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Ornamental and Garden Plants: Controlling Deer Damage

Oklahoma’s white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) (Figure 1) population has increased from 40,000 to around 500,000 since the 1960s.  At the same time, urban development continues to move into deer habitat. Increasingly, homeowners at the rural/urban interface must deal with deer damage to ornamental and garden plants.  As deer begin moving into an area, homeowners initially enjoy seeing deer and may actually encourage them to come into their yard by feeding them.  Homeowner attitudes often begin to change after deer numbers increase to the extent that landscape plants show heavy browsing and gardens become difficult to grow because of continued depredation.


Deer have a varied diet that includes many broadleaf herbaceous and woody plants. Deer are not considered grazers (i.e. as are cattle) but rather are considered browsing animals.  They prefer to consume forbs (broadleaf herbaceous plants), shrubs, young trees, and vines. Deer will consume some species of grass, although damage is usually minimal.  While deer normally feed at night, as they become habituated to people, they frequently are active during the daylight hours. Deer have no upper incisors; they feed by tearing vegetation with their lower incisors and upper palate.  Thus, deer damage is easily identified by the jagged remains of browsed plant material.  Annuals are often pulled out of the ground completely. Woody plants are repeatedly browsed and often exhibit a hedged appearance (Figures 2 and 3). In addition to browsing, damage may occur in the fall when bucks begin rubbing antlers on small trees (Figure 4) or other young landscape plants.

 

 White-tailed deer.

 

 

Figure 1. White-tailed deer have become so abundant across Oklahoma that they are causing damage to property.

 

 

 

Damage caused by white-tailed deer
Figure 2. This elm shows classic browsing damage caused by white-tailed deer. Notice the hedged shape from years of browsing. Although this tree species readily resprouts each year following browse damage, deer are keeping the tree from reaching a tall stature.

 

 

A field with a browse line caused by deer.
Figure 3. An example of a browse line caused by deer. Woody plant species vary in how resilient they are to this heavy browsing. But regardless of potential plant mortality, browse damage can be aesthetically displeasing to homeowners.

 

 

A tree with evidence of deer damage.
Figure 4. Male white-tailed deer frequently rub trees both before and during the rutting period. They normally choose small saplings that have a thin bark layer. This is problematic for ornamentals in lawns and also for Christmas tree production.

 

Commonly Used Control Methods

The problem of damage control is not an easy one to solve.  Rural subdivisions normally ban hunting or place restrictions on firearm use to protect deer or for safety reasons.  Trapping and moving excess deer is often suggested by homeowners as a humane alternative to hunting.  However, the cost to move enough deer to lower damage to tolerable levels is prohibitive.  Also, most areas of Oklahoma are well populated with deer and any deer moved to another area will only shorten food supplies for both resident and transplanted animals.  The excess animals will then face starvation or decreased reproductive success because of chronic malnutrition.  Thus, trapping and relocating problem deer is a poor solution.

 

The first step in managing deer damage in the landscape is to make the landscape less attractive to deer.  This is accomplished by limiting the amount of excess food in the landscape through removing all unharvested fruits and vegetables.  Do not provide winter feed or salt for deer as an alternative to your landscape plants; the deer will feed on both the deer feed and your plants.  When deer damage becomes a problem in the landscape, control methods include:

  1. exclusion—by electric fence or eight-foot high, deer-proof fence,
  2. scare or frightening tactics—with dogs, gas exploders, fireworks or motion-activated sprinklers,
  3. population reduction through hunting,
  4. repellents—area repellents repel by smell and contact repellents repel by taste, and
  5. alternative plantings/habitat modification.

 

Physical Exclusion

The most effective deer damage control method is the use of exclusion fences. Deer can easily jump over many decorative fences. To keep deer out of a landscape or garden, either an electric fence or eight-foot deer fence (Figure 5) is necessary. A deer-proof fence does not fit well with most landscaping plans and can be expensive if large areas are to be protected.  One way to make fences less noticeable is to place them at the forest edge where they blend in with the surrounding shrubs and brush.  Many deer fences are constructed in such a way as to become nearly invisible from a distance and new fencing materials are even less obtrusive.  For small gardens, a deer-proof fence can be cost effective.  Many commercial deer fencing materials are available.  These are made of durable light weight polyethylene resistant to UV degradation.  Deer fences can also be easily constructed using standard hog wire fence and 12-foot posts.

