From the Field: Deer, Oh Deer

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By Paige Patterson

This past Sunday I gave a lecture on deer at the nursery. I told people that when I first start working with a client I ask them three questions. Where’s your house? Do you have sun or shade? And do you have deer? Then we talk about what they want to do in their garden. The reason I ask about the location of their house is that a great many people who are just starting out don’t know if they have deer or not. Now you might think you have no deer because you haven’t seen them but if you just bought a house in the Northwest Woods, you have deer. Noyac, deer. Shelter Island and North Haven, deer and deer. I didn’t know I had deer when I first bought my house and that fall I planted 900 tulips. In the spring I picked three flowers. I don’t want that to happen to the folks I work with.

Deer in the Hamptons are a fact of life, and I’m not going to get into the debate about the validity of hunting and shooting them, nor am I going to wrestle with the problem of deer fencing when the rules governing fences out here make most deer fences illegal even though these illegal fences are all over the place. Instead I’m going to talk about deer resistant plants how you can work with (or against) the deer you already have.

First, and let me be very clear with this, deer cannot read deer resistant plant lists. So if you come to me and tell me that you planted tons of astilbe because you found it on a list on the internet and you don’t understand why the deer ate it, there’s a good chance I’m going to ask you if you know for sure that your personal deer read that same website, because my personal deer never opened the computer, nor did they search their favorite foods out on google – they were too busy eating my monarda – a totally deer resistant plant on almost all lists (it’s in the mint family) not once, not twice, but seven times.

So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I will say that we have a deer resistant plant list. However at the top of the list it says that there is no such thing as a totally deer resistant plant, and that different deer in different areas eat different things. It goes on to say that weather, location and circumstance can all affect deer. And that the list we are providing suggests plants based on whether they have good, better or the best resistance. Again, I want to mention the monarda that was eaten at my house. I would have put it on the top of my list – I would have gone so far as to say deer proof, and I probably wouldn’t have believed someone who told me five years ago that deer were eating their monarda. My brain just wouldn’t have been able to process it.

But I know why it happened.

I have always had deer. I had about five that lived at my house for a decade, including a doe that had been hit by a car and had her leg broken. It had healed poorly and she had a terrible, staggering limp, but she was a survivor, and gave birth to her fawns in my far back yard. I had, at the time, about fifty hydrangeas, and she and her babies had a pattern, to which they were very attached. Out of all those hydrangeas, they ate about four. And it was always the same four. I wish I could draw you a diagram, because it doesn’t make any sense until you understand that deer are creatures of habit and once they get a routine they will follow it indefinitely until disrupted or distracted. So they ate a hydrangea in the front east garden, but not the two three feet to the right of it, then they ate another that was eighty feet away but not the seven to that hydrangea’s left, next they travelled to the ridge by the garage which had nineteen different hydrangeas of which they ate the one that was closest to the garage ignoring the five paniculata hydrangeas planted all around it and the other thirteen macrophyllas in the same bed (after decimating the phlox that I had thoughtlessly planted opposite it) and finally they travelled over to the left side of the garden by the shed where they ate (no destroyed) the oak leaf hydrangea. They ate that sucker to the ground.

This was their path, and it was a path they stuck to, which of course looped by the hostas on the west side of the house (but ignored the ones in the front bed) then passed all the daylilies and lilies and so on so as to better remove their pretty little buds. The only time they veered from this path was when the apples and pears started to ripen in the fall. Then they’d come up by those trees and not only eat the fruit from the ground, but ravish all the plants in the surrounding areas (except the aconitum and the ostrich ferns.) There are Annabelle hydrangeas by the apple trees that they’d walk by all the time, totally ignoring them, until apple eating time – then they’d shred the Annabelles like that was their job. Because that was their pattern.

But we managed, my deer and I. It was okay. I could sacrifice those plants, because they left the rest of my garden somewhat alone. Sure I used deer spray — I once made the unfortunate mistake of getting into the car to drive back to NYC after spraying the garden. Shower or no shower, that was a tough trip. But we had a deal my deer and I. I respected their path, the way they traveled through the garden, and they let me have a few roses.

Then a neighbor three houses down did some major construction. Construction that lasted for three years. And my whole world changed.

All the deer that lived at his house and the neighbor’s house and in the swamp at the back of his property freaked out at all the hullabaloo and came traipsing over to mine. And they changed my deer’s patterns. So now when I pulled in the driveway I wasn’t greeted by a deer or two, I had a whole herd. And this herd thought they’d discovered nirvana. They thought they’d discovered the best deli on the block and they tried everything. Thus the monarda.

