Years ago when I was growing up on Altadena Drive, seeing a deer in Mt. Lebanon was unheard of. We would have marveled at such a thing. Truthfully, I am still amazed when I see the local herd making their way up the middle of our street. What are they doing here?
When Mt. Lebanon was developed there were no deer because our forests had been clear cut for lumber, and the deer had no habitat. In the ensuing years the picture has changed. The trees are mature; the shrubs in our landscape provide shelter, and our perennials provide food.
The deer are back.
The damage to our gardens, cars and even our picture windows are a constant reminder that we share habitat with undomesticated animals. So what is the concerned, law abiding, Mt. Lebanon citizen to do?
As an organic gardener, landscape designer and believer in sustainable agriculture, I consider it my sworn duty to learn viable ways to protect gardens from predators. I began several years ago to experiment with devices, systems and plantings that would give my garden half a chance against a herd of one-ton, cloven-hoofed eating machines. I believe my experience can help my fellow Mt. Lebanonites fight the good fight.
So what’s the plan? First, admit wildlife is here to stay. Second, get out your arsenal of sprays, devices and deterrents. And third, think like a deer.
Work Smart—Not Just Hard
Put up a fence Mt. Lebanon ordinance does not permit us to erect a permanent fence tall enough to keep the deer from jumping into our yards, so why am I still talking about fences? With a bit of ingenuity, your 4-foot fence can help a lot. How? A 4-foot fence becomes a real barrier if there are deer resistant shrubs planted all around the inside perimeter and your border is at least 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Why? Deer do not like to jump unless they can see clearly where they are going and perceive they have a good solid place to land. If you put a shrub barrier in place, chances are very good they will not jump your fence.
Vinyl netting deer fence is an option These sturdy, black vinyl netting fences have advantages. One of the most important to Mt. Lebanon residents is they are not considered permanent, so no permit is necessary. They are practically invisible and fairly easy to install, because they are flexible and go right around a prize tree or shrub. The fencing comes in several heights. We used a 5-foot fence and sturdy “T” posts sunk at least 12 inches in the ground.
Research deer resistant plants An Internet search is the best place to do this; simply type in “deer resistant plants.” Be aware that success varies from region to region and even neighborhood to neighborhood. Choose plants that bloom on new growth like Hydrangea paniculata “Limelight,” hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle” and the newer cultivars of hydrangea macro phyla, like “Endless Summer,” which bloom on both old and new wood. The deer can eat these to the ground in the winter, and they will send up fresh stems in the spring and bloom in the summer—with some spraying of course.
Place a barrier of sturdy twigs stuck in the ground around a new plant. This will dissuade the deer from putting their heads down to eat, because they don’t like to have their eyes poked.
Put your dog to work Dogs are not allowed to chase the deer in Pennsylvania; however, they are permitted to bark ferociously and run back and forth in a menacing fashion. Remember, though, that does can be fiercely protective of their fawn.
Think location, location, location Some plants are eaten in the depths of my backyard but aren’t touched in the more public front yard.
Make your yard uncomfortable Last winter, I noticed the Shadowlawn herd bedding down in our shrub bed out front, so came up with a very low-tech plan. We simply cut the branches off the Christmas tree and laid them on top of the bed. Blue spruce is really prickly, and the deer have not been back since.
Experiment with sprays, deterrents and devices
Repellents The trick to repellents is continuity of use and using two different kinds simultaneously. I use a combination of two products, one in wet weather and one in dry weather. In our rainy spring weather I have found PredaSCENT to be invaluable. This product is encapsulated hydrocrystals soaked in coyote urine. It is recommended this product be used on the perimeter of your property. When it rains the capsule gets wet and breaks open; the hydrocrystals plump up, and the scent wafts through your garden. Humans can’t smell it, but the deer can. The second product is Deer Solution, which uses cinnamon oil to mask the scent of the rotten eggs and coyote urine. I use a hose end sprayer, and douse my whole yard once a month. I also keep a small spray bottle ready for an emergency. Both of these products are environmentally friendly and can be purchased at Rollier’s.
Tree Guards In the late summer when the bucks are growing antlers, they like to rub the fuzz off the antlers, and a nice young specimen tree is dandy for such an activity. Tree guards will do the trick and can be saved and re-used year after year. Some are wraps; some clip together; some are like firm plastic netting. Once the caliber of the trunk is too large for the bucks to use, they will leave it alone.
Motion sensor spray This device hooks up to your hose and operates on batteries. When it senses motion, it sends a strong spray of water out over the area, scaring predators away.
Think Like a Deer
Deer are opportunists. They eat what is easy to find and available. They also establish routes and patterns. Next, they bring the offspring, and pretty soon your yard is the established eatery of the neighborhood. Make sure your property is not on the road to their dinner. If you see a deer and they have found food in your yard, figure that deer will come back unless you make it harder.
Finally, no matter how hungry the deer look, don’t feed them. You are not doing the deer, yourself or your neighbors any favors. You are actually bringing diseases and parasites into your yard that can transfer to your pets and your children. The deer will over-browse the area where they are fed, leaving your yard and your neighbor’s yard looking like a no man’s land. When well fed, they produce more offspring. In Mt. Lebanon we live close together, so deer feeding will occur near roads, putting the deer directly in the line of fire with traffic when traveling to and from the food source, often causing crashes and injuries—human as well as deer. Even worse than the deer that are killed are the ones that have been hit and are now lame and in pain. It’s best to just say NO to feeding the deer.
Claire Schuchman is a Phipps Master Gardener and teaches at CCAC. Contact her at Clare.CS@ExceptionalGardens.net.