Over the winter I plan to use the blog for a series on browse resistant native trees and shrubs for yards. I am not wild about the plant lists, because someone always has an anecdote about how their such and such was browsed into oblivion by deer. There are a number of variables why that could have happened. I won’t profess to foresee them all, but I think we can cover a few.
SELECT. First off; deer seem to have regional preferences and dislikes for some plants. (One reason I don’t like the lists.) Perhaps the soil affects the chemical properties of the plant. There may be other trees available locally that deer prefer to eat. It may be how their “mama raised ‘em”. It doesn’t matter. You should select plants that deer avoid in your neighborhood.
A good place to start your selection is by taking a walk in a local woodlot in the spring, after leaf-out. If deer are abundant where you live, then any abundant plant is probably somewhat deer tolerant. Once you have identified a tree or shrub, you then want to look at the branches of several specimens to see if they sustained a lot of browsing over the winter. Some plants can suffer a fair amount of browse damage, but still survive. This may, or may not, be a good plant for landscaping purposes. While it may survive, its appearance may become ragged after several winters. Look at what you are seeing in the woods to help you gauge what the impact will have on a plant’s appearance.
Next, research the given plant. Make sure the species will like your yard. Is there enough, or too much sunlight in your yard? Do you have enough room? Is it too wet, too dry, too rocky, etc?
Once you find a species, you should purchase from a native nursery. If you purchase a cultivar, it is possible that while it was being bred for some trait (like fall foliage) that the process also bred out deer resistance. Plants grown from native (and local) seeds or rootstock are more likely to retain that deer resistance that you witnessed on your walk in the woods.
PROTECT. You must protect young plantings. Deer eat everything; or at least they will try it once. Even spicebush (Lindera benzoin) gets browsed. Whether you eat carrots, cattle or cottonwoods the young ones are tastier and tenderer. Here is a math question. If you plant a young (deer resistant) tree with 20 buds, and 10 different deer come by and sample 2 buds each before deciding it tastes bad… well, you might have lost that tree. Use tree tubes, fencing or repellents until most of the tree gets above 5 feet, and is established. Natural Lands Trust plants thousands of trees every year on our preserves. We use tree tubes and have good survival rates for our plantings.
If tubes or fencing are more objectionable to you than an overbrowsed and dead tree, then you can try repellents. My recommendation is: Don’t buy the gallon jug. You want to use different repellents to stay one step ahead of what deer might find tolerable. (I couldn’t stand lima beans the first time I tried them. But after years of trials, I have found them to be tolerable. If I was gut-wrenching hungry, they would be absolutely delicious.)
Deer don’t just ruin trees by eating them. Bucks can girdle a tree when they rub their antlers in the fall. Location is probably the biggest factor why deer rub certain trees in your yard. (Although certain tree species do seem to attract rutting bucks, and we will talk about them later.) It is easy to protect. In September, I drive stout sticks around the tree in a way that prevents a deer from getting to the trunk. Put up the obstruction when you get your leaf rake out in the fall. Take it down when you get ready to mow lawn in the spring.
You have invested time, research and money into your trees and shrubs. Don’t walk away now. Inspect them regularly. Enjoy their beauty up close. Check your fencing, and repair if necessary. Remember to reapply repellents after it rains. You have to be diligent to give any new plantings a chance, especially in areas where deer browse heavily.
If you Select, Protect and Don’t Neglect, you can get almost anything to thrive in your yard. In future posts, I will help you with selection. I’ll discuss tree and shrub species that work.