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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007 07:49 pm

When deer attack

Here are ways to limit damage to your plants

Untitled Document My husband has our children trained to look for deer when we go for a drive. Watching these fascinating animals graze is enjoyable — unless it’s your rhododendrons they’re eating. The degree of deer damage on a property may vary from year to year, depending on deer-population density, the availability of food, and weather. Deer generally feed more on landscape plantings in the winter; during the summer, other sources of foods, such as crops, are available. So what can a home gardener who must coexist with deer do to limit the damage they inflict? First, keep things in perspective. If you live in a rural area, near the edge of a woods or a farm field, your plants will likely incur some deer damage, and eliminating it is almost impossible. You will have to decide how much damage you can tolerate. Damage caused by deer is easy to identify; deer often leave a jagged or torn surface on a stem, whereas rabbits leave a clean-cut surface usually at a 45 degree angle. Home gardeners have a few options for limiting damage, including plant selection, fencing, and repellents. It is difficult to change the animals’ feeding habits, so if deer have damaged your plants before they will likely do it again. There is no quick, easy solution; it’s important to apply the appropriate controls before the damage begins. Although deer will graze on just about any plant, they are less partial to some, including barberry, common boxwood, American holly, paper birch, Colorado blue spruce, flowering dogwood, forsythia, inkberry, Norway spruce, lilac, and beautybush. Favorites of the deer, requiring protection, include apple, cherry, plum, rhododendron, azalea, yew, hybrid tea roses, and arborvitae. (These are not exhaustive lists.)
With fencing, you can exclude deer from an area and protect valued plants, but it’ll need to be at least 6 feet higher than the maximum expected snow depth to do the job. Decide how big of an area you want to fence — the whole back yard, an area that contains your prized plants, or just individual young trees. Although electric fencing does provide protection, it’s not recommended for urban areas or subdivisions.
Young trees are a prime target for grazing and for bucks using their antlers to mark their territory. Make sure that young trees are fenced in before deer mating season begins. Repellents help keep deer from eating prized plants. To prevent deer from establishing a feeding pattern, they need to be applied before deer begin grazing or at the first sign of damage. Repellents may help reduce damage, but they will not eliminate it. If deer are hungry and food sources are limited, repellents may not work. There two types of repellants — contact and area. A contact repellant, applied directly to a plant during the dormant period, makes the plant taste bad. Area repellants are applied near a plant, and the odor repels the deer. Apply repellants on a dry day with above-freezing temperatures, and be sure to treat trees and shrubs to 6 feet above the ground. Keep in mind that some repellents may need to be reapplied after a rain, and some are only effective for a short period. Brands of repellants include Deer-Away, Hinder, Tankage, and Tree Guard. Be sure to follow all label directions. Several studies and personal testimonials have shown that bars of soap hung in trees have some effectiveness. Each bar protects about a square yard. Drill a hole in the bar, run a string through the hole, and hang up the soap. Some gardeners swear by Irish Spring, but others find inexpensive brands equally effective. For more information on ways to limit damage to your plants, go to the eXtension Web page on deer-damage management:
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at
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