From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on November 15, 2006

Not Tonight, Deer.

Seeing and enjoying deer in the landscape has value. Whether you are a photographer, a hiker, camping enthusiast, bird watcher, fisherperson or hunter, you spend a lot of time outdoors and are probably rewarded with some closer than normal encounters with the whitetail deer. They are the most common, best-known deer; they are beautiful and much admired. You are nature lovers and deer play an important role in our economy and ecology.

We all see them from time to time in the rear fields of farms, too occasionally on roadways, and in the spring in large herds gathered together on sunny hillsides. Hunters, at this hunting time of the year, watch for the white of a raised tail, listen for the snort or foot stomp or noisy run through the underbrush. Deer are most active when the light is muted. This is usually near daybreak or dusk, on dark cloudy days, or after dark in moonlight.

Yes, it's deer hunting season and this is what motivated me to write this column. Studies by biologists hold that a stationary population is one where births and deaths in all species of plants and animals are very closely balanced. Only in extraordinary situations are birth and death rates not equal. These situations usually involve abrupt habitat changes or natural disasters. A healthy and vigorous deer population is dependent on a balance between healthy habitat and predator population. Wolves and mountain lions are scarce, so hunters enter as substitutes.

Truth be told, deer are responsible for severe damage to forests, agricultural crops, automobiles, and, sometimes, human fatalities. Horticultural crops and homeowners' landscape and gardening endeavors suffer greatly as well.

Before I go into some methods of what individual homeowners can do, I think it's useful to understand the eating habits of deer.

Whitetail deer have four stomachs, just like cows and sheep. The first stomach is the "rumen", a holding compartment for partially chewed food, with a 2-gallon capacity; it is later regurgitated and re-chewed as a "cud". This unusual digestive mechanism allows them to browse for quite some time until they find a safe place to complete digestion. They are more browsers than grazers, consuming mostly leaves, tender buds and twigs. They will, however, consume large amounts of grasses and herbaceous vegetation, especially when it is new, young and tender, as in spring.

Here is the lowdown on deer appetites! A healthy deer needs between 5 and 7 pounds of good quality food per day. More, if the food is inferior. Deer will eat hundreds of species of plants. The most preferred foods are the most nutritious and include white cedar, yew, sumac, sassafras, basswood, maple, dogwood, and acorns, the latter being very important in fall and early winter. Most of these are abundant in the deer's normal range. The same is true for their second choice foods.

In difficult times, deer will eat least desirable plants, many from landscapes, such as spruce, juniper, hawthorn, rhododendron, rose, and others. These deer are in trouble, and these foods are referred to as starvation or "stuffing" foods. If these are heavily browsed, there will likely be deer mortality from starvation. As might be imagined, the young, old, sick or injured will be the most likely to succumb. Those that survive may lose 30% of body weight.

During the growing season, however, deer may also eat agricultural crops including corn, lettuce, celery, turnips, sugar beets, strawberries, apples and alfalfa. Makes we wonder if this is becoming a first choice food to winter survivors. I'll leave that one for the experts and wildlife biologists. The deer are still evolving, no? Landscape plants are on the menu, too.

If home gardens are left vulnerable, they will be easy targets if they are in the proximity of a forest edge, a border of a clearing with brush and grassland available as food.

What follows is a list of knowns about controlling deer:

    A. Exploding firecrackers are as effective as banging a garbage can lid. Neither has any lasting effect unless you can invest 24/7 in this behavior.

    B. Soap on a rope, hair in a bag, moth balls, kerosene soaked rags, barking dog tapes, scarecrows, fabric softener sheets, aluminum pie tins, reflective mylar tape, lights and sprinkler systems and talk radios all activated at once by motion detectors have all been tried and eventually homeowners begin to think about directly protecting their plant(s) with burlap, fences, solid barriers or complete exclusion.

    C. Both taste and smell aversants work well for a while but need reapplication after weather has washed them away. Milorganite, a fertilizer made from municipal sewage sludge, and applied to the soil surface around the plants, has the same effect. Once the ground is frozen and snow cover is present, the smell from the ground disappears.

These things we also know: A deer will not jump over a fence that he cannot see through. The unknown on the other side is not even tempting. A solid 6 to 8 foot tall fence made of wood will keep them out and provide the homeowner with an attractive and decorative barrier that climbing vines, both vegetables and flowers, might inhabit.

Deer will not walk through strongly scented herbs that are green and growing and aromatic. The list is long and comprehensive. Surrounding a garden, or for that matter a bed or some favorite landscape plantings with a two foot border of these beneficial, insect attracting herbs will keep them at bay all through the growing season. As fall and winter move in, the vegetable and flower gardens have been saved, but now its time to protect the landscape trees and shrubs, since the smells from the fresh foliage will be gone.

If you adore flowers, whether in beds or discreetly selected locals around the property, a strategy that never fails is choosing from a very broad variety of herbaceous flowering perennials, some excellent groundcovers such as sweet woodruff, lily of the valley, epimedium, and ajuga to name only a few. Daffodil bulbs will thrill you with their huge assortment of colors and variations, and not a single one will be browsed by your four-legged plant foes. You'll be surprised by the extensive lists available of flowering plants, annuals and perennials, that are on the bottom of the deer's list for the salad bar. Almost all members of the mint family are avoided like the plague. Foliage that is grey, silver, fuzzy or aromatic is equally shunned. This strategy is a sure success.

So, if you are a homeowner and are determined to grow what you desire, in spite of the deer in the neighborhood, and you have some history that suggests protection is needed, here's what you need to consider. Use known and tested strategies (above) A, B, C, and vary them, rotate them, and keep trying. Then, consider that you need to fence the deer out. You must erect a physical barrier that when done properly will be effective.

The best time to put up a fence is before you plant. Once deer have acquired a taste for what's there, the pressure will be much greater. A low fence, three to four feet high, placed three to four feet in front of a high fence, six to eight feet high, is most effective in protecting large gardens within. This method is known as a fence within a fence.

Small gardens with little landing space inside or with the interior populated with an occasional garden ornament can be protected with lower fences because the deer will be very reluctant to jump into the narrow, occupied space for fear it cannot land safely or jump out.

Other fencing options in use today include high tensile, steel, woven wire fences (the most expensive), what's become known as invisible fencing (black polypropylene mesh), electric fences (the least expensive, but regarded as temporary, or for use when deer pressure is light), and slanted fences.

If fencing is your last resort for large area protection, and the plants being protected are of economic importance, you could not choose a better system than the slanted, 7 wire electric deer fence. Long term studies show 100 percent deer control. The design was first developed and published by a New Zealand fence manufacturing company, Gallagher Corporation, in 1984. The five foot high fence, slanting from inside the garden toward the outside, has an outer top wire that administers a non-harmful shock that lets the deer know it is not friendly. The three dimensional slanted tier design of wires further confuses their depth perception and they will not attempt to jump it, day or night.

There is no better time than the late fall and coming winter to order next years priorities, and see if fencing might be a part of them. If so, I hope I've given you some serious food for thought that might help you sort out an area that seems to be overflowing with so much information that might only confuse you more. Happy planning!


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on November 15, 2006

© 2006 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.