Smart gardening to deter deer

Stop deer damage in your garden or landscape with smart gardening techniques.

Photo: Derek Smith, Flickr.

Photo: Derek Smith, Flickr.

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It can be heart-wrenching to look out at your prized garden and find that your plants have been completely nibbled away. Gardeners have been plagued by deer damage for generations, but why are we seeing more damage than ever to our home landscapes?

As natural habitat is lost to new roads, homes and buildings, deer begin to spend more time in areas populated by humans, such as your backyard. Deer are just as happy foraging in your yard as they would in a natural area. In fact—they may actually prefer what you have planted over their natural diet.

By understanding deer behavior, learning how to divert attention away from your plants and making the garden difficult to access, you will take the first steps towards thwarting deer damage in your landscape and garden.

Plants deer love

Deer damage primarily happens during the night, but deer will feed anytime they are hungry on a wide variety of plants. No plant is absolutely deer-proof and preferences for certain plants may not be the same from one area to another. However, there are some plants that are like candy to deer and you may want to avoid.

Deer damage on Arborvitae

Feeding injury from deer on Arborvitae. Photo: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

Evergreen shrubs such as our native cedars (landscape Arborvitae) and yews are some of their wintertime favorites. They will also browse on rhododendron, winter creeper, holly and false cypress. They also like small deciduous trees, such as Japanese maples, and many ornamental shrubs including roses. Herbaceous plants that hold their leaves through winter such as Heuchera will also be a target for hungry deer.

In spring and summer, deer will seek out lush herbaceous plants like tulips and newly emerging Hosta or daylilies. They may eat recently planted annuals or just yank individual plants out of the ground while taste-testing.

Hosta deer damage

The stems are all that remain of this Hosta after being eaten by deer. Photo: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

In late summer, male deer use the trunks of woody plants that are 2 inches wide or less to rub off their antler velvet. These “buck rubs” can create lasting scars and structural weakness. Deer also love all parts of fruit trees, which makes it important to protect those trees year-round, particularly when they are young.

Buck rub

Male deer use trunks to rub off their antler velvet, leaving damage known as “buck rubs.” Photo: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org.

Make smart plant choices

The best defense against deer is to plant things they are known to dislike. Deer tend to be put off by fuzzy, coarse or “fern-like” foliage, and leaves or stems with strong odors or spines. Some plants less attractive to deer are lamb’s ears, hellebores, ornamental grasses, ferns, catmint, Russian sage, lavender and snakeroot. While deer love tulips, they tend to avoid other bulbs such as daffodil, allium, grape hyacinth and autumn crocus.

As for trees and shrubs, deer often avoid pines, spruces, larches, cypress and boxwood. In spring and summer, Forsythia, Weigelia, Spirea and Ninebark attract fewer deer. For late-season color, try Callicarpa (Beautyberry) or Potentilla.

The Michigan State University Extension publication “Deer-Resistant” Plants for Homeowners” has a more comprehensive list for your reference. Again, no plant is 100 percent deer-proof.

Use repellants to show deer what is off limits

Using a variety of commercial or homemade repellants can also be an effective tool to thwart deer browsing. Repellants use three techniques to deter deer—bad taste or scent and fear.

Bad taste and scent repellants often contain ingredients such as capsicum pepper, putrid egg solids and garlic. Fear repellants, on the other hand, contain scents that warn deer of predators, like coyote urine and animal remains.

Motion-sensing noise-makers and water scare tactics are another option. Coupling these devices with some of the repellants can send a clear message your garden is off limits.

All repellants work to some degree, but deer can acclimate to one, so rotate them using several different types. Be consistent about reapplying to keep the repellant fresh. After consistently encountering your repellants, deer will change their traffic patterns to avoid your yard and you may be able to then reduce repellant use.

Unfortunately, repellants may not totally deter deer. Repellants lose their taste and scent from rainfall or irrigation. They also cannot protect new leaves and shoots that emerge after your application. In winter, deer are more desperate for food and may tolerate repellants. Your only option may be to cover or block deer from plants, shrubs and trees.

Barriers that work

One sure-fire way to stop deer browsing is to fence your whole yard, which can be costly and otherwise undesirable. Physical barriers such as wraps, netting and small fencing are much more practical. Even though deer can leap over a 6-foot fence, they are sometimes reluctant to enter a smaller area like a fenced bed of Rhododendrons or yews.

Consider attaching netting to stakes with staples, twine or zip-ties to protect larger plants. Old tomato cages, wire-hanging baskets and milk crates can be anchored in place with tent stakes to cover small plants. Be sure the holes are small enough that they cannot squeeze their noses in between.

You can also protect young trees from buck rubs by wrapping trunks with plastic or paper tree wraps. Be sure to occasionally replace wraps to avoid moisture build up or insect infestation. Young trees can also be protected with wire fence cages that are supported with stakes.

Wrapping a tree trunk

Wrapping a tree trunk with paper tree wraps can help avoid deer damage, including buck rubs. Photo: Sarah Rautio, MSU Extension.

During the growing season, deer are frustrated if they have to stick their nose or hooves through something they cannot see. Try running fishing line through a perennial garden, creating a “web” of confusion (using the perennials themselves or simple garden stakes). They also are unlikely to step on uneven surfaces such as crimped, undulating chicken wire fence laying on the ground in front of a bed.

Take action now to avoid unwanted deer activity in your garden. Just remember these three smart gardening tips:

  1. Choose SMART plants that deer do not like.
  2. Apply SMART repellents to deter deer.
  3. Create SMART barriers to block deer.

Download tip sheet version of this article: Smart gardening to deter deer

For more information on a wide variety of smart gardening topics, visit the Gardening in Michigan website or call the MSU Extension Lawn and Garden Hotline at 1-888-678-3464. You can also visit us at the following 2017 winter shows and programs: Cottage and Lakefront Living Show Feb. 23-26 in Novi; West Michigan Home and Garden Show March 2-5 in Grand Rapids; Smart Gardening Conference March 4 in Grand Rapids; and Lansing Home and Garden Show March 16-19 in Lansing.

This material is based upon work supported by the USDA and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture award number(s) 2014-70006-22498.

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