By Cathy Caldwell
Piedmont Master Gardener
It’s hard to imagine that in 1900 white-tailed deer were nearly extinct in Virginia. The state’s largest herbivore has made a dramatic comeback over the past century, but its recovery has taken its toll on our forests, agriculture, health, safety and, of course, our gardens.
Whether or not a particular plant will be eaten depends on the deer’s previous experience, nutritional needs, plant palatability, seasonal factors, weather conditions and the availability of alternative foods. Deer are creatures of habit, with good memories and the ability to learn from each other. And they’re voracious, consuming three to five percent of their body weight every day. Once they become accustomed to feeding in an area—say, your yard—they will likely continue.
Deer behavior varies by region; in other words, the deer in our region may behave differently from those elsewhere. This fact probably explains why a repellent spray or device might work well in one area, but not in another. Weather is a major factor; deer browsing increases in extreme weather, such as drought or extreme cold. In summer, when more of their favorite plants are available, there may be less damage than in winter. In summer, repellants, scare devices, or temporary fencing may provide satisfactory protection. In winter, deer become more desperate for food, so damage to your landscape shrubs and trees generally increases. This is especially true for shrubs, particularly evergreens.
Combatting “deer munch” in your garden can be frustrating. Once deer become accustomed to feeding in an area, they will likely continue. It is easier to prevent them from developing the habit in the first place. If you are seeing deer damage for the first time, take immediate action to discourage and prevent deer browse.
Experts say it’s best to try several different strategies to find out what works best in your yard, and that most strategies are more effective when you employ several together.
As most gardeners have learned, there’s really no such thing as a deer-resistant plant. There are lists of plants typically shunned by deer, but even these plants are sometimes eaten by deer. Fuzzy or prickly plants and herbs with odors are far less likely to be heavily damaged by deer. Deer also find most ferns and grasses, like pink muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), unpalatable.
Deer prefer native plants, probably because they evolved together. For those of us who are trying to include more natives in our gardens, this presents a conundrum. However, there are native plants that are rarely damaged by deer. See the May 2021 issue of the Piedmont Master Gardeners’ newsletter, The Garden Shed, for lists of deer-resistant native and non-native plants at piedmont mastergardeners.org/garden-shed/. Click the “Back Issues” button.
Reducing Deer Browsing
Try placing your most vulnerable plants near your house and walkways; deer may even leave a rhododendron alone, if it’s right next to a well-used door. Another strategy is to surround deer favorites with more resistant plants, especially herbs whose odors seem to repel deer, such as mint, sage, and nepeta.
Using Deer Repellants
The repellants rely on either bad smells or bad tastes (both are best) to deter deer. They have to be reapplied OFTEN and AFTER EVERY RAIN. Changing the formula regularly improves effectiveness.
Repellents work better at reducing winter browse than summer browse. Winter means the deer diet turns to broad-leaved evergreens, like cherry laurels and rhododendrons. Have repellents ready and start spraying early.
Fencing is the only reliable way to exclude deer from gardens and landscapes, and it’s essential to protect the vegetables or fruits you grow. An effective deer fence must be tall enough that deer won’t jump over it; eight feet is the standard. A shorter fence can work if supplemented by other measures such as an electrical wire, if that’s not prohibited by an ordinance or HOA rules. Another possible addition is a shrub border outside the fence, which not only obscures the deer’s view but also forces the deer to leap the hedge plus the fence. The University of Maryland has an excellent video on types of deer fencing (www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAvRY-AQWOQ).
Some gardeners have had success with various DIY fences made from bird netting or vinyl-coated wire, especially if they create an element of confusion for the deer by threading wire through the fence at angles or by adding an outside layer of ropes or wires—the so-called 3-D fence.
Wire cages are effective in preventing damage to trees from antler-rubbing by male deer in the fall. Get this protection in place before the fall and leave it there until the end of December. To be effective, the cage should be at least 1.5 feet in diameter and three to four feet high.
You might also try this trick: hang a “pretend” fence—a couple rows of twine—along the perimeter of vulnerable garden areas. It can reduce the winter munch on your plants, although—deer being deer—it may not work again. But outwitting the deer even once is satisfaction enough.
Native Plants Rarely Damaged by Deer
- Shadblow serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
- River birch (Betula nigra)
- American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
- American holly (Ilex opaca)
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
- American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
- Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
- Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
- Sweetbay or Swamp Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
- Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
- Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Small Trees and Shrubs
- Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
- Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
- Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)
- Sweet pepperbush or Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
- Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
- Drooping leucothoe or Coast leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana or axillaris)
Annuals, Perennials and Bulbs
- Tall and lanceleaf Coreopsis
- White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda)
- Beebalm (Monarda didyma)
- Meadow rue (Thalictrum)
- Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
- Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
- Dutchman’s britches (Dicentra cucullaria)
- Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
- Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)