February 26, 2010

Take steps to keep deer from eating your shrubs -- or get a couple of dogs

— For the next few months, deer are most likely to treat your yard like a salad bar. It is not that the evergreens in your yard are deer's favorite food, but the food they would prefer to eat is covered with snow and not available.

''At this time of year, there is still open ground and lots of browse,'' said Lois Berg Stack, an ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. ''It seems that they would rather be off in a wilder space than in your yard.''

But that wilder food will not be available once the snow falls. And suburban deer are plentiful. Many suburban towns ban hunting. In other places, homes are too close together to make hunting practical.

Driving through suburban neighborhoods, you can tell where the deer have been eating. Taller evergreen trees will be bare up to about 5 feet high and full higher up, where the deer can't reach. It is not a look that many homeowners find appealing.

While nothing is foolproof, you can take a number of steps to keep the deer from eating your shrubs -- even this late in the season.

One way to prevent deer from damaging the landscape is to put up a physical barrier.

''For homeowners with new, tender plantings,'' said James Dill, an educator in pest management for the Extension, ''we suggest that they wrap them up for the winter, for two reasons. It protects them from the deer and also from other winter damage.''

Dill said wrapping the plants in burlap or covering them with wooden structures that go over the plants will work.

At the other extreme is fencing in your entire yard.

''There are fence materials,'' Stack said, ''that are designed specifically for this purpose. You just staple or nail them to the trees on the edge of your property, and it really blends into the background.''

This is the kind of fencing that is used at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, and it is practically invisible. In a homesite, the only way the deer could get into the property would be up the driveway.

The fence is made of a lightweight black plastic and is inexpensive. It is sold at local stores, but I did a price check at the Lee Valley catalog (www.leevalley.com), and a 100-foot-long, 7-foot-high package of fencing is $22.50, but the cost drops to $19 if you buy four or more.

The catalog shows the fence being put up on posts, but the ground might have frozen enough already to make that method difficult for this winter.

You might be tempted to put the deer fence on the shrubs directly as a less-visible replacement for burlap, but Dill said that would not be effective, because the deer could eat through it.

Dill and Stack both said that the commercial deer repellents are effective, with reservations. These repellents range from artificial coyote urine and other smell repellents to hot pepper sprays, which taste bad to the deer.

''My understanding,'' Stack said, ''is that deer are quick learners, and would become comfortable with those products over time. So using those products in rotation would be more effective than depending on just one product.''

Dill mentioned one thing that is interesting but has no relationship to deer. The hot pepper additive to bird feed designed to keep squirrels away is effective, because the pepper can be tasted only by mammals. So birds will eat the treated food like the pepper isn't there.

Another problem is that many of these repellents are water-soluble and could wash off during a rain.

We have two different types of deer repellent in our supply at home. One says it can be used as long as the spray does not freeze in the spray nozzle, while the other says it should be sprayed when the temperature is 40 degrees or above. So, check the label and make sure you get one that can be used in cooler temperatures.

If you have been gardening for any time, you have heard suggestions that human hair or sweet-smelling soap will keep deer away. Dill says that won't work. Suburban deer are so used to living near people that they are no longer afraid of us.

A lot of the methods that work to keep deer away from commercial farms won't work in suburban neighborhoods. Regular explosions that would scare deer would not be appreciated by the neighbors, Stack said, and the local children could accidentally touch an electric fence.

The other way to deal with deer is to get a dog or two. Stack said she lives on a 4-acre property and for years had two active dogs and no deer problems.

''At the same time we were reduced to one dog, we had a road go in next to us, and about a dozen new houses, and now have deer problems,'' she said. ''I used to tell people we had no deer problems because we had dogs, but maybe all that field happened to be where the deer were feeding, and they are coming to our home because they no longer have that wild place to feed.''

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

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