Reducing Deer Damage in the Landscape

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This article was written by Gail Griffin, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.

First and foremost, good luck. Deer damage to the landscape is extremely disheartening. It seems as though they have an uncanny attraction to the most beautiful and expensive plants in your yard and head straight for them when the sun goes down. I suppose at least they have good taste, literally.

The population of white-tailed deer in areas of North Carolina has steadily increased since the l950s. As the human population has also increased, residential construction has led to smaller pockets of wildlife habitat supporting larger numbers of deer. Many suburban developments fringe on adjacent land where deer are bountiful. As they become less afraid of people, dogs, lights and automobiles, they venture in and out of neighborhoods browsing on herbaceous plants and retreating to nearby wooded areas for cover. They can be observed feeding at dawn, dusk and at nighttime. Their split hoof prints and droppings can be easily identified. They browse on trees, shrubs, vegetables, annuals and perennials and graze on seedlings, tips, buds, branches and foliage. Jagged edges on damaged plants are a telltale sign. They generally eat only new growth on tips, but continual browsing will prevent flowering and new growth from occurring. They usually follow an established trail and may pull up newly planted annuals and perennials. Deer damage may become worse in winter depending on the availability of hard mast (acorns), their main source of food. A lean crop of acorns and competition for food from other animals may lead to a scarcity by late winter.

Reducing the amount of damage done by deer may become an ongoing battle. Choosing plants that are less susceptible to browsing may be the best defense. Know that if you choose to plant species that they are attracted to, you will always have a predation problem. Deer prefer to browse on soft vegetation in spring, and love flower buds. Plants that are frequently browsed by deer include fruit trees, berries, vegetables, roses, daylilies, hosta, azaleas, hydrangeas and most annuals. They tend to shy away from plants with thorny or prickly leaves and stems. Plants with strong scents and pungent tastes such as herbs are usually not browsed.Deer damaged plants Poisonous plants or plants that produce a thick, latex-like sap are also not preferred. A number of native plants that they are not attracted to are American holly, beautyberry, ferns (except fiddleheads), Joe Pye Weed and wax myrtle. During stressful conditions such as drought, they may damage plants that normally go untouched. For susceptible plants that you dearly love, plant closer to the house in places where they can be closely monitored and protected.

Repellents are another means of limiting damage by deer. Many commercial products are available but must be used according to the product label. Caution should be exercised around children and pets. Many cannot be applied to edible plants, so care must be taken to avoid spraying near vegetable gardens. They should be applied before deer become accustomed to feeding on plants, and after rainfall. New foliage that emerges after treatment is unaffected. If deer are hungry enough, repellents may not deter them from damaging plants.

Barriers such as fencing may become necessary to newly planted trees and shrubs or vegetable gardens. Plastic or woven wires around young trees and shrubs will help discourage browsing and protect them until they are large enough to withstand light damage to tips and foliage. Permanent or temporary electric fencing is usually most effective, but most homeowners prefer not to erect large fences around the landscape.

For more detailed information on plants less preferred by deer, an overview of deer repellents and fencing details and options, go to Check out the additional resources section.

Eliminating damage by deer entirely may not be feasible, but selectively choosing landscape and garden plants, creating barriers including hardscape and fencing and occasional use of repellents may help to minimize it. And lastly, good luck.

Gail Griffin is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.