Gardening with Critters
or- Not tonight, Deer
by Stephanie Wrightson
Sonoma County Master Gardener
I now understand:
- “Deer-resistant” does not mean “deer-proof” (same with “rabbit-resistant”) and the plants that are munched can vary by neighborhood. Talk to your neighbors and local nursery people about their experiences. Or, before making a significant investment, buy one small plant, plant it and observe the critter interest over time.
- Deer will taste new plants in the garden and fawns are just like human babies who put everything in their mouths. A particularly precious dwarf specimen plant may warrant spray repellant when fawns arrive or deer are hungry during birthing season. And, new plants need protection until the plants are established: a three-foot plant will survive a nibble; a three-inch plant may not.
- Deer don’t have great eyesight. They primarily rely on their sense of smell. Nursery plants have a lot of tasty salt (from fertilizer) which may override critters’ aversion to disagreeable plants. Use a spray repellant or a temporary barrier (e.g., temporary fence, anchored light shade cloth, or bird netting) until the salt dissipates.
- “Home remedies” for vertebrate pests are rarely successful (e.g., human hair, moth balls, soap shavings, creating a scent-barrier by planting a smelly plant in front of a “tasty” plant, etc.). Ever the optimist