Deer are known for their ability to run and jump. But to a growing number of property owners, it’s a deer’s tendency to loiter around nibbling on plants that is earning it a whole new reputation.
“Many of our properties that never had problems are starting to,” says Steve Walker, landscape management operations manager at The Pattie Group in Novelty, Ohio. “I’m talking about the more built-up areas, too. In fact, the more country-esque you get, the fewer deer problems you probably have because the deer have more to eat.”
It’s in those established areas where deer pressure is becoming a problem that landscape companies are having to proactively address.
“The whole concept of deer and wildlife control is something that comes up more often than not when meeting with residential clients in particular,” says Patrick Popehn, director of operations at Rock Solid Landscape & Irrigation in Andover, Minn. Rock Solid primarily does landscape replacements in established neighborhoods. That’s where they are seeing more deer foraging resulting in damage to gardens and flower beds.
There are a few explanations for what appears to be a consistent uptick in deer pressure. First is that the overall deer population remains strong. Second is the continued expansion of the suburbs into what had been wide-open agriculture land. The addition of homes, landscaping and plants is what actually draws deer in. Deer see an interesting, new food source in an area where they feel relatively safe.
“Aside from automobiles, there’s aren’t a lot of predators for the deer to worry about in these types of areas,” says Sean McNamara, owner of Great Oak, producer of DeerPro deer repellents. “And now there is plenty of food with all of this beautiful landscaping to help the deer survive.”
The ability for deer to find other food sources also plays a role, and nature plays a big role in that.
“Deer like to carbo-load on acorns to build up their fat reserves for winter,” McNamara explains. “Like anything with nature, things go in cycles. Some years there are a lot of acorns, and some years there are hardly any. Those are the years when deer get more desperate for food during the winter. To help predict if deer are going to be a big problem, landscape contractors can start keeping an eye on nut-bearing trees like oaks. Start looking at acorn mass toward the end of summer and into the fall.”
Planning for deer pressure
If deer get desperate enough, there probably isn’t a landscaping plant they will refuse to eat. That said, there are several that aren’t their favorite and may deter them from the landscape. Examples of repugnant perennials include lavender and daffodil.
On the flipside, there is a long list of plants that deer tend to really enjoy. According to McNamara, that list includes rhododendrons, arborvitae, hemlock, pine and azaleas. Popehn says you can add hosta and clematis to the list. Walker has been surprised to see deer begin chomping on hydrangeas. For a complete list of plants that deer do and don’t like, a landscape company could check with its closest university extension office.
When taking all of this into consideration, it’s pretty difficult to design a landscape with only what is thought to be deer-repulsing material. Furthermore, as Popehn points out, deer aren’t necessarily a problem year after year. Do you really want to avoid an extensive list of beautiful plants just in case deer become desperate and want to turn your backyard into an all you can eat buffet?
“You also need to think about some of the potential trade-offs,” Popehn adds. “You might plant something that’s supposed to be more deer-friendly, but that might invite pressure from other pests like birds or bees. Finding that middle ground that works for the client can be really tricky.”
McNamara can attest to that dilemma. “For 30 years up here in Connecticut, people planted a lot of boxwood to deter deer,” McNamara says. “Eventually we started seeing problems like boxwood blight, leafminer and psyllids that were just exploding. You get rid of one problem but create another.”
One landscape design technique is to fortify the deer-enticing plants to restrict access. For example, Popehn says you could plant an arborvitae, and then construct a small decorative fence around it. Thorny plants like roses could also be planted in the area to create a barrier. Landscape designers could also consider strategically placed retaining walls that make it harder for deer to access plants, while also adding some additional character to the landscape.
During the winter months, you can wrap trees and shrubs to protect them. “I really like burlap,” Popehn says, adding that the prevention of winter burn is an important benefit of its own. Plus, deer aren’t going to take the time to try and chew through the burlap wrap. Similarly, Walker says The Pattie Group likes to use netting.
In some instances, Popehn says you just have to take a step back and question if using a certain plant in a certain instance is even sensible. For instance, if the client wants three arborvitae in their front yard, are they also open to having a fairly long run of fence to keep deer away?
“When we’re having these conversations with customers, we always like to say that if deer are really that big of an issue, we may need to find a different plant solution,” Popehn says.
In many instances, the most sensible solution is simply giving the customer the landscape and plants they love and then coming up with effective strategies to help protect those plants.
Cost-effective plant protection
As pointed out, fencing is a common landscaping addition to help protect plants. But that adds cost and may be something the client doesn’t really want. Furthermore, as McNamara points out, fencing may need to be at least 10 feet high to keep deer out. The homeowner could run into issues with local zoning codes on a fence that tall.
Another suggested deterrent is to lay woven fencing on the ground to make it difficult for deer to meander through the area. Again, that probably isn’t something most homeowners will be eager to embrace. The same can be said of predator decoys. “Some of these things can be tough to pull off when what we’re after is aesthetics,” Walker says.
Just like with protecting against insects, there are plenty of application products out there designed to deter deer. Like with anything, some work better than others. McNamara says spraying will prove to be the most cost-effective solution with the least disruption to the landscape.
According to McNamara, a landscape company should look for proven, professional-grade products that aren’t available to the everyday homeowner. DeerPro Winter, for example, can be sprayed directly onto plants in the fall to provide winterlong protection. “It’s a fungicide with a strong taste deterrent,” McNamara explains. Then plants like arborvitae and rhododendron are generally safe all summer because deer have plenty of other food sources in the way of broadleaf weeds and deciduous shrubs.
During the spring and summer months, DeerPro has a separate product that can be used to protect things like hosta and daylilies. “This is both a taste and smell deterrent that most contractors will want to apply from April through August or even September,” McNamara says. This product is designed to smell at a low level but for a longer duration. While it’s strong enough to turn away deer that are attempting to nibble on the plants, McNamara says a human being hanging out on the patio won’t be bothered by it.
The Pattie Group has experimented with several application products over the years. During the summer months, they’ve always used different deer-deterring sprays, typically applied with a handheld pump sprayer directly to the plant.
According to Walker, some can really stink, which makes for an unpleasant job for the applicator. Crews have also tried using granular products that are sprinkled in flower beds. Walker says those worked OK but gave off quite an odor that some customers didn’t appreciate. Granular products can also lose their efficacy if a heavy rain washes them away.
Now Pattie Group crews are using coyote urine to deter deer. Thus far, after a season and a half, it appears to be working quite well.
“It comes in a tube,” Walker says. “We fill up some small plastic jars and hang them around the property on tree limbs. Deer get a whiff of that and don’t want to stick around. We need to reapply it about once a month. Then, as an added measure, we’re still applying a deer repellent directly to the plants during the growing season.”
An added measure here or there certainly doesn’t hurt, especially considering how much landscape damage some hungry deer can inflict. By having a good plan to deter and protect, property owners can have their cake and eat it, too — as well as their favorite evergreens, perennials and other plants that deer might like.
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