By Will Summers, Master Gardener
This is the time of year when we gather together to worship and take a moment to reflect our gratitude for all our blessings. However, there is one part of our local abundant natural resources that we would rather not have to deal with–White-tailed deer.
This is the time of year when deer are most damaging to home landscapes. Deer damage landscape plants by browsing (feeding) and physical damage (rubbing or scraping their antlers.) Deer are attracted to homes because of abundant forage, the proximity to suitable cover or habitat, and freedom from harassment.
In short, deer need food, cover and peace and quiet. The key to reducing deer damage to your home landscape is to reduce the combination of any of these three essential ingredients.
Learn to recognize deer damage. Deer damage plants by browsing shrubs and grazing herbs. Deer damage from ground level up to several feet. Deer eat by tearing foliage, so deer feeding will leave roughly torn edges. Rabbit feeding is often mistaken for deer browsing. Rabbits have a double set of teeth, leaving a clean cut edge bite. Rabbits can reach heights above ground up to two feet or more.
Foods most attractive to deer: Many home landscapes provide a buffet for deer and some other wildlife. Common landscape plants such as hostas, fruit trees, garden vegetables and roses are preferred deer foods.
Foods mostly unattractive to deer: Deer will get a taste for certain plants and return time and again to even unpalatable plants. Even a plant not edible to deer might be damaged by rubbing and scraping. Some plants less attractive include asparagus, crepe myrtle, daffodil, foxglove, marigold, mint, rosemary and zinnias.
Deer detractants: taste and odor repellents repel deer. Chemicals repel deer when either applied directly to the plant, or placed around the general area of concern. An organic fertilizer such as Blood Meal is accepted as the best natural deer repellent. This can, however, attract other animals such as dogs, coyotes, raccoons and others. Cayenne pepper and other irritants may repel grazing but will not deter a buck’s damage by rubbing or scraping horns. Do not apply repellents to fresh vegetables. Used dryer softener sheets tied to trees keep deer from scraping their antlers on the bark.
Keep in mind that repellent effectiveness declines over time and must be frequently reapplied dependent on the rate of plant growth and precipitation. Secondly, repellent efficacy is determined by the availability of alternative food and the desirability of the plant being protected. It is important to apply any repellent before damage begins.
Deer-proof fencing: Deer-proof fences may be your last solution and not as difficult as you may think. White-tailed deer are capable of leaping a ten foot tall fence. Recent studies indicate electrified fencing and a slanting fence are more effective at discouraging deer than even extremely tall fences. Fencing should be a last resort and reserved for extremely high-cost or high-value plantings.
Scare devices are pyrotechnic sirens or flashing lights and other mechanical devices.
Deer recognize and habitualize to safe, undisturbed environments. Noise generating devices are effective for short periods but not effective over long periods without some lethal reinforcement. White-tailed deer are property under the administration of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and may not be harassed, injured or killed without a legal permit. Before beginning any deer removal by these means, please check with the appropriate State authorities. Please notify your neighbors in advance if you use any device that will emit a sound or light outside your property boundaries.
One final note: If all else fails, it is widely believed that deer will naturally avoid any area treated with feces from large, feline predators such as tigers and lions.
For more information on this and other gardening needs, please contact your local University of Illinois Master Gardener or your nearby University of Illinois Extension office.