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How to Reduce Deer Damage over the Winter


I first wrote this article in 2011, and am updating it to reflect the fact that the deer in my neighborhood have gone from the occasional majestic loner to large family groups, visiting my garden for tasty snacks, without even saying “Trick or Treat.”

Fall is the time to act to reduce deer damage to your landscape this winter. The most effective solution is fencing, and it has to be eight feet high.  Of course your county will have regulations on the type and height of fence that you can have installed, so please check before you build. My back yard has a six foot stockade fence on one side and a five foot stockade fence on the other. Deer occasionally hop the shorter fence, and have discovered all of the hostas I moved from the front yard for protection.  For those of you with severe deer feeding pressure, a combination of fencing and strategic planting are your only real choice. For those gardeners that see an occasional deer track or a couple of dozen headless tulips (variety ‘Ichabod Crane’), your strategy is to encourage the deer to feed elsewhere. (Your neighbors will not thank you.) Remember: a deer’s job description is not particularly lengthy, and right up near the top is: “Eat.” So they are pretty good at it.

As seasons change, the preferred food sources of deer change, as well. The evergreen shrubs that the deer ignored while they were munching on your leafy hostas in the summer months suddenly look pretty appealing in the late fall and winter when most plants have either dropped their leaves or disappeared by craftily going dormant or dying. Deer develop new browsing trails as food sources change with the seasons, and repeatedly follow them through the season until new food sources begin to appear. By applying repellents before you see damage, you may encourage the deer to move along and not include your landscape in the current or next season’s browse buffet.

There are many repellents, all with advantages and disadvantages.  The primary disadvantage is the smell of many, which reflects their content (blood, rotten eggs…).  As my friend from Texas used to say, “they smell bad enough to gag a maggot.”  Those Texans, they get all the good lines.

One that I routinely apply with a small pump-sprayer is called “I Must Garden” which smells of cinnamon or mint rather than rotten eggs, this being a plus as far as I’m concerned.  That said, everything I have read emphasizes the need to rotate through different repellents to reduce the risk that the deer will adapt to them, so I know I should get out there with some other stinky repellent to increase my odds. Note that if the winter is severe, the repellents will not be effective as the deer become increasingly hungry. Dealing with deer is like predicting the weather: it all comes down to percentages and imponderables, and we tend to notice when things go wrong. Of course, you must read the label instructions for how to apply and the effective temperature range for application.

I’ve asked our Garden Pharmacy buyer Mike Bader to list his favorites, based on our customers’ experience. In addition to the “I Must Garden” brand, he also recommends “Liquid Fence” and “Bobbex,” unfortunately both smelly.

Deer-Resistant Plants
Early fall is also a good time to plant deer-resistant plants (notice, this is “deer-resistant” and not “deer-proof”; and I have also found that rabbits will sometimes eat plants that the deer leave alone, like Japanese painted ferns and liriope).   Behnke’s deer-resistant plants are indicated with a logo on our signage, and we have several lists of recommendations that you may pick up in the store. My strategy has been to transplant the deer-candy perennials from the front yard to the modestly-fenced back yard and replace those plants with deer resistant plants.  (“Move along, nothing to see here.”)  And then spray the heck out of the remaining vulnerable plants like azaleas and hydrangeas and hope for mercy.  I have shade perennials, and the roving gangs of delinquent deer have never bothered my Japanese forest grass, sedges, hellebores, ferns, woodland phlox (‘Sherwood Purple’), epimedium, or the resistant bulbs I have planted over the years.

I’m at my best in the early morning, and being of a certain age, I still get the printed Washington Post, so I often see deer prancing around the neighborhood in the waning darkness as I go out to retrieve the paper.  I do my best to shoo them away, sometimes flicking a white handkerchief which mimics the tail-up distress visual of a fleeing white tail deer. I don’t know if this scares them, but I enjoy it.  I have also learned to be careful with the bucks this time of year, as one particularly large one (elk size, almost) that I was taunting chased me up the driveway.  They move FAST!

We wish you good luck in your “gardening with wildlife” adventures.

by Larry Hurley, Behnke’s Horticulturist

Photo credit.

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thank you for your excellent article on deer proofing. I just would like to add that though Liquid Fence smells bad when I first spray it on, by the next day I don’t notice any bad smell. That might be a good thing to mention. It has worked very well for us in Silver Spring.

    Thanks again!
    My best,
    Robin L.
    Loyal Behnke’s customer

    1. That is true, I should have mentioned that. If the neighbors can stand it for the first few hours, it’s not so bad…

      Thanks for following through. United Against the Deer!!

      Larry H

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