Blue Ridge Naturalist: Gardening in the Midst of White-tailed Deer

Deer aren’t supposed to kill plants.  The problem nowadays is that we have one deer after another coming by and taking some bites and pretty soon, there are no bites left to take! Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
Deer aren’t supposed to kill plants. The problem nowadays is that we have one deer after another coming by and taking some bites and pretty soon, there are no bites left to take! Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

© Marlene A. Condon

One summer day I delightedly watched a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) laying her eggs upon a shrubby Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) by my driveway.

(When trees come up where I don’t want full-sized trees, I prune them so they grow into shrub form instead of getting rid of them. Keeping them shrub-sized allows me to maintain native-plant habitat for wildlife in areas where I can’t accommodate large trees.)

Unfortunately, the very next morning my heart broke when I went to check on the butterfly eggs. I had planned to get into the habit of examining the plant daily so I wouldn’t miss the hatching of the eggs. But overnight, one or more deer had completely defoliated the small plant, taking every young succulent leaf upon which I had fervently hoped I would get to see Red-spotted Purple caterpillars.

I’ve never heard anyone mention that deer impact the reproductive capabilities of insects and spiders when they consume (albeit inadvertently) their eggs. Of course, this occurrence was not “bad” in and of itself, as the populations of all kinds of organisms need to be kept in check by various means.

But the reality is that deer predation of innumerable kinds of insect and spider eggs located upon plants is undoubtedly happening far too often nowadays in Virginia.  The deer population is out of balance with the rest of the ecosystem.

By the beginning of the 20th century, White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were almost extinct in Virginia, thanks to 300 years of overhunting by European settlers, their descendants, and new immigrants. But before the white man arrived, these mammals had been an integral part of the environment, providing food and clothing for American Indians for more than 12,000 years.

(NOTE:  Over the past few decades, some folks have tried to claim that Native Americans were just as disrespectful of the environment as Europeans. This contention is disproven by a simple fact: people living in hunter-gatherer societies cannot survive long if they don’t respect and value the wildlife and plant communities they are dependent upon for their own existence.)

Because of protective game laws and restocking efforts by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF), deer populations have rebounded over the past century. Unfortunately, however, for most citizens of the state, deer have been allowed to overpopulate much of Virginia, as is obvious by how often you see these large animals. They should not be so numerous as to be visible to humans almost daily.

Yet according to the introduction to the DGIF 2006-2015 Deer Management Plan, “Virginia currently does not have many widespread ‘overpopulated’ deer herds.  Although Virginia’s deer herds are often portrayed as being overpopulated, most can best be characterized as being at low or moderate population densities, below the BCC.”

BCC means the Biological Carrying Capacity, which refers to the ability of the landscape to support a species at a level that does not result in harm to either the animals themselves or to the environment. Thus as far as the DGIF is concerned, as long as deer appear healthy and are not obviously starving, the agency feels that these animals have not reached their BCC in most areas of Virginia.

But the only reason that deer are healthy and seem—to the DGIF—not to be overpopulated is that these hoofed mammals truly have an almost endless supply of food in the form of the average home landscape. However, lawns and gardens should not be taken into account when deciding how many deer comprise a “natural” population density because these areas artificially inflate the BCC.

What should count for management purposes is only how much natural landscape exists for deer, which would substantially lower the density of deer per acre of land in Virginia. Obviously deer would still find their way to suburban gardens, but there would be far fewer problems for gardeners (and drivers, farmers, orchardists, etc.) if there were far fewer deer around in the first place.

As long as the DGIF Board of Directors is composed solely of hunters or relatives of hunters, and as long as a majority of hunters feel that more deer are better than fewer, you are unlikely to see a decrease in the numbers of deer per acre anytime soon.

So how does the gardener coexist with an unending stream of deer coming by for a bite? There are steps you can take.

Because deer can jump as high as eight feet from a standstill and perhaps a bit higher from a running start, you would need a nine-foot-tall fence around your entire yard or food garden to totally exclude them.

Another option, depending upon the size of your wallet, is to build a six-foot-tall brick wall, which is more aesthetically pleasing. Deer will not jump over an obstacle if they can’t see what’s on the other side.

You can also use electric fencing which will give deer a shock, but it is high-maintenance and, in my opinion, a bit mean-spirited.  After all, deer are simply trying to survive; they aren’t trying to be troublesome.

If your garden is quite small, perhaps consisting of just a few tomato and pepper plants, for example, you may find that a wire cage around each plant will be sufficient.  Deer will be able to feed upon the parts of the plant that grow beyond the cage, but you might get enough tomatoes and peppers from inside the cage to be satisfied.

For vining food plants (such as cucumbers), you can grow them upon a trellis and can quite often keep deer at bay by using row covers. Simply cover the entire trellis with the cloth until the plants start to bloom. At that point, you will need to uncover the trellis each morning so that pollinators can reach the blossoms.

You must remember to cover up the trellis again before nightfall.  Of course, any deer active during daylight hours will be able to feed upon the exposed vines, so this method works best if your yard tends to be populated by people or a confined dog during the day.

When growing plants for beauty, rather than a source of food, I recommend using cages for woody plants until they have “hardened” and (with luck) have become less palatable for deer. However, you must be willing to make sure that each plant never leans upon its cage. Such support will cause the trunk and stems to be weak and the plant will be unable to support itself after you’ve “freed” it.

You should consider buying plants from catalogs or local nurseries that label the plants that deer are not particularly interested in. Keep in mind, however, that buying only plants that deer are not supposed to want to eat is not a guarantee of success. The tastes of deer sometimes change over time due to a change in what kinds of food are available for them.

Lastly, the best way to be a happy and contented gardener is to simply accept that you may not be able to grow particular plants in the presence of deer. For example, I love the fragrance of old-timey roses, but when I tried to grow them, the deer literally ate them to death.

Rather than fencing the plants, which would have detracted from their beauty and my enjoyment of them, I changed what I could—how I felt about the situation.  I accepted that roses were not something that I could grow, at least not as long as there are so many deer to contend with.

More details on gardening in the presence of deer and other kinds of wildlife can be found in Marlene’s book, The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books).  Autographed and inscribed copies can be purchased from the author.


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