By now most avid sportsmen and readers of this column are making their final preparations to get ready for upcoming hunting seasons. Tree stands are firmly positioned. Trail cameras are checked one last time. Gear is organized and cleaned. The weather forecast is studied intensely for wind direction and precipitation outlook. (Hint: no rain.)
But there are plenty of people I encounter in the community who read the Outdoors column and do not hunt or fish, or only do so very occasionally and simply enjoy reading it to learn more about nature, wildlife, plants and animal behavior. And then there are others who are avid sportsmen, but also have other interests around their home such as maintaining a garden or stands of flowers around their house.
Readers know I have been given plenty of advice in these columns about what foods to plant for deer, both to make them healthier and to attract them for hunting seasons. Each season has a special type of crop that will grow best and appeal to them at that time, and we’ve outlined many of those best choices.
But what if you are one of the people who have those gardens or flower beds around the house or bushes you spent hard-earned dollars on and don’t want deer to eat? Well one simple answer is to plant things they do like farther away (like food plots) so they don’t come up and eat your flowers and vegetables. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes they’ll start with the food plots and then move to the flowers and ornamental bushes.
My wife Becky and I have always planted some flowers and bushes around our house both when we lived near Woodstock and now near Mount Olive. We had some problems, but never too severe. Groundhogs were the worst culprits for us. They could do an inordinate amount of damage for their diminutive size.
But recently with some free time on my hands I started a larger garden of mostly flowers but some vegetables near the house. As a research experiment for outdoors articles, I decided to purchase and plant a wide variety of flowers and bushes in it to see which they would damage most.
We have deer wandering through the front yard every day, so I knew they weren’t shy about coming around the structure of the house. If you live in a more crowded area, traffic and activity may help keep them away.
We planted a wide variety of species, too many to list here. Since we already had various perennials growing like iris, day lily, daffodils, and crocus, I dug up some of those bulbs and also put them in the garden. Since the project started last fall, many were put in as bulbs and I was surprised how many came up and produced healthy attractive plants, such as tulips and gladiolus.
It was not surprising to see some of the plants they left unharmed. Black-eyed Susan was one. This seemed logical, because these grow wild in some areas, and wouldn’t have survived that well if deer relished them.
A veteran gardener also suggested avoiding plant flowers with strong perfumy smells. That too seemed logical. And it was true. They have avoided our peonies, lavender and salvia.
How each Shenandoah Valley gardener fares probably depends a lot on what type of soils and mineral content the ground has as to whether deer might like a specific plant. What other foods are available is certainly an influencing factor. If you have apple trees or an alfalfa field nearby, they’ll probably prefer those to your flowers or tomatoes. If deer are desperate, they may feed on some ornamental bushes and shrubs and flowers that they don’t really like. One year when food was scarce they ate our tomato plants, but most years they leave them alone.
While the local herd ignored most of the flowers and bushes we planted, they did like azaleas, nipping down several plants. One of the biggest surprises was they seem to love day lilies! Almost every night we wake up to find fresh nibbling on the greenery. Fortunately, they leave the flowers alone.
You can buy deer repellent sprays. I’ve tried these with mixed results in my food plots. It seems they work at first, but then the deer seem to realize it’s just a smell, and they can go ahead and gorge on the plant if they “hold their noses.” Perhaps in a smaller garden setting closer to a house they might prove more effective. Other people put human hair near their plants and report some luck.
Plan on an ongoing battle with whitetails if you garden in the Shenandoah Valley. Hopefully they will do just moderate damage as they have with ours.
One interesting footnote: Deer relish poison ivy. If I could get them to eat areas in the yard that have that plant and leave the flowers and shrubs alone, I’d have this thing solved!
For an interesting article on this subject, check out Catherine Boeckmann’s article of December 19, 2018 on Deer-Resistant Plants in the Old Farmer’s Almanac at almanac.com/content/deer-resistant-plants.
This article also has a list of plants deer usually avoid. Some of the plants listed that deer rarely damage include Yarrow, snapdragon, astilbe, aster, holly, iris, daffodil, catmint, peony, and zinnia.