By Susan Tito
Attracting wildlife to your property is embracing the gardenwise lifestyle. Many birds, frogs, small mammals and insects occupy important niches in the local ecosystem, and their daily activities give you a front-row seat to nature’s grandest show. But there is one animal visitor that not only strikes fear in the hearts of gardeners, the mere mention of it is as offensive as the worst four-letter word.
I’m talking about D-E-E-R.
If you live in Suffolk County, you’ve probably encountered a deer at one time or another. If you live on the East End, there’s a good chance you have a problem.
How bad is the situation?
“It’s extremely bad,” said Tamson Yeh, a turfgrass and land management specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. “We are absolutely overwhelmed with deer.”
To understand the breadth of the problem, it’s important to know the statistics.
“The number of deer per square mile is very significant. We should have a maximum of 35, but 15 is best,” Ms. Yeh said. “In Suffolk County, we have between 100 to 250 deer per square mile.”
So, what’s sustaining all those hungry deer? It just might be your garden.
It’s a no-brainer that you’ll want to discourage deer from treating your property like an all-you-can-eat buffet. In addition to destroying your prized ornamentals, these animals are host to the deer tick, which carries several pathogens, including the one that causes Lyme disease.
But fear not — there are steps you can take to reclaim your garden. The remedy, however, depends on the severity of the situation.
If you don’t have a lot of plant damage, you may be able to use a repellant. Those that smell like rotten eggs work best and come in topical foliar sprays, or consider making your own. Look online for a recipe to try.
Capsaicin — hot pepper spray — is another possibility, as are applications containing ingredients that are unpalatable to deer, such as blood meal and coyote urine. Rotate repellants to ensure that these hungry browsers don’t get used to the stench. Many repellants lose potency after four to eight weeks, sooner if it rains or if you irrigate. Reapply as needed.
Another option for gardens not under heavy attack is to plant deer-resistant varieties. Keep in mind, though, that there’s no such thing as a deer-proof plant. There are some plants deer tend to bypass, but many others they find highly attractive. It all depends on where you live and the availability of food.
“If we have a very severe winter or if there’s drought, there’s not much browse for them and they will eat anything to keep their bellies full,” said Ms. Yeh.
Not-so-fun fact: A deer consumes about 6 to 8 pounds of plants every day.
You’ll save yourself a lot of grief if you research which plants deer prefer. For example, hostas —a mainstay in the shade garden — are irresistible to deer. Planting hosta in deer country and hoping they won’t get munched is like inviting your gluttonous Uncle Tony to a barbecue and hoping he doesn’t go for seconds and thirds.
Rutgers University maintains an indispensable database of landscape plants ranked by deer resistance on a scale of A to D. “A” plants are rarely damaged; those in the “D” category are frequently severely damaged. To view Rutgers’ comprehensive list, visit https://njaes.rutgers.edu/deerresistance/.
If you are one of the hapless gardeners whose property is under heavy deer attack, the aforementioned tips won’t protect your plantings. Your best bet is to put up a fence — but not just any kind. You need one constructed out of high-tensile woven wire that’s 8 feet tall or higher.
Alternately, consider installing a double row of 4-foot-tall fencing spaced 3 to 4 feet apart. Although deer are excellent jumpers, they have poor depth perception. The double fence gives the illusion that there isn’t enough room to land on the other side.
The ideal fence also shouldn’t have much clearance on the bottom. “Deer have been known to knuckle under fences,” said Ms. Yeh.
To be sure, putting up a barrier is the most effective deer-proofing solution, but it can be costly. So before you do anything, “check before you erect,” said Ms. Yeh, as local municipalities may have specific regulations and codes governing fence installation.
With a little information at your fingertips, you can find the right solution to your deer problem and bar Bambi from browsing in your backyard.
As for thwarting hungry Uncle Tony, you’re on your own.
Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design and Consulting. She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.