By Sally Cunningham
Deer are living among us, from Amherst to Orchard Park, Grand Island to Eden. It isn’t their choice; it isn’t a problem they created. They need acres to roam, woods for shelter, and lots of plants to stay alive. Humans have encroached, as humans tend to do, and left the animals with insufficient habitat. In addition, we have killed or driven away their natural predators. The rural hunting culture is also less popular now, and largely unsuitable in the suburban neighborhood. So deer reproduce and try to live. What else are they to do?And how do they survive? They eat your shrubs. Home landscapes provide perfect deer fodder, in the form of well-nourished, succulent plants, grouped conveniently together. (Deer don’t need concentrated high-protein food as much as a quantity of stems, twigs, and budsspecifically called “browse material.”) Especially late in winter, the tips of our shrubs may provide the only nutrients they can find.
For many homeowners locally, the deer pressure (the number per acre) has become so severe they have given up gardening. But we do have options to minimize deer damage and achieve comfortable coexistence. It isn’t easy; it is a trial-and-error process. But for those who refuse to give up their gardens, it’s worth the effort.
Know your (four-legged) neighbor
We should understand the animals we live among, especially if we want to outsmart them. Two deer characteristics may help you keep a garden:
1. Deer are xenophobicfearful of anything foreign or strange. That is why most deer-scaring tricks (lights, radios, barking dogs) work for a while, until they get used to them. Still, you can do a lot to make the environment around the garden seem weird to them, and keep them away for awhile (see top of next page). When deer are migrating, your set-up will deter lots of them. But the resident animals eventually figure out your tricks unless you keep changing the game.
2. Deer are creatures of habit. They usually repeat their travel routes, and take to certain eateries, just as we do. So it’s extremely important you get deer repellants, blocks, and scare devices in place early every season. Once Mama has introduced the kids to your salad bar, you’re probably “in” for the duration, and they can leapor tear apartmany a barrier.
The least desirable meal
Every list of “deer-proof plants” is relative. Every “safe” plant meets a testimonial to the contrary (and a deer that will eat it). Still, many scientists have done serious deer-preference research and surveys. We know deer favorites and their least preferred. What they finally eat depends upon the deer/habitat ratio, and the weather and population fluctuations each year. When they’re desperate, they eat.
The lists that follow show a tiny sample of deer-proof plants; there are many more. Most published listings show you most-preferred, occasional, and least-preferred suggestions.
Perennials: aconitum (monkshood), astilbe, brunnera, dicentra (bleeding heart), foxglove, helleborus, iris, lambs’ ears, lavender, ligularia, nepeta (catmint), peony, perovskia (Russian sage), rodgersia, thalictrum (meadow rue).
Groundcovers: ajuga, epimedium, galium (sweet woodruff), gingers, lily-of-the-valley.
Bulbs: allium, fritillaria, narcissus (daffodils).
Shrubs: boxwood, butterfly bush, calycanthus, chamaecyparis (false cypress) enkianthus, forsythia, Ilex glabra (Inkberry), lilacs, microbiota, mock orange, red-twigged dogwood, myrica, spiraea, weigela; also some junipers, spruces, and pines (varies by species).
Gardening among the deer is challenging. Conditions change year by year. Newcomers or babies try plants the parents never ate. Habitat disappears a mile away, and your yard is now the hottest place in town. Expect them. Know you will have to keep changing your strategies, and use several at once.
It may also help to keep our perspective. These are beautiful creatures. Many of us still feel privileged to see them. They did not ask for our over-crowded world, andwhile we copewe might try to muster some compassion and a little awe.
Sally Cunningham gardens and landscapes in East Aurora, New York, among the deer. She is a garden author, lecturer, TV garden advisor, and consultant at Lockwood’s Greenhouses.
(Rememberour xenophobes learn quickly, so keep it moving)
|Foreign smells: Scented dryer strips, fragrant soap bars, Liquid Fence and other products containing Thiramall are weird in deer-world.
Odd flooring: Old carpets, shower curtains or tarps, or chicken wire laid on the ground around a garden often keep deer from walking there, until the snow is deep.
Horse manure: Manure, spread around a planting, repels. (Avoid fresh manure touching plants.)
Fencing: While some deer can leap 10-foot fences, they need an open area and running start to do so. (They can’t leap up straight from a close position.) So 7-foot fences can help. In many areas, gardeners succeed with a simple post and single-wire fence at 5 feet, strewn intermittently with repellant-soaked white cloth strips.
Smell of the enemy: Coyote or fox urine has tested well as a natural repellant they do not get used tobecause they smell a real enemy. Human hair in bags, dog urine (and yes, even human urine along the garden edge; don’t ask the particulars) may all deter deer.
Plant covering: Products such as the Shrub-Coat product line save the rhododendrons. Deer netting and burlap may work, or may be torn.
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