 

Mesh deer fence

Figure 5. Proper installation of a lightweight mesh deer fence using metal or wooden (4-inch by 4-inch) posts. Attach strips of brightly colored ribbon to the fence at 10-foot intervals, four feet from the ground to make the fence more visible to deer.

 

Electric fences (Figures 6a and 6b) are less expensive and can be just as effective; however, they do require greater maintenance.  For best results, electrify the fence immediately after installation and keep electrified at all times.  If an electric fence is not electrified for several days, deer may learn to go through it.  Researchers have had some success with a three-wire electric fence (“New Hampshire” spacing) when baited aluminum foil strips are attached at 5-foot to 10-foot intervals.  The ends of the strips are smeared with peanut butter for “bait.”  Deer may learn to jump electric fences if incorrectly installed or maintenance is lacking. For very small areas (e.g. 8-foot x 8-foot) shorter fences of around 4 feet may be sufficient to protect garden plots.  Deer can easily jump such short barriers, however they are normally hesitant to jump into small plots as it is more difficult to get out due to limited space within the plot.  However, for most gardens this will not be a viable option.

 

Young trees are particularly sensitive to deer damage and are often killed through browsing.  Individual trees can be easily protected from browsing damage using strong 8-foot tall wire cylinders (Figure 7).  Hog wire fencing is recommended as chicken wire is not strong enough for deer protection.  Stabilize the wire cylinder using t-posts and remove the fencing once trees have branched out of reach of deer.  This can also be used to protect trees from deer rubbing their antlers.

 

A "New Hampshire" three-wire electric deer fence.

 

 Wire cages around a tree.

 

Figure 7. Wire cages can be used to protect individual trees from deer damage. Support cages securely using metal posts.
 

 

 

 

Scare Tactics

A number of scare tactics are used to frighten deer away from the landscape.  Dogs are very effective at repelling deer.  Products such as invisible fences allow the dog to patrol an area and see and harass deer that might be moving through.  These devices in combination with dogs can greatly reduce deer damage assuming the dog spends most time outdoors and will actually harass the deer.  Likewise, devices that produce loud noises or even flashing lights are often used to scare deer.  Propane gas exploders, strobe lights, and even radios can be effective when deer populations are low.   Another device is a motion activated sprinkler that is triggered when deer enter the garden.  When activated, the sudden noise, motion, and short burst of water emitted from the sprinkler frighten animals away.  Scare tactics work for only short periods of time, but may be useful by providing enough protection to allow the crop to be harvested.

 

Population Reduction

Population reduction by sport hunting is a cost effective, long-term solution to managing deer; however it is not often a realistic option as city ordinances prohibit hunting.  Where hunting is permitted, harvest with archery equipment is a safe option and deer meat can be supplied to various charitable organizations that provide food to the disadvantaged.  A number of meat processing companies provide the processing and packaging for free.

 

Repellents

Repellents typically reduce damage by 50 percent to 75 percent at best, and often much less.  If fences are not an option, repellents that have an unpleasant taste or odor may be a suitable alternative.  Area repellents utilize odors and are generally less effective than contact repellents that deter feeding through bad-tasting substances.  Table 1 summarizes research results on the relative effectiveness of area and contact repellents from several sources.  Many of these products are costly, and a cost-benefit analysis should be considered before application.


A number of household items are commonly used as area repellents including human hair, bar soap, cat or dog feces, and moth balls.  Most of these have shown little impact on deer browsing in scientific research; however, human hair and bar soap can reduce browsing up to 35 percent.  The repellents that have demonstrated the best efficacy are thiram-based contact repellents such as Chaperone and Spotrete-F and those made with putrescent egg solids.


Repellents can reduce damage, but will not entirely eliminate damage.  A deer will eat just about anything if food resources are limited.  Effectiveness will vary with deer density, season, palatability (or attractiveness) of the target plant, and availability of alternate foods.  To be effective, repellents must be applied before deer begin actively browsing in the affected area.  Keep in mind repellents will not completely eliminate damage and that a given method’s effectiveness will change seasonally, based on what natural foods are available to deer.  Many repellents do not weather well and will need to be reapplied after a rain.

 

Using Deer Feeding Behavior

Deer forage or feed selectively on different plants or plant parts.  Feeding habits change with the seasonal availability of plants.  Deer choose different plants and plant parts based on nutritional needs, palatability, and past experience.  Deer demonstrate preference for new plantings and fertilized and cultivated domestic varieties.  In Oklahoma, damage to ornamentals may occur at any time of the year.  However, most complaints occur in spring, in August during dry years, and after the first cold spell in fall.  Under circumstances of high population density or low food availability, deer may damage plants that they otherwise would not typically feed upon.  Deer also may exhibit some regionalized taste preferences.


Like humans, deer consume a wide variety of plants to meet their nutritional requirements.  Dietary and browse research in Oklahoma have documented more than 100 different species of plants comprising a deer’s diet in a given locale.  However, deer do tend to avoid certain plants and this knowledge can be used to determine which plants to use for landscaping and gardening.  The following list details many plants used in landscaping and in gardening by relative deer use.  From this list, you should be able to choose plants that will lower chances of damage occurring, or at least identify plants that may require some type of protection if they are to be grown successfully.


Judicious selection of plants in combination with various control methods should provide the rural or suburban homeowner with some realistic means of damage reduction.  Remember to begin control measures before significant damage occurs.  Garden plants that suffer rare or occasional damage when mature may suffer frequent damage at transplanting time (e.g., peppers, corn, okra, squash).  The same may be true with garden plants that are planted early in season and again in fall.  Thus, deer damage control strategies are more effective when implemented before the growing season.


In areas with severe problems, select only ornamental plants that are less frequently browsed by deer.  Even if a combination of plants prone to browsing and those less prone to browsing are used, damage may still occur because deer are selective feeders.  Realize that new plantings of less preferred plants may sustain damage in an area where extensive damage has previously occurred, and that younger plants frequently sustain damage because they are more palatable.


Finally, incorporating several tactics, such as planting resistant species, fencing vegetable gardens, and protecting already established, browsing-prone plants with a repellent will increase protection against deer damage.  Experiment with different tactics until you find what works best in your landscape.  For additional information on any of the above control measures contact your local county office of the Cooperative Extension Service.

 

Garden Plants—Severely Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Beans Phaseolus spp.
  Broccoli Brassica oleracea italica
  Cabbage Brassica oleracea capitata
  Carrot Daucus carota sativa
  Cauliflower Brassica oleracea botrytis
  Kohlrabi Brassica oleracea
  Lettuce Lactuca sativa
  Peas Pisum sativum
  Spinach Spinacia oleracea
  Turnip Brassica rapa

Garden Plants—Frequently Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Beets Beta vulgaris
  Corn, sweet Zea mays
  Potatoes, sweet  Ipomoea batatas
  Strawberries Fragaria spp.

Garden Plants—Occasionally Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Asparagus Asparagus officinalis
  Okra Abelmoschus esculentus
  Potatoes, Irish Raphanus sativus
  Radish Raphanus sativus
  Squash Cucurbita pepo

Garden Plants—Rarely Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Canteloupe Cucumis melo cantalupensis
  Cucumber Cucumis sativus
  Eggplant Solanum melongena
  Hot peppers Capsicum annuum
  Onion Allium spp.
  Sweet peppers Capsicum frutescens
  Tomato Lycopersicon esculentum
  Watermelon Citrulus lanatus

Herbaceous Plants—Annual Flowers

Frequently Damaged

  Common Name Botanic Name
  Aster  Aster spp.
  Impatiens   Imaptiens walleriana
  Morning glory Ipomea spp.
  Ornamental sweet potato  Ipomea batatus
  Pansy Viola spp.

 

Herbaceous Plants—Annual Flowers

Rarely Damaged

  Common Name Botanic Name
  Ageratum Ageratum houstonianum
  Amaranth Amaranthus tricolor
  Angel’s trumpet Brugmansia spp. (Datura)
  Blanket flower Gaillardia spp.
  Castor bean Ricinus communis
  Cosmos Cosmos bipinnatus
  Chinese forget-me-not Cynoglossum amabile
  Cupflower Nierembergia hippomanica
  Dusty Miller  Senecio cineraria
  Flowering tobacco Nicotiana spp.
  French marigold Tagetes patula
  Globe amaranth Gomphrena globosa
  Heliotrope Heliotropium arborescens
  Lantana Lantana spp.
  Ornamental pepper Capsicum annuum
  Periwinkle Catharanthus roseus
  Polygonum Polygonum capitatum
  Poppy Papaver spp.
  Pot marigold  Calendula spp.
  Salvia Salvia viridis
  Sanvitalia Sanvitalia procumbens
  Signet marigold Tagetes tenuifolia
  Snapdragon Antirrhinum majus
  Snow-on-the-mountain Euphorbia marginata
  Spider flower  Cleome hasslerana
  Stock Matthiola incana
  Strawflower Helichrysum bracteatum
  Sweet alyssum Lobularia maritima
  Wax begonia  Begonia semperflorens
  Zinnia Zinnia angustifolia
  Zinnia  Zinnia elegans

 

Herbaceous Plants—Perennial Flowers

Frequently Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Aster Aster spp.
  Day lily Hemerocallis spp.
  English Ivy Hedera helix
  Hosta Hosta spp.
  Sunflower Helianthus spp.
  Tulip Tulipa spp.

 

 

Herbaceous Plants—Perennial Flowers

Rarely Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Allium Allium spp.
  Amsonia Amsonia spp.
  Anise hyssop Agastache spp.
  Baby’s-breath Gypsophila paniculata
  Barrenwort  Epimedium spp.
  Basket of gold Aurinia saxatilis
  Bear’s breeches Acanthus mollis
  Bee balm Monarda spp.
  Bergenia Bergenia spp.
  Blanket flower Gaillardia spp.
  Bleeding-heart Dicentra eximia
  Bleeding-heart Dicentra spectabilis
  Bugleweed Ajuga reptans
  Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
  Cactus many genera and species
  Candytuft  Iberis sempervirens
  Catmint Nepeta spp.
  Chrysanthemum Dendranthema spp.
  Columbine Aquilegia spp.
  Coneflower Echinacea spp.
  Coralbells Heuchera sanguinea
  Coreopsis Coreopsis lanceolata
  Coreopsis Coreopsis verticilla
  Corydalis Corydalis spp.
  Crocosmia Crocosmia spp.
  False indigo Baptisia spp.
  Flax Linum perenne
  Foxglove Digitalis grandiflora
  Foxglove Digitalis purpurea
  Gas Plant Dictamnus albus
  Gay-feather  Liatris spicata
  Globe thistle Echinops exaltatus
  Golden marguerite Anthemis tinctoria
  Goldenrod  Solidago spp.
  Grasses many genera and species
  Iris Iris spp
  Italian Arum Arum italicum ‘Pictum’
  Japanese anemone Anemone x hybrida
  Japanese painted fern Athyrium niponicum var. pictum
  Joe pye weed Eupatorium purpureum
  Lamb’s ears Stachys byzantia
  Lavender Lavandula angustifolia
  Lavender cotton Santolina chamaecyparissus
  Lenten rose Helleborus spp.
  Lily-of-the-valley Convallaria majalis
  Lungwort Pulmonaria spp.
  Lupine Lupinus polyphyllus
  Meadow rue Thalictrum spp
  Monkshood Aconitum spp.
  Narcissus Narcissus spp.
  Oriental poppy Papaver orientale
  Penstemon Penstemon spp.
  Plumbago Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
  Primrose Oenothera spp.
  Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea
  Ragwort Ligularia spp.
  Red-hot poker Kniphofia spp.
  Rose campion Lychnis coronaria
  Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis
  Rue Ruta spp.
  Russian sage Perovskia atriplicifolia
  Sage Salvia spp.
  Sea holly Eryngium spp.
  Shasta daisy Leucanthemum x superbum
  Speedwell  Veronica spp.
  Spurge Euphorbia spp.
  Sweet woodruff Galium odoratum
  Thyme Thymus spp.
  Toad lily Tricyrtis hirta
  Turtlehead Chelone spp.
  Virginia bluebells Mertensia pulmonarioides
  Wormwood Artemisia species
  Yarrow Achillea spp.

 

Woody Plants—Frequently Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Apples Malus spp.
  American Arborvitae Thuja occidentalis
  Cherries Prunus spp.
  Clematis Clematis spp.
  Cornelian Dogwood Cornus mas
  Eastern Redbud Cercis canadensis
  English Ivy Hedera helix
  Hybrid Tea Rose Rosa x hybrida
  Norway Maple Acer platanoides
  Peaches Prunus persica
  Plums Prunus spp.
  Rhododendrons Rhododendron spp.
  Catawba Rhododendron Rhododendron catawbiense
  Evergreen Azaleas Rhododendron spp.
  Winged Euonymus Euonymus alatus
  Wintercreeper Euonymus fortunei
  Yews Taxus spp.
  English Yew Taxus baccata
  Western Yew Taxus brevifolia
  Japanese Yew Taxus cuspidata
  Hybrid Yew Taxus x media

 

Woody Plants—Occasionally Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  Basswood Tilia americana
  Greenspire Linden Tilia cordata ‘Greenspire’
  Beautyberry Callicarpa spp.
  Border Forsythia Forsythis x intermedia
  Common Witchhazel  Hamamelis virginiana
  Cotoneaster  Cotoneaster spp.
  Cranberry  
  Cotoneaster  Cotoneaster apiculatus
  Rockspray  
  Cotoneaster  Cotoneaster horizontalis
  Dawn Redwood Metasequoia  glyptostroboides
  Eastern White Pine Pinus strobus
  Falsecypress Chamaecyparis spp.
  Firethorn Pyracantha coccinea
  Goldflame Honeysuckle Lonicera x heckrottii
  Hollies  
  Japanese Holly Ilex crenata
  China Boy Holly Ilex x meserveae ‘China Boy’
  China Girl Holly Ilex x meserveae ‘China Girl’
  Hydrangeas  
  Smooth Hydrangea Hydrangea aborescens
  Climbing Hydrangea Hydrangea anomala petiolaris
  Paniculated Hydrangea Hydrangea paniculata
  Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica
  Japanese Flowering  
  Quince Chaenomeles japonica
  Lilacs  
  Japanese Tree Lilac Syringa x reticulata
  Late Lilac Syringa villosa
  Persian Lilac Syringa x persica
  Maples  
  Paperbark Maple Acer griseum
  Red Maple Acer rubrum
  Silver Maple Acer saccharinum
  Sugar Maple Acer saccharum
  Panicled Dogwood Cornus racemosa
  Pears Pyrus spp.
  Bradford Pear Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’
  Common Pear Pyrus communis
  Privet Ligustrum spp.
  Rhododendrons  
  Deciduous Azaleas Rhododendron spp.
  Carolina Rhododendron Rhododendron carolinianum
  Rosebay Rhododendron Rhododendron maximum
  Rose of Sharon Hibiscus syriacus
  Roses Rosa spp.
  Multiflora Rose Rosa multiflora
  Rugosa Rose Rosa rugosa
  Saucer Magnolia Magnolia x soulangiana
  Serviceberries  
  Downy Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea
  Allegheny Serviceberry Amelanchier laevis
  Smokebush Cotinus coggygria
  Oaks Quercus spp.
  Northern Red Oak Quercus rubra
  White Oak Quercus alba
  Spirea  
  Anthony Waterer Spirea Spiraea x bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’
  Bridalwreath Spirea Spiraea prunifolia
  Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhina
  Sweet Cherry Prunus avium
  Sweet Mock Orange Philadelphus coronarius
  Trumpet Creeper Campsis radicans
  Viburnums  
  Judd Viburnum Viburnum x juddi
  Leather leaf Vibrunum Viburnum rhytidophyllum
  Doublefile Viburnum Viburnum plicatum tomentosum
  Doublefile Viburnum Viburnum carlesii
  Virginia Creeper Parthencocissus quinquifolia
  Weigela  Weigela florida
  White Fir  Abies concolor
  Willows Salix spp.

 

 

Woody Plants—Seldom Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  American Bittersweet  Celastrus scandens
  Beautybush Kolkwitzia amabilis
  Buckthorn Rhamnus spp,
  Chinese Junipers  
  (green) Juniperus chinensis  ‘Pfitzerana’
  Chinese Junipers  
  (blue)  Juniperus chinensis ‘Hetzi’
  Common Sassafras Sassafras albidum
  Common Lilac Syringa vulgaris
  Coralberry Symphoricarpos spp.
  Corkscrew Willow Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’
  Deutzia Deutzia spp.
  Dogwoods  
  Red Osier Dogwood Cornus sericea
  Flowering Dogwood Cornus florida
  Chinese Kousa Dogwood Cornus kousa
  Eastern Red Cedar  Juniperus virginiana  ‘Canaertii’
  Elderberry  Sambucus spp.
  English Hawthorn Crataegus laevigata
  European White Birch Betula pendula
  Forsythia Forsythia spp.
  Glossy Abelia Abelia spp.
  Hollies  
  Chinese Holly Ilex cornuta
  Inkberry Ilex galbra
  Honey Locust Gleditsia triacanthos
  Japanese Flowering  
  Cherry  Prunus serrulata
  Japanese Wisteria  Wisteria floribunda
  Kentucky Coffeetree Picea abies
  Norway Spruce Picea abies
  Pines  
  Austrian Pine Pinus nigra
  Mugo Pine Pinus mugo
  Red Pine Pinus resinosa
  Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris
  Scots Pine Itea virginica

 

Woody Plants—Rarely Damaged

  Common Name Botanical Name
  American Holly  Ilex opaca
  Barberry Berberis spp.
  Common Barberry Berberis vulgaris
  Blue-mist Shrub Caryopteris x clandonensis
  Boxelder Acer negundo
  Butterfly bush Buddleia spp.
  Buttonbush Cephalanthus occidentalis
  Catalpa  
  Colorado Blue Spruce Picea pungens glauca
  Common Boxwood Buxus sempervirens
  Creeping Mahonia Mahonia repens
  Drooping leucothoe Leucothoe fontanesiana
  Dwarf Alberta spruce Picea glauca ‘Conica’
  Fiveleaf aralia Eleutherococcus sieboldianus
  Ginkgo  Ginkgo biloba
  Heavenly bamboo Nandina domestica
  Japanese pieris Pieris japonica
  Japanese plum yew  Cephalotaxus harringtonia
  Leatherleaf Mahonia Mahonia bealei
  Loblolly Pine Pinus taeda
  Mimosa Albizia julibrissin
  Oregon grapeholly Mahonia aquifolium
  Osage orange Maclura pomifera
  Paper Birch  Betula papyrifera
  Pawpaw Asimina triloba
  Red yucca Hesperaloe parviflora
  River birch Betula nigra
  Shortleaf Pine Pinus echinata
  Southern waxmyrtle Southern waxmyrtle    
  Spicebush Lindera benzoin
  Sumac Rhus spp.
  Yucca Yucca spp.

 

 

Acknowledgements

Revised from an earlier edition written by Ron Masters, Paul Mitchell, and Steve Dobbs.  This fact sheet relied extensively on materials from Cornell Cooperative Extension, Wildlife Damage Management Program, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, Horticulture Magazine, February 1991, research from Penn State University, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension, Michigan State University Extension, and personal observations and experiences of the authors in dealing with damage complaints in Oklahoma.  Mike Shaw, Research Supervisor (Retired), Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, provided numerous comments and suggestions.

 

 

David Hillock
Extension Consumer Horticulturist

 

Kimberly Toscano
Extension Consumer Horticulturist

 

Dwayne Elmore
Extension Wildlife Specialist

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