I mentioned in a previous article that the No. 1 question I get asked is, “How do I keep the deer from eating my plants?”
I have avoided writing an article on this seemingly simple question because, in answering it, I go down a number of tangents.
Firstly, the deer population in this state is wayyy too high, and that is bad, not only for your hostas and hydrangeas but also for a long list of increasingly rare native flora.
Everything from the economically valuable ginseng and goldenseal to large timber trees like white oaks and poplar are having a hard time living out their life cycle and reproducing because of deer overpopulation.
The state’s Division of Natural Resources and the state make money off of the sale of hunting licenses, so there is an economic incentive for them to keep the deer population artificially high.
Secondly, the DNR also allows feeding the deer and hunting over feeders. Other states have banned this practice, citing many studies that have shown spikes in population followed by increased spread of disease where deer unnaturally congregate under feeders.
Worse yet, a lot of these deer hunters are in the habit of feeding deer in the weeks leading up to and during deer season and then cutting them off after they have bagged their trophy.
For the deer who have become accustom to the corn diet, this is particularly hard — not only because they’re going into the harshest part of the year but also because the enzymes in their gut have a hard time transitioning back and forth between corn and their less nutrient-rich natural diet.
This winter seemed especially hard for the deer on my hill. I witnessed them standing up on their hind legs to eat the last green honeysuckle out of the tops of autumn olive. Then the hard freezes killed even that food source. By February and March, they were eating the green tips and hips off of the multiflora rose. I’d imagine that is a painful meal with minimal nutritional return.
I don’t know if it’s from disease or starvation, and how much of this I can attribute to feeding the deer, but the results at my place are evident in an under story mostly devoid of herbaceous plants, trees at the edge of fields limbed up to deer height, and an overabundance of deer bones littering the creek banks this spring.
So yes, I get angry at my neighbors who tell me they “manage the deer” with feeders, cameras, shooting every coyote they see, and then only taking the big bucks.
I beg the DNR to promote doe hunting for meat, a much more efficient way to manage the deer herd for population control. They should also outlaw feeding deer corn and hunting over feeders. Not only is it bad sportsmanship, but it is detrimental to the deer themselves.
But this is a garden article, not an open letter to deer hunters and the DNR, so I do have some experience and advice. The best way I have found to ward off the deer — short of a rifle and a 12-foot-tall electric fence — is a good guard dog trained to chase deer from the yard.
Short of that, but related, I suggest people frequently urinate in and around their yards. It sounds funny, but — like a lot of animals — deer communicate through smell, and literally marking your territory regularly will fend them off, at least for a while.
I have had some luck with hanging pie pans around my garden fence. An old-timey solution based on the idea that the glimmer of the movement in the wind would scare the deer away, I have found this to work most of the season, until I plant my fall greens. I guess the spinach and lettuce are too tempting for the deer as they are anxiously preparing for winter.
Another solution I have seen used to varying success is hanging fishing line at waist height. The deer can’t see the line and, when they walk into it, they spook and run away. For me though, stringing it up, moving it around and working in yards with the line is more annoying than it is worth.
Last but not least, there are a lot of sprays. I don’t promote poison, but there are a lot of organic options. You can even go as far as purchasing mountain lion urine online to spray around your valuable plants.
Easier than that, there is a solution you can make at home that is a mixture of garlic powder, raw egg whites and water. The egg whites help bind the spray to the leaves, and smells rotten. That and the garlic make the leaves unpalatable for the deer, but in my experience also nauseating to the poor landscaper hired to apply the mixture, as well as anyone else who might want to enjoy the garden. It does work well, but it also gradually washes off in the rain and has to be reapplied frequently.
In one yard in Teays Valley, where I applied the solution weekly, I watched the deer come in that winter and devour every last shrub, including the extremely thorny Japanese barberry. The poor deer must have been starving.
So, in conclusion, what can you do to keep the deer from eating your plants? Petition the DNR to lower their ideal deer population numbers and increase bag limits. Beg them to make deer feeders illegal. Organize and promote urban bow hunts in your town or neighborhood. Pick up deer hunting yourself, and shoot a doe instead of a buck. They are much tastier and it is a much more effective means of population control.
Beg your neighbors to stop feeding the deer and killing the coyotes. It is bad ecology and it is bad for the state.