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Dealing with Deer in the Garden

Updated: May 31, 2023

Those of us who garden here in Northern Michigan have our challenges – one of the biggest being the ever-increasing deer population. Last year the herds of deer in Charlevoix had grown to become such a problem for the city’s gardeners that it became a major topic of a heated City Council meeting.



When spring arrives, deer are looking for green growth to help them recover from limited and low-quality winter food. They typically feed throughout the early morning and again from dusk until midnight on grasses and newly budding plants. When summer arrives, deer browse the leaves of select trees and shrubs as well your garden! In autumn deer are working to build fat reserves to help them survive, and they are most attracted to acorns, apples, maple and dogwood leaves, willow, and brambles. During the winter, when their food sources dwindle, they attack trees and shrubs - white pine, white cedar, red maple, yellow birch, dogwood, viburnum, sumac, and aspen. The branches, buds, and leaves within reach should be protected from deer damage.


The members of the Charlevoix Area Garden Club employ numerous methods reduce deer damage in their gardens. The most successful strategies fall into several categories, and often they use these in combination:


Plant flowers, trees, and shrubs that are not preferred by deer, while acknowledging that hungry deer will browse on almost anything. Avoid plants that are “deer candy” like Hosta, Tulips, Roses. Deer dislike plants with strong scents (Herbs, Alliums) or fuzzy foliage (Dusty Miller, Lambs Ears, Ferns). Foxglove, Hellebore, and Daffodil contain compounds that are poisonous, so deer will leave them alone.



The placement of plants in part determines the extent of damage. Plant more susceptible species near the home, in a fenced area, or inside a protective ring of less-preferred species. Interplanting with species that deer will not eat can help keep them away from other plants.



Deer repellents, both homemade and commercially available, will work if regularly reapplied. You should spray weekly or after a rain. CAGC Member, Rhea Dow notes: “Deer are creatures of habit so I spray early before seeing nibble damage.”


Fencing or netting is a must for a vegetable garden and for many new budding shrubs. A tall fence (8 feet or higher) is the only sure deer-proofing method. Netting can be placed around individual plants – particularly when they are sending out new growth. Deer have a preference for young plants and shoots.



Methods of frightening deer include dogs, lights, sprinklers, can all scare away deer – although deer can learn to become accustomed to the sounds or sights.


The Charlevoix Area Garden Club established the Depot Historic Gardens in 2002. Deer are among the many visitors. Over the years the Garden's plants have change to reflect what the deer do not eat. Below is a list of plants that have been a success in the Depot Heritage Garden and in the private gardens of some of our members:

Shrubs, Ferns, Grasses, and Ground Cover

  • Buxus sempervirens, Boxwood – because of Boxwood Blight, use cultivars that are known to be resistant.

  • Spiraea japonica, Japanese Spirea - used as a specimen plant or as a hedge, screen, or border.

  • Panicum virgatum, Switchgrass – native, tall prairie grass, works well at back of borders.

  • Adiantum pedatum, Maidenhair Fern – native, fine-textured foliage, suitable for shade.

  • Pachysandra terminalis, Pachysandra or Japanese Spurge – is a very common groundcover that spreads by rhizomes to form large colonies.



Perennials

  • Liatris spicata, Blazing Star – vertical spikes of purple or white flowers. ‘Floristan’ is a cultivar often found in nurseries. There is also native: Rough blazing star, Liatris aspera.

  • Geranium 'Rozanne', Cranesbill – one of the longest blooming perennials in the garden.

  • Astilbe japonica, False Spirea – is an excellent shade perennial.

  • Paeonia, Peony – blooms from late spring to early summer. Plants can take several years to establish themselves.

  • Alchemilla mollis, Lady’s Mantle is an adaptable European garden perennial grown for both its interesting foliage and sprays of flowers in midsummer.

  • Dicentra spectabilis, Bleeding heart is a native of eastern Asia and works well in a shade garden with ferns and astilbe.

  • Colchicum, Autumn Crocus is a fall flowering bulb in the lily family.

  • Lavandula, Lavender is a part of the mint family and is native to Mediterranean countries.

  • Baptista australis, Blue False Indigo is native to eastern North American prairies, meadows, and open woods. It produces spires of blue flowers in late spring.

  • Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, Siberian bugloss, is grown primarily for its shimmering foliage, but it also produces lovely sprays of blue flowers in late spring.

  • Leucanthemum × superbum, Shasta Daisy bloom from early through late summer.

  • Iris x germanica, Bearded Iris is the most commonly found garden iris.

  • Narcissus, Daffodil are a reliable spring bloomer that contain the alkaloid lycorine which makes them unpalatable to deer and rodents.

  • Allium, Ornamental Onion come in a variety of sizes. Allium giganteum produce a large ball of star-shaped lilac-purple florets which appears like a single flower on a long stem.

  • Achillea millefolium, Yarrow. Both native and introduced varieties of yarrow are available in an array of colors. It attracts pollinators.

  • Digitalis, Foxglove is a stately flower with tall elegant spikes covered in bell-shape blossoms beloved by hummingbirds and bumblebees.

  • Helleborus, Lenten Rose makes an excellent shade garden plant and offers some of the first blooms of spring.

  • Agastache foeniculus, Anise Hyssop is a short-lived herbaceous perennial with blue flowers and fragrant foliage. It is native to the upper Midwest.

  • Nepeta, Catmint is a carefree, drought-tolerant perennial that makes a great border. It’s purple-blue flowers start appearing early in summer.



Annuals

  • Senecio cineraria, Dusty Miller is grown for its ornamental silver-grey foliage.

  • Tagetes, Marigolds are no-fuss sun-loving flowers that repel deer and other garden pests – making them a great companion plant in your vegetable beds as well as you flower garden.

  • Lobularia maritima, Sweet Alyssum is a low-growing, spreading, and long-flowering plant well suited to the front of a border or in containers.

  • Ageratumm, Floss Flower is a native of Central and South America. Most nursery species are compact and flower from late spring into fall in shades of blue and purple.

  • Antirrhinum majus, Snapdragon. Snapdragons bloom most profusely in the cooler weather of spring and fall.



Vegetables and Herbs (that are reasonably safe to grow without a deer fence)

  • Onions

  • Garlic

  • Asparagus

  • Hot peppers

  • Zucchini

  • Rosemary

  • Chives

  • Thyme

  • Oregano

  • Mint

  • Sage


Preferred commercial deer repellents:

  • Plot Saver: can be sprayed on a plastic ribbon strung around the garden or directly on plants. Apply once a week and after rains.

  • Deer Out: works well if applied regularly. It has a minty odor so it’s not as offensive to humans as some of the other deer sprays. This product is recommended by a number of our Garden Club members.


Home-made repellents:

  • 1 Gallon of water, 3 eggs beaten, 3 T garlic powder - Mix together, strain into a spray apparatus and apply to plants.

  • 1 Gallon of water, 1 egg beaten, 1 T oil, 1 T dish soap, ½ cup milk - Mix well, place in spray bottle or apparatus. Keep lid on as it does smell!

  • Audrey Etienne fills 1-pound coffee cans with Milorganite and places them around beds. Avoid by the house as it smells. Place cans (or piles of Milorganite) every 10 to 12 feet in areas where deer come.

  • Another solution from Audrey: 1 gallon of water, 1 tablespoon baking soda and one raw egg beaten. Let it sit 72 hours and put in a sprayer. Apply as needed. Keeps awhile. Repels rabbits and deer. Needs to be reapplied after heavy rain.

  • Cass Williamson purchases lavender mulch and lavender sachets locally from Lavender Hill Farm to use as deer repellents.


Other strategies:


A few years ago, when Lois Lewis had a large vegetable garden the deer stayed in the wooded area near by. As the deer population became larger, she used the "scarecrow" sprayer to keep them out.


Sue Thurow notes: “We started out using scarecrows but have mostly switched to the Orbit Enforcer Sprinkler. The reason we like this better is that it has the choice of Day/Night sensitivity so you don’t have to turn them off during the day. Or you can choose to have them on all the time. We also have a timer on the hose bib so we don’t have water presser on all the time. We hook several of these up in series and it works like a charm! No deer issues at all as long as they are active. Batteries last all summer. You can buy them on Amazon for about $90. We could not have the flower garden without these!” Rich Brown also finds the motion sensor sprinklers very effective.


When Rhea Dow lived in the wooded acreage on Boyne City Road, her gardens were protected by an electric fence and repellent sprays. She notes “In town, I can't use the fence. Developed for orchards, I have used Green Screen bags to protect small trees. Beware that dogs love the bags and become ill if they eat them.”


Beth Cowie plants herbs such as thyme, mint, sage, rosemary, and chamomile throughout her perennial beds. Roman Chamomile and thyme work well as a low front border, they are not touched by the deer, and they (mostly) prevent the deer from walking into the beds.


Cindy Vermeesch uses Deer Out, but admits "The only thing to really keep them out is an eight foot (or higher) fence!"


Resources


Some helpful books for selecting plants:

  • Deer Resistant Design by Karen Chapman

  • 50 Beautiful Deer Resistant Plants by Ruth Rogers Clausen


“Smart Gardening to Deter Deer”, Michigan State University


“Reducing Deer Damage to Ornamental and Garden Plants”, Cornell University Extension


“Landscaping By Deer: Deer Resistant Plants at a Horticulturist’s Home Garden”, by Dr. Tom Fernandez, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University


"Ornamental Plants, listed by susceptibility to deer damage", from Cornell Coop Extension (printable pdf).


Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance, from Rutgers University, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. https://njaes.rutgers.edu/deer-resistant-plants/



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