave it alone. There’s a Callicarpa on that side of the house, too, and clearly it is distasteful to the deer. The tiny purple berries provide a fun burst of color as the fall wears on.
We’ve had very good luck with lots of varieties of salvia. In the same family as sage, salvias probably don’t taste very good to the deer. Planting specimens of S. Uliginosa (bog sage,) S. elegans (pineapple sage), S. sylvestris May Night, S. nemorosa Blue Hill and S. leucantha (Mexican bush sage) will keep you in deer-resistant color from spring through late fall. Hummingbirds and butterflies are big fans of salvia too, and it’s not unusual to see them hanging around your pineapple sage and bush sage late into the fall season.
Now, just to add to the conversation, there’s a completely different method one might use to keep the deer out of your garden, and that is to plant plenty of things they love. While this may seem counterintuitive, it isn’t really. Giving deer something to eat at the edge of your property may keep them from even entering your yard. I have only read about this method, so I cannot comment on how well it works. It would appear to work in the same vein as surrounding your vegetable garden with lettuce plants for the rabbits to nibble on – keeping them happy enough that they don’t venture any further into the veggie garden. A friend tried this and said the bunnies kept the lettuce mowed right to the ground and they never ventured further. Lettuce seed is much cheaper, though, than providing shrubs for the deer to intentionally eat.
There are no simple solutions to keep the deer from chomping on your plants. Using a combination of deterrents, physical barriers like fences and hedges, and choosing plants that deer are usually not interested in seems to be the answer and there’s no doubt that it is a challenge. A traditional English perennial border may not be in your future at your Nantucket home, but it is possible to create an attractive, colorful space with trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. ///
Hillary Newell is a freelance writer, a regular contributor to Nantucket Today, and the marketing director at Bartlett’s Farm.