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Walker column: How to keep Bambi and family from eating your plants

Bless their little hearts. They are just so cute with those big sad eyes, white tails that flip up, and their HUGE APPETITES.
With all the rain this year, we were hoping to avoid problems. However, we came home this summer after a short vacation, to find that our 400-foot driveway, lined with hosta plants, was not so decorative any more. Apparently our resident herd of deer had finally found their annual supply of deer candy and happily chomped the greens down, probably having the same expression on their faces that I do when sampling mouth-watering chocolate, a great aged cheese or a perfect glass of cabernet. Some things are just meant to be savored. Unfortunately, that included our front lawn’s attractions.
When we originally planned our landscaping, we had no idea that some plants are just more inviting. So our azaleas, brown-eyed susans, pansies, hawthorns, redbuds, daylilies, ivy, clematis, impatiens, sweet potato, and even our yellow euonymus, were in jeopardy of being included on their traveling menus. Our neighbors have similar problems, including their gardens and fruit trees. Apparently, deer will eat almost anything in the spring, flower buds being their favorite. Because they are selective feeders, it seems you can’t depend on consistency when it comes to appetite. Their tastes change from season to season and from deer to deer!
There are certain characteristics about deer behavior, however, that you can depend on. Deer are browsers and eat woody and broadleaf plants, and rarely browse grasses or ferns, so all of you ornamental grass lovers out there are safe. They prefer woodland edges and waterways, and you’ll notice the ragged torn edges from them jerking and pulling the plants, rather than grazing.
If you are going to try to deter deer from eating already-established plants, there are several options. The spray repellents, although expensive, work on discouraging by taste and odor. We’ve tried these products before, but they need to be reapplied every 4-6 weeks and after a rain.
Then there are contact repellents which make plants taste bad, such as Deer Away, Havahart, Nott’s Chew-Not, Bonide Deer Repellent, etc. These are supposed to hold up longer, two to six months, but obviously are not for edible plants. There are other ways to deter by smell that they may quickly get used to and will ignore if hungry: ammonium soaps sprayed in an area around the plants, milorganite (a fertilizer made from human sewage) and soap bars hung on the plants themselves (our azaleas look like little Christmas trees).
Obviously, the best way to deter deer is to use plants that they don’t enjoy eating, so our next step will be to rethink our planting strategy and go with plants that are a little less suited to the deer palate.
Within our wooded lot, we planted groupings of daffodils and they remained undisturbed. Other perennials deer don’t like are: amaryllis, bee balm, bleeding heart, dianthus, false indigo, ferns, foxglove, heath, hot poker, iris, lamb’s ear, miss huff lantana, lavender, ornamental grasses, purple coneflower, sage, salvia, speedwell, spurge, yucca and yarrow.
In the annual plant category are allium, begonia, coleus, cosmos, dahlia, snapdragon, marigold, periwinkle (vinca), vervain, zinnia and ageratum. Then there are the shrubs: butterfly bush, forsythia, cinquefoil, Japanese rose, spirea, St. John’s Wort, lilac, arrow-wood and weigela.
Trees are safe after the branches grow 6 feet, but before that the deer can damage the bark and branches. Crape myrtle is surprisingly deer-resistant. Hollies, barberry, rosemary, gardenia, magnolia, oleander and boxwoods are other shrubs that are not exactly their favorites.
Keep in mind these plants are deer-resistant, not deer-proof. They will eat anything if they are hungry enough.
After researching for this article, I discovered that the pansies I just planted around my mailbox are also one of their favorites. Oh well.
When does deer season start again?
– – –
Deb Walker is an extension master gardener volunteer with the Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.

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