When deer are not so endearing

IN THE GARDEN

Homeowners can mount defense against those voracious and persistent plant eaters

August 28, 2005|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

They munch on mums and nibble the azaleas to nubs. Deer can ravage a garden in a season and turn a pleasurable enterprise into a pitched battle.

For years, Tina James, a Baltimore garden writer and lecturer, had a voracious herd that had her almost ready to throw in the trowel.

"They were eating everything. I really had no flowers for the last five years," she says, mournfully.

"Deer eat any kind of plant," says Willie Jarrell, hunter and assistant manager at Kingstown Home, Farm and Garden in Chestertown. "They especially like young and tender shoots."

The absence of natural predators has enabled deer populations to explode in Maryland. Simultaneously, development has cropped their natural habitat. As a result, deer now make themselves at home in woodsy suburbs, picnicking on everything from shrubbery to perennials, saplings and vegetable gardens.

"Deer are adaptable," notes Jarrell. But they're also creatures of habit. Diversion, which can help alter deer habits, offers the closest thing to cure.

"It's easier to deter deer from coming than to get them away once they have established the favored status of your yard," says James.

Diversions fall into several categories -- physical barriers, shockers, repellents and finally, offering an alternative food source. Physical barriers include fences -- from wooden stockade to lightweight mesh. But they must be at least 8 feet tall, because deer are champion jumpers, and must completely enclose whatever you are trying to protect.

"Deer are curious," says Jarrell. "They'll come check out something new and find a way in if you give them one."

An electric "fence" is not so much a barrier as a perimeter shock treatment, which, while more costly than a mesh fence, works well. It generally consists of two electrified parallel wires. But because deer could easily leap the wires, they are deterred only when they learn that the fence bites.

"The key is baiting it," says James, who successfully protected her kitchen garden with an electric fence. "We used peanut butter on aluminum foil. Once they have experienced the shock, they don't come again, but you have to keep baiting it for the new deer. And you have to keep it clear of growing things because [they short] the fence out."

Repellents, which need periodic replenishment, work by using scent, taste or both. They include predator urine; systemics, which are taken into the plant's system to produce growth with a bitter taste; and topical sprays. The topical sprays include Deer Away, Deer Off, Critter Ridder, Liquid Fence, Hot Pepper Wax and Plantskydd among others. The key here is to stick to a regimen, especially in spring, when new shoots are coming.

"You have to keep spot-spraying new growth because deer will otherwise be able to browse on what is new," explains Jason Wiles, manager of Trident Enterprises in Frederick, which sells deer fencing and repellents over the Internet. When new growth stops, you need only replenish after rains.

While many effective sprays are egg-based -- James now uses a homemade egg-and-water spray (one egg to one gallon of water) -- others use natural heat or predator-type scents. Hot Pepper Wax uses a capsaicin burn to divert deer lips while the wax film increases the spray's sticking time. Plantskydd is blood-based.

Some people prefer to direct deer away from plants by offering a different food source on their property.

"You can get a food block, like molasses or corn or ... mineral licks," says Jarrell. "You feed them away from your house so they don't come to your plants. It may draw some deer, but it will keep them out of a central location."

Sources

Trident Enterprises

888-422-3337

www.deerbusters.com

Kingstown Farm, Home and Garden Center

7121 Church Hill Road

Chestertown, MD 21620

410-778-1551

Behnke Nurseries

11300 Baltimore Ave.

Beltsville, MD 20705

301-937-1100

www.behnkes.com

Valley View Farms

11035 York Road

Cockeysville, MD 21030

410-527-0700

www.valleyviewfarms.com

Kingsdene Nurseries and Garden Center

16435 York Road

Monkton, MD 21111

410-343-1150

www.kingsdene.com

Homestead Gardens

743 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD 21035

410-798-5000

www.homesteadgardens.com

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