Deer versus your landscaping: The epic battle is set to begin

Discourage determined deer from coming to dinner with repellents and barriers.

DeerWith a sure and steady step, winter is approaching. Each winter presents its own challenges. This is especially true when estimating what kind of damage deer could occur to a home landscape.

Since winter conditions are rarely the same each year, there are several indicators that deer may be visiting and feeding at your diner more often or more vigorously. The first is snow cover. If snow is deep or stays on the ground for a long time, deer will be hungrier because food is more difficult to find. If the temperatures are very cold, deer need more calories to stay warm. It may be necessary to prevent deer damage to certain woody ornamental trees and shrubs even if the winter is not severe. Even trees or shrubs that are on the “not preferred” list can be chewed up. It is also possible to be on a “deer trail” that brings them by or through your yard.

Let’s look at some possible deterrents to deer munching before it happens. Michigan State University Extension horticulture educators and Master Gardener hotlines usually receive calls after trees and shrubs are chewed, so it is important to be there first.

Deer repellents

Repellents work when the weather is warm enough that the repellent still has its odor. The colder the temperatures, the more the odor dissipates. They only work if the deer are not starving. Hunger can make deer just hold their noses and eat. Stinky food is better than no food.

Barriers for deer

These can take two forms: vertical or horizontal fences.

Vertical barriers. Most gardeners are familiar with putting posts or stakes in the ground and securing a temporary fence to the posts. Now is the time to put the posts in before the ground freezes. These don’t have to be wooden posts. They could be metal T-posts that are driven in with a sledge hammer or a fence post driver.

The fencing does not have to go up immediately, but getting the posts in is the most time-consuming. If deer are the only problem, using 4-foot tall woven wire farm fencing with rectangular openings could be all that’s needed. Place the fence on the side where the deer will be. If they lean into the fence, the posts help support it.

For a more successful fence, consider buying insulators, 16- gauge wire and a fence charger and put it above the existing fence. An electric fence topping another fence can make believers out of the most determined deer. Mark your fences with pieces of flagging tape or strips of plastic to flip and flap in the wind to make the fence visible. A couple of jingle bells attached to the fence will also make the deer aware of something different in the area.

Horizontal barriers. These work on the principle of the cattle guards that separate fenced pastures in the western states. The cattle will not step on something that could ensnare their feet. For a deer quickie: Place concrete blocks on the ground. Unroll and slide the fencing flat on top of the blocks. By creating a square or a rectangle around certain woody ornamentals, the deer will not step onto or into the horizontal fence. If the wire is chicken wire and they step on it, it will sink. If it is woven wire farm fencing, they cannot place their feet into the holes to walk in.

Place the fencing far enough from your tree that a deer cannot lean over and nibble a branch. This can also be done with the concrete blocks and old farm gates. The only time this does not work is if there is deep snow that hardens so much that the fence is buried and they can walk on top of it.

Buying supplies for the winter deer protection hurts worse the first year. All parts can be stored for the next winter. Look for supplies at farm stores and grain elevators in your area. Concrete blocks can be purchased at lumber companies and home improvement stores. Plan and buy now while the weather is not so cold or wet. The deer are watching.

Photo credit: David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

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