Master Gardener: Deer can take a big bite out of your garden | Lifestyles

A question Master Gardeners commonly hear is, “How do I keep deer from eating my plants?”

I’ve had reports of deer damaging a wide variety of trees and shrubs this winter, and even knocking down temporary fencing to get to landscape plants.

Deep snow during the winter is sure to make hungry deer look for food in backyards. As deer populations increase, the likelihood of more deer conflicts also increases.

Deer will feed on flowers, fruits, vegetables, ornamental shrubs, tree buds and twigs. Browsing can disfigure trees and shrubs. Deer can also do damage by rubbing their antlers on small trees, shredding them, or rubbing the bark off.

Deer are also a host for blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks.

Western New York has seen a rise in the number of these ticks over the past few years. They are now frequently found in backyards, not just “wild” areas.

Deer like to live on forest edges rather than in mature forests. Their preferences are mixed conifer-hardwood forests, shrub lands and old fields with cropland nearby.

This mixture gives them plenty of food and cover.

Deer are very adaptable which allows them to move right into suburban neighborhoods, which have a combination of lawns, gardens, trees, shrubs and cover. During late spring and summer deer feed primarily on grasses, forbs — as herbaceous flowering plants are called — crops, leaves, twigs, and buds. They forage on mast, such as beechnuts and acorns, in the fall and concentrate almost entirely on twigs and buds through the winter and early spring.

You can distinguish deer feeding damage from rabbits and rodents by looking at the cut.

Deer do not have upper incisors. When they take a bite, they leave a ragged, broken end on browsed branches.

Rabbits on the other hand leave a clean-cut. Mice and voles gnaw, leaving small tooth marks.

Another indication is the height of the damage. Deer will stand on their hind legs to reach leaves, up to about 6 feet.

While there are no simple solutions to preventing deer damage if they visit your yard, don’t give up hope. There are some things you can try.

It is easier to prevent damage than it is to stop it once deer find your garden. Fencing or fencing plus deer repellents is the best option, especially if you have valuable plants to protect or deer populations are high.

Permanent fencing is not inexpensive. In addition to cost, local zoning laws, aesthetic considerations, and ease of construction should be considered.

You might decide to go with a fence if you take into account the cost of annually replacing landscaping and reducing tick encounters in your yard.

Repellents aren’t a perfect solution either. They are supposed to discourage deer feeding by having either an offensive taste or odor.

Research has shown that odor-based repellents usually perform better than taste-based materials. Look for products that have a sulfurous odor or contain decaying animal proteins such as putrid egg solids or slaughterhouse waste such as blood. No commercial repellent is 100 percent effective and what works in one location may not in another.

Repellents should be sprayed on the plant material to work effectively, which can be time consuming. They need to be reapplied about every five weeks under heavy deer pressure.

For the best results, repellents should be applied before damage occurs and before deer become accustomed to feeding on the plant.

Repellents tend to be the most cost effective when the following conditions exist; deer numbers are low to moderate; damage has been light to moderate; the acreage involved is small and only two to three applications are needed for control. Apply commercial repellents according to the directions on the manufacturer’s label.

In some cases, homeowners can reduce damage by selecting plant species that deer find less palatable. However, if deer populations are high or natural foods are limited, especially during winter or early spring, hungry deer will eat plants that they normally would not bother.

There aren’t any plants that are 100 percent deer proof, but some plants are less appealing and have been labeled as “deer resistant.”

Deer resistant plants often have leaves or stems that are hairy, rough, or spiny. Aromatic compounds in stems or leaves are also less appealing to eat.

Lavender, thyme, mint and boxwood are considered aromatic plants, whereas the fuzzy leaf of lamb’s ear is less palatable to deer. Some plants, like daffodils, snow drops, and monkshood are poisonous and avoided.

Tender new growth in the spring can make a plant, even a resistant one, susceptible to browsing.

There are lists of resistant plants that can be used as a guide. Sometimes it is trial and error as the deer in your neighborhood may have different tastes than the deer the next town, county, or state over.

Trees and shrubs listed as deer resistant include: juniper, pawpaw, river birch, scotch pine, sassafras, eastern white pine, ironwood, American holley, bottlebrush buckeye, daphne, bayberry, elderberry, fragrant sumac, blue mist shrub, lilac, fothergillia, hazelnut, Oregon grape holly, and spirea.

Some of the perennials that deer reportedly do not like include: brunnera, lamium, bee balm, yarrow, allium, lily of the valley, snakeroot, bleeding heart, catmint, meadow rue, foxglove, wood fern, sweet woodruff, epimedium, foam flower, hellebores, hyacinth, ostrich fern, poppy, pulmonaria, sea holly, Russian sage, rhubarb, chives, lemon balm, oregano, and switch grass. annuals include marigold, calendula, snapdragon, geranium, cleome, dusty miller, coleus, alyssum, salvia, calendula, globe amaranth, nicotiana, wax begonia, elephant ear, dill, nasturtium, and basil.

If you need ideas specific to your landscape, contact your local Master Gardener office.

Have a gardening question?

Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office 10 a.m. to noon weekdays. You can stop in at the CCE office at 420 E. Main St., Batavia, call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail [email protected]

Join us on April 21 at noon for an early Earth Day program: “Planting with a Purpose — Using Native Plants in the Garden.”

This hour-long program will be held at the CCE office and on Zoom.

What if your garden could help bring back homes for our native songbirds, butterflies, bees, fireflies, and beneficial insects? How can they do that?

Simple — Add back native plants.

This program is meant to be a help to those gardeners who want to add native plants to their yard but aren’t quite sure what to do. We’ll talk about the benefits native plants can provide and how you can incorporate them into your garden.

If you would like to attend this program in-person, please register by April 18.

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