Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
April, 2007
Regional Report

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These deer are so accustomed to people that they just hang out around the front door!

Oh Deer!

Gardening has plenty of challenges including insects, diseases, weather, and difficult soil conditions. Overcoming these is part of what makes gardening fun and so rewarding, however there is one challenge many gardeners face that leaves them feeling overwhelmed, as if gardening life just isn't fair. I am talking about deer.

I am convinced that deer sit at the edge of the woods peering out from the foliage as we bring home new plants from the nursery. The giggle with glee and get absolutely giddy with excitement watching us put in new plants. Then when night falls they stroll out to sample the fresh new salad we so generously provided.

People take different views of deer. To the hunter they are, well, food. To the new owner of a piece of country land, they are a beautiful part of the ambiance -- nature to be fed and lured up close. To the gardener they are vandals who ruin hundreds of dollars worth of landscape investments.

Whether you love their presence or detest it, or like most folks live with mixed emotions, deer are an increasing part of our gardening lives. As our suburbs and developments spread outward into their habitat, deer change from timid Bambi's to bold and hungry creatures.

I have gardened in the Ozarks, in the Southeast and the Southwest and find that deer are not the same in all areas. In my current home in the Texas hill country they are downright brazen, wandering through neighborhoods in broad daylight and lounging on the lawn. Familiarity with man lowers their natural fear. Hunger makes them even bolder.

When wild food is plentiful they may be less tempted to visit our yards. But hungry deer will actually eat prickly pear cactus during a summer drought.

There are a number of ways to protect our gardens against deer. Just keep in mind that none come with a guarantee of success. Consider them as tools or options to help you protect your garden, and be ready to adjust your strategy periodically.

Least Favorite Plants
Not all plants are equally tasty to deer. Choose as many of their least-favorite plants as possible. Check with a local nursery or online for suggested plants in areas plagued by deer. Keep in mind that lists from one part of the country may not be applicable in another area. When you have plants that are among those they love, hide them among a group of nonpreferred plants.

There are many repellents that can be sprayed on plants to provide tastes or odors that are unpleasant to deer. Commercial products and home remedies are both fairly effective when deer are not starving. Repeat the sprays periodically and after rains to maintain repellency.

Scare Tactics
Sound, movement, and natural enemies all can cause deer to avoid an area. If you live in a neighborhood, sound devices are not a great option. An energetic and alert dog can be helpful, but you may have to put coffee in the water bowl to keep it on duty all night! One scare device that has proven fairly effective is a motion-activated sprinkler that shoots a powerful stream of water to startle anything that steps into the area. Remember that deer get used to things after a while, so be prepared to change location and techniques periodically.

Fencing can be effective if done right but it also can be expensive and may be unsightly. There are many types of deer fencing, including decorative iron fencing, black plastic 1-inch mesh netting, electric fences, and wire-mesh fencing. Nonelectric fences need to be 7 feet high to deter deer. Small areas less than 15 or so feet in diameter can be protected by a lower fence as deer are less likely to try to leap into a small area. Protect new trees and shrubs with a ring of wire a foot or two out from the trunk to keep the deer from rubbing horns on the trunk and branches, or stripping off the lower foliage within their reach.

Deer love to sample new plants. Their sampling can pull newly set annuals and perennials out of the ground before they have a chance to settle in. A wire mesh cage or cover over them for a month or so can at least give them a chance to become well rooted and more able to recover from nibbling.

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