So here are my totally unscientific thoughts on deer feastings. I have no proof, only my personal experience, and what I’ve observed. Mommy deer are mean. They don’t take their babies and coddle them showing them the best food, teaching them what’s yummy and what’s not. The fawns come up to the mommies and the mommies say, “Hey bugger off this is my hydrangea, go eat something else.” And the fawn takes a bite of whatever is nearby. My monarda was nearby. I also believe (no scientific proof again) that baby deer have less formed taste buds and so they don’t find repulsive the food their momma doesn’t eat, instead they start to develop a “taste” for things their parents reject.

When I started out gardening in this area deer never touched astilbe. Three years later they were loving it in higher pressure areas. Much like how we Americans had rarely eaten cilantro, and then, as it got fashionable, we started to consume it by the bucketful, astilbe got hip with deer. Tastes change, I guess for deer just like for people. When you had your first sip of scotch at whatever young age you first dipped your tongue, you probably thought it was vile. I did. And although a great many of you acquired a taste for it, and will go search it out, I still find it vile. But I’m unusual. The deer seem somewhat similar in how they acquire tastes for things, although unfortunately very few seem to find anything vile anymore.

When we used to do the deer lecture at Marders, we’d spend an hour pulling together all these deer resistant plants for both sun and shade to prove you could make amazing gardens and live with deer. These were plants the deer had never eaten. Now we bring over one plant. An andromeda, and I joke that if we ever hear of deer eating andromeda we’re all going to go sell shoes or cars. And honestly it’s not that bad, but we do it to make a point. Three years ago I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that deer would never eat ostrich ferns, hellebores, American holly, peonies and iris. But I’ve seen each of those plants consumed in the last two year. So it’s getting harder.

We recommend wrapping evergreens now. Last winter the snow was so deep that I believe if the deer were on your property when it started to snow, they were stuck there until spring. And after eating all the somewhat resistant plants, they got hungry enough to eat the ones that they’d never tried before. And they were stuck there for so long that their patterns changed. And they stayed on the property even when the snow was gone, because that’s what they’d become accustomed to. So evergreens that used to be safe (i.e. American holly) were eaten when there was nothing left to eat in some gardens, while meserve hollies that have been a delicacy for years, in other gardens weren’t even visited.

Plus having learned to eat a plant they previously ignored, it’s now something your deer will be happy to eat when they are hungry. And once deer start eating something they don’t stop. Sure they’ll stop eating it to eat your (or your neighbors’) new hostas once they push up in the spring, but your previously uneaten evergreen is in their palate memory now and it’s there to stay. When the other choices become limited again, your specimen evergreen (discovered last year) will be their favorite meal again. If we have another winter like the last two and the deer are stuck in your garden, I’m telling you now, it’s no holds barred. Become good friends with someone who knows how to wrap and tie burlap.

They never ate butterfly bush and privet and forsythia, but these are all plants they’re now developing a taste for, not everywhere but in enough places that it’s worrisome. So how do we deal with the deer having changed their patterns to eat these new plants? We have to change their patterns for them. The deer never ate boxwoods before, and although it was in only a few instances, there were plants nibbled this winter.

How do we change the deer’s patterns? We prevent them from getting to the plants. Either with repellents, or with fencing if necessary. Bringing in a new rhododendron? Make sure you spray it, even if you live in a place where they’re not eating your old rhododendrons. The deer might not be eating the old ones because they’re not on your deer’s radar. But bring in a new plant, let them smell the freshly dug earth and see the change in their surroundings and they’re going to visit the plant and check it out. Since deer don’t have hands to feel, they “check things out” with their teeth. If you’ve sprayed the plant and it tastes terrible, there’s a better than good chance you can dissuade them from eating it to the ground. But you can’t just do it once, you need to keep spraying that plant for a whole season, for long enough for the deer to have gotten into a routine of ignoring that plant, to have made a new habit. Repellent not working? Use fencing. Just stop them from getting to that plant until they get used to it. It won’t work for hostas, but we all know those are deer crack cocaine; so be realistic, choose something that has a modicum of resistance. Just do a little research by looking around your neighborhood and talking to your neighbors and gardening friends before you believe as gospel the deer resistant plant list you just downloaded from the internet.

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