For Garden Design Round Table, December 13, 2011
People have a complicated relationship with deer. We all enjoy their beauty and majesty. We love getting close to see them in their natural habitat. Some enjoy pursuing them for hunting trophies, food and hides. Meanwhile, we have nearly eliminated their natural predators who kept their population controlled as we added more edge habitat where they most prefer living. This edge provides deep woods for shelter that is close to plenty of light to grow more foliage, their food supply.
As a landscape designer, I have two decades of experience with dancing on this line of creating wonderful habitat for deer, while attempting to restrain them from pruning away the flowers and foliage we would love to see in our yards. We have used repellents, exclosure fencing, and tested various plants recommended as vegetation that deer will not eat. A memorable visit was to a new client in one of our Twin Cities suburbs. Her evergreens were so stripped of needles (even the branches) that it appeared a bomb had gone off in her garden. When I suggested she had a deer problem, she sheepishly admitted she was feeding them. So, we created a “secret” garden that deer were unable to enter. We used a fence 8′ high and looped off the north end of her home 50′ out, connecting the east and west sides. We never had a problem except when someone left a gate open. The look of that fence system was softened with climbing native clematis, virgin’s bower, (Clematis virginiana,) combined with a gate hidden inside an arbor.
One suburb here reports that deer prefer one set of plants in the southwest corner, but ignore those and instead devour a completely different list of plants just a mile away in the northeast corner. We would love to hear from each of you readers about plants that you find deer prefer or avoid. The more information we collect, I presume, the more overlap we would find between these two lists.
Repellents have proven extremely useful, but you must be diligent about adding more as the season progresses and as plants grow new foliage. We have found it crucial to treat the plants before we take them out of their nursery trays. These fresh plants are the most delectable to grazing damage. We enjoy observing the deer close to our living space, so spraying desired plants can be essential, as well as seeking those species that are less preferred as deer food.
However, when planting evergreens, we usually like to see the needles and not just bare trunks as high as the deer can reach. We often plant evergreens for winter privacy, or to block our chilling winter winds coming off the plains to our northwest. In these cases, we opt for fencing the deer away. This can be as simple as an invisible plastic mesh that wraps each tree or shrub and allows deer to serve as our pruning, shaping gardener.
In situations where we have more space, we have also created exclosures that keep deer out. These fencing systems exclude deer from crops, nursery stock, and fruit orchards, as well as typical landscape plants and vegetables grown close to homes. While more expensive than applying repellents, less labor is required during the season when you want more time to garden and enjoy what is blooming, rather than using your time spraying. There is the added advantage of no chemicals applied to food crops.
The absolute best deer fence system includes the following elements: easily operated gates to allow people and vehicles in and out, (but not carelessly left open,) adequate height and width that deer will not jump over, and some steel reinforcement at the ground to keep rabbits from cutting their way through lighter weight plastic mesh. We have been working on this design, and here is our latest example:
Base is black coated chicken wire buried 6″ deep running 18″ out from vertical portion. This wire continues 3-4′ vertically. A new post is welded to the vertical post to angle out 4-5′, ending about 8′ off the ground. The higher angled portion of the fence is covered with the lightweight black plastic mesh that is nearly invisible. The final step is to add paint that makes the posts less obvious and allow some vines to grow on the fence or plant a shrubs that block the homeowners view of the system.
Please visit these other blogs about gardening with deer: