Listen Up, Bambi and Thumper: Cute Only Gets You So Far
by Marty DeHart
It’s a 21st century problem, and one impossible to foresee a century ago.
Believe it or not, the White-tailed Deer was almost wiped out in the eastern US back then, mostly due to massive market hunting in the late 1800s — a truly nightmarish century for wildlife in North America, by the way; we thoughtlessly exterminated huge populations of birds and mammals, including the one lovely native parrot that lived here in the Southeast. Market hunting of wildlife was outlawed in 1900, and deer had survived the onslaught. White-tails were eventually restocked into the East from remnant populations further west.
What the newly imported White-tails found back in their old digs was Deer Heaven: chunks of forest interspersed with fields, farms gradually being abandoned for more urban lives, an almost complete lack of predators since we’d killed all those, too, and a gardening boom that brought tidily laid-out smorgasbords of tasty plants for their nightly nom-noms. It’s like we set up a veritable Shoney’s buffet for them in our yards.
Needless to say, deer populations soared. Estimates say there are as many deer now as there were there when the Mayflower landed. Plus, they’ve adapted to us. No longer a creature of the wild, many a doe has settled cozily into suburban and city life, raising multiple Bambis in our midst. I’ve seen deer in broad daylight in the densely settled Green Hills area of Nashville, fattened up on hostas and daylily buds, no doubt.
And then there are the cottontails. Whoever coined the phrase “breed like rabbits” was on the money. Right now (early June) the area is alive with baby bunnies scampering adorably all over the place, pausing to chew thoughtfully on the white clover in your lawn or the bedding plants in your garden. It’s amazing how much damage one rabbit can do in a night, no matter how cute.
What can one do?
Generally speaking, there are two strategies for dealing with both deer and rabbits:
· Plant what you want and follow a program of spraying repellent on your garden
· Put in plants deer and rabbits don’t particularly like.
Before I go into details, a caveat. There are no guaranteed deer- or rabbit-proof plants. Young animals that haven’t figured out what’s edible and what’s not will often sample everything. This usually happens in late spring/early summer with rabbits, and late summer/early fall with deer. In addition, there seem to be differing local tastes – a plant that remains untouched in one locale is devoured eagerly in another. Yay.
There are a number of products on the market serving this purpose. The ones I’m aware of work on either of two principles, awful smells/tastes that the animals learn to avoid or the scent of predators that the animals want to avoid.
Most of the stinky sprays are a concoction of yummy stuff like rotten eggs and old garlic, enhanced with a spreader/sticker to keep them on the plant. Does it smell bad to us gardeners, you may ask? Yeah, it does, but in my experience only the first day or so; human schnozzes aren’t anything like as sensitive as a rabbit or deer’s nose. Another sensible question is what happens to the sprays when there’s rain. This depends on the product – read labels carefully to see how long they typically last on the plant. Some brands require respraying after each rain, other types can last through several showers.
Predator-based deterrents are made of the urine of hunters deer and rabbits fear, like coyotes and foxes. Vials of the stuff are hung about the area needing protection to ward off the nibblers. In my experience (note that others may have had different results), coyote urine works on deer only when there are fawns around – in other words, spring to mid-summer. When I tried to figure out why, it made sense: coyotes can’t take down an adult deer, but they prey on fawns. Deer are going to be more cautious with their young ‘uns than at other times of year. Foxes as well as coyotes are big predators of rabbits, so both types of urine make sense as a repellent if bunnies are the problem.
Animals go after whatever food is easiest to get, and they are habitual, returning to a known food source over and over. This means that you may not have to continue the aromatic bombardment once the animals realize that your garden is off limits. Often they just quit visiting and seek other food sources. Just keep an eye out for fresh damage, and when you see it, reapply your repellent of choice.
Deer- and Rabbit-Resistant Plants
Note I said animal-resistant, not animal-proof. See my caveat above. There are copious lists of resistant plants out there, and I’ve seen almost everything on those lists eaten down to the nub, particularly with perennials. (I laugh when I see Echinacea listed as a resistant plant. The local deer and particularly bunnies seem to seek it out.) That said, there are four perennials I have never seen bothered, and it’s because they’re so particularly toxic the animals can sense it, I guess: epimedium, hellebores, lily-of-the-valley, and narcissus (daffodils, often locally called ‘buttercups’).
Fortunately there are many other perennials that evidently fall far down the list of preferred fare, like acanthus, rudbeckia, many ornamental grasses, nepeta and other members of the mint family, perennial sunflowers, coreopsis, dianthus, peonies, bluestar (Amsonia). Ferns are almost always left alone. Among biennials animals avoid foxglove (hugely toxic) and Lunaria (honesty, money plant).
Peony Itoh hybrid ‘Bartzella’
Deer are built to browse woody shrubs, and here toxicity doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Deer happily eat mountain laurel (Kalmia), for example, a lovely native shrub highly poisonous to sheep and cattle. But there are many worthy shrubs they typically only eat if stupid or starving: boxwoods, anise bush species (Illicium), mahonias, aucuba, laurels like English, Schips and ‘Otto Luyken’, Himalayan (Sarcoccoca), buckeyes like bottlebrush and red, abelia, spirea, Japanese plum yews, sumac like ‘Gro-Low’ (Rhus aromatica), beautyberry (Callicarpa), most hollies, some viburnums like Leatherleaf and ‘Pragense’, gardenias (hurray!), Fothergilla, chamaecyparis, nandinas of course. I’ve seen light browse on oakleaf hydrangea’s new growth, but not completely stripping the plant. Deer have a sweet tooth and will eat buds and flowers for the nectar they contain (daylilies are a frequent victim) while leaving the rest of the plant alone.