How Nature Deals with Deer

Two years ago, I planted a mock orange shrub in the backyard. It had tiny white flowers that smelled good enough to eat. I guess our neighborhood deer were of the same opinion, because they soon ate them all. As well as the leaves. And some of the branches. It’s only this year—probably through pure luck—that the deer have left the bush alone long enough for it to grow a couple of new (small) branches.

On the other hand, maybe they’ve been leaving it alone because they’ve been chomping on my newer plantings: the peach and English walnut trees I put in this past March. I was so thrilled with the way those bare-root sticks were finally leafing out. Since March, each of the English walnuts had developed two large, pinnate leaves stretching a full six inches above last year’s growth. I was already trying to imagine where I’d be in six years when they rained down their first harvest. And then one day I walked out to the front yard to admire them only to discover they’d been nibbled down almost to stubs. Only one of them had an entire compound leaf spared. My reaction? How on earth do saplings survive in the wild?

This English walnut, with a few of its original leaflets intact, is starting to recover.

They have a fair number of different tactics, I imagine. The spiky leaves of holly trees, for instance, tend to discourage deer; ours have never been touched. (The berries, on the other hand, are made for eating, and I recently watched a swarm of cedar waxwings polish off every last berry hanging on the holly trees on either side of our front door.) And I’m sure some other trees have chemicals in their leaves that don’t taste good to deer. But it seems that a fair number of species are attractive to the deer palate. (I’ve seen the total number–trees and other plants–estimated at 600.) And I guess that’s as it should be. After all, herbivores do need to eat something. But how is it, then, that the tasty trees survive? And why can’t mine?

I think it comes down to a numbers game. Have you ever looked at a maple tree in spring and marveled at the number of seeds it was producing? Thousands upon thousands of samaras hanging from its branches. For a long time, I explained this seeming profligacy as a hedge against the fact that the tree couldn’t predict which of its seeds were going to land in just the right spot to grow into trees. It produced a lot of seeds in the hope that a few of them would get lucky. But now I think this doesn’t just have to do with the seeds’ finding a patch of fertile ground with enough light, water, and nutrients to support them. It also has to do with the fact that trees, even once they’re up and growing, very often get eaten! The parent tree, if it wants to see any of its babies make it to adulthood, has to make quite a lot of them.

We human beings, on the other hand, have taken a different evolutionary route. We don’t produce many offspring, but the ones we do produce, we guard ferociously. And so I guess it only makes sense that, when we set our minds to gardening, we do so in the same manner: “I’m going to plant this one peach tree, and I expect it to grow to be thirty feet tall.” If we were thinking like a tree, we wouldn’t spend $30 on a single sapling. No, we’d get our hands on a bucketful of seeds and go strewing them around a very wide area, accepting as a matter of course that some of our offspring were destined to help feed the local deer.

Well, I did spend about $30 apiece for my trees. So I’m not going to be so laissez-faire about their welfare. After I saw the deer damage, I immediately went to the shed for some chicken wire and made some tall, narrow cages to protect them. They seem to be working so far (except that I need something to hold them in place in a heavy wind). And my trees don’t seem to be complaining about being treated like human babies!


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason says:

    We’re about to be dealing with much the same problem. We just got about 10 different saplings from the Arbor Day Foundation and I want ALL of them to live! Let me know what ideas you come up with for securing the fencing. I know we need to protect our saplings, but I’m not sure the best way to go about it.

    1. Sharon says:

      I think I’m just going to make a couple of U’s from baling wire and use them to “staple” the chicken-wire surrounds to the ground. In fact, I think I’m going to go do that now. The wind’s really picking up!

  2. I swear by my deer repellent recipe. Just mix garlic, hot sauce and dish washing detergent with some water and apply. You can also add any type of sour dairy product and eggs, preferably rotten. It really works!!

    1. Sharon says:

      Oh, yes! I remember seeing this on your blog, and I bookmarked it to try. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. Karen Syed says:

    I am so angry with the wildlife in my yard. Only one of my peppers is recovering, and my grape tomato plants look like a four year gave them a haircut. My mater plants that were frozen twice and still came back finally had four of the biggest loveliest tomatoes on it and I went out one morning all gone with most of the tops of the plant.

    Every morning for the last week I have to go out and yell at the runny babbits as they casually hop into my garden to nibble on my onions. I swear they wait for me to get up before they get into the garden.

    We are waiting for the completion of our pool so we can resod and fence in the back yard, so right now we have the orange construction netting the pool guys left wrapped around the garden and held in place with the left over rebar. It is SO NOT pretty. It is however keeping the deer out, but the rabbits go through the holes.


    1. Sharon says:

      Oh, yes…I remember how last year my first almost ripe tomatoes were quietly stolen in the night. Actually, two were left behind–with big bites taken out of them. I blamed groundhogs for that. And that’s when I started putting fencing directly around each of my tomato plants. They each get a chicken-wire cage now, and no animal thieves since!

      I hope you’ll soon get to replace your orange construction netting with something more effective and stylish!

  4. We tried everything to prevent the black tailed deer from eating us out of house and home. We bit the bullet and installed 8′ deer fencing and we’ll be putting tree barriers around each nut tree in the event the perimeter fence is breached. The damage they can do overnight is too great. Got any good venison recipes?!

    1. Sharon says:

      Haha! I wish I did have some good venison recipes! But I guess I need to acquire a rifle first. Or a lot of practice at the bow and arrow…

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