Sunday, December 8, 2013

Oh Deer! Deterring (and Enjoying) Our Favorite Forest Animal

A doe feeds in the forest behind our lot
Since moving to a wooded area earlier this year, I've found that most of my neighbors have a love/hate relationship with deer. They love seeing herds of these large animals walk through, and enjoy watching their size, appearance, and habits change throughout the season. They also hate the damage they can do to their gardens.

My family, being forest newbies that have not yet invested a lot in our new landscape, are still in the love phase. Whenever we see deer in the backyard, we alert the others and peer at them out the back windows.

I'm in the process of designing my vegetable garden, and need to take the local deer population into account. They way I see it, there are three ways to deter deer: deer-resistant plants, fences, and chemical-free deterrents.

Deer-Resistant Plants
Deer hate salvia, but pollinators love it.
It just doesn't makes sense to me when homeowners fill their landscapes with plants that deer love, then spend all of their time protecting those plants and lamenting over every chewed-off leaf. Why not do it right from the start, save yourself time and stress, and plant varieties that they don't like? This includes perennial plants in the mint and onion family, and lots of shrubs and trees that are just not appetizing. Perennials like allium, anemone, calamintha nepeta, salvia, and monarda are a few of my favorites. Not only can you select plants from a list of deer-resistant varieties to fill your gardens, but you can also try planting these heavily around plants both you and deer love, like hydrangea.

In the vegetable garden, plant herbs like basil, chives, dill, oregano, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme around the borders of the garden. Deer hate these strong-smelling herbs (but I still recommend a fence - see below).

Luckily, some of my favorite native trees and shrubs are also deer-resistant. Try witch hazel, black chokeberry, bottlebrush buckeye, serviceberry, redbud, sourwood, and tulip tree for full season interest and beauty.

A deer can easily jump over a 6 foot fence, so if you are using a fence as a deer-deterrent, go high. However, many municipalities and home-owners associations do not allow fencing this high, and it can also be quite unattractive. I don't want to block my view, so a fence this tall is not an option. However, if you do it right, a shorter fence can be used in the vegetable garden in conjunction with raised beds. If the deer does not have a safe landing space on the other side of the fence, they will not try to get in. So, when designing your veggie garden, use raised beds in a staggered pattern that does not allow for a clean landing for deer. You can also place some of the plant material mentioned above on the outside of the fence as an additional repellant. Check out this episode of Growing a Greener World for details of the construction of their raised bed trial gardens, and skip to 12:11 for the discussion on fencing options.

Chemical-Free Deterrents
As the Growing a Greener World video mentions, there are lots of old-wives tales when it comes to keeping deer away. Human hair, Irish Spring soap, and flashy metal objects are some of them. Sprays that have a repelling taste or smell may work, but need to be reapplied after rain or snow. I received a sample of Sweeney's Deer Repellent, which emits an odor that triggers the flight-response in deer, but humans can't smell. Humanely gathered dried blood is housed in a weatherproof container, so after sticking them in the ground, they are good for the entire season.

If you've got some really hungry or determined deer you may need to use a combination of these methods, but it is possible to have a beautiful landscape that both you and wildlife can enjoy.

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