Barring Bambi – How to Browse-proof Your Plantings
Is Bambi eating you out of house and home? With winter here and hordes of hungry deer, protecting your garden from grazing damage can be a challenge. Here at New England Wild Flower Society, we struggle with the same issues. Read what you can do at home to help your garden and the local animals get along.
Horticulturist & Plant Records Coordinator
Browse proof your plantings
Wildlife in the backyard is one of the joys of a countryside home. Deer, with their soulful eyes and graceful form, are a symbol of peace. Yet few gardeners feel peaceful after deer have grazed to the ground choice specimen plants that have been lovingly tended all year. What’s a gardener to do?
Fortunately, there are several inventive and proven barriers against deer browsing. Deer barriers fall into a few types: chemical, visual, and physical. In using any of these approaches, it is important to note that starving animals, deer included, will eat even toxic material.
With room, plants that grow quickly and that deer love to eat can be planted at a distance from the plants you want to protect. This is distractive feeding. Adding some barrier to the protected plants makes the fodder planting the easy choice. Animals are very geared toward finding the most nutrition for the least effort.
Another trick is to place a salt lick well away from your plantings. If there is a large woodlot available, this is ideal. If not, perhaps there is a spot where a neighborhood salt lick can be placed to the satisfaction of the neighbors. This will help everyone’s deer browse problem. Please be aware that salt licks cannot be placed out during hunting season in some areas (to prevent their use as an unfair hunting tactic).
Break the habit
Deer are creatures of habit. They take the easiest and safest course across your land and stick to that track unless pressed to change. On a new property, this means you can steer the deer where you prefer them to go with barriers and sprays before they settle into a feeding routine you don’t like.
Several wire cordons, hung with cloth flags of a light color, are enough to block deer and confuse them visually. Be sure the deer cannot slip under the bottom cordon (less than 10” from the ground) or leap over the top (more than 8’). Flags will discourage deer from trying to pass between the wires and generally spook them (at least initially). Aside from wire cordons, a full-fledged fence on sturdy posts, chain link or heavy-duty mesh can be used. Deer fences are the most effective solution. Fences are also costly and won’t work aesthetically for everyone. Deer fences must be 8' high and attached to the ground to prevent them from going under. Be aware of local zoning regulations if you plan to install a deer fence. Many communities have height restrictions and require special permits to install a fence over a certain height. Cattle grids have been shown to be ineffective once the deer become accustomed to them.
Another trick is to tie several cordons of fishing line across an area where you want to block deer from entering, or to steer them away from a planting. Fishing line is nearly invisible from only a few feet away, harmless to the deer, and effective. I have used this in the Western Garden at Garden in the Woods where treading and grazing caused extensive damage to new plantings. Blocked and confused by the lines, the deer group chose a new pathway altogether.
You can also use inedible plants as a barrier. For example, a wide, thriving skirt of Rhus aromatica "Grow Low" circling your Rhodies will deter deer. When using inedible plants as barriers, be sure that they are wide enough to prevent deer from simply leaning over them to reach protected plants. The object of the exercise is to keep the deer moving along to an area where you do not object to browsing. Choice and tasty plants, like oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), can be covered with fine mesh netting, such as the type sold for orchard use. At a distance, fine mesh is all but invisible and affords effective protection.
Some companies sell statues of coyotes in an aggressive posture. I have heard mixed reports on their effectiveness. Tin pans and clackers have also been employed, and Japanese have long used "deer knockers." Motion-sensor irrigation towers, which spook the deer with a sudden spray of water, also work for a time. The downside of these methods is that deer appear to eventually ignore them.
This year at Garden in the Woods, we created a free-form bamboo fence to block deer from plantings reserved for endangered butterfly larvae as feeding plants. Though the fence was quite open, deer preferred not to stick their heads through the gaps in order to feed. We also found that spraying the fence with deer repellent caused the deer to move along without even stopping at the fence (no tracks milling about the fence area). This shows that a visual barrier that only partly blocks physical access, combined with a scent deterrent, can work well. We received no damage to this area.
Throw them off the scent
Use of scent brings us to the chemical method of deer protection. There are a number of products on the market that are similarly effective. My personal experience has been that antifeedant sprays that contain different combinations of egg yolks, garlic, peppermint oil, and cinnamon are the most effective. Some drawbacks of spraying are that it must be done when there is enough dry weather for the spray to dry, plus excessive rain or hot weather shorten the time before spraying must be repeated. In the summer, this can amount to spraying every week. Temporarily, the odor can be unpleasant.
Bambi needs to eat. However, with some creativity and effort, you can have your garden and the deer. Following is a list of plants that are useful for distractive feeding during winter, as well as a list of plants that deer will only eat if they are truly starving. Visit our nursery to find these plants for sale from April into autumn.
Deer browse plants -- tasty to deer and able to regenerate growth:
Cornus sericea – red osier
Cornus amomum – silky dogwood
Hydrangea arborescens – American hydrangea, hills-of-snow
Ilex decidua – deciduous holly
Viburnum nudum -possumhaw
Viburnum acerifolium – maple-leaf viburnum
Deer-resistant shrubs/ small trees:
Rhus aromatica – fragrant sumac
Rhus hirta (Rhus typhina) –stag-horn sumac
Rhus glabra –smooth sumac
Leucothoe axillaris –coast doghobble
Leucothoe fontanesiana – highland doghobble
Fothergilla gardenii – dwarf witch-alder
Fothergilla major – mountain witch-alder
Lindera benzoin –spicebush
Ilex opaca – American holly
Euphorbia corollata – flowering spurge
Agastache species – American hyssop species
Pycnanthemum species – mountain mints
Apocynum species – dogbanes
Salvia species – sages
Asclepias species – milkweeds, butterfly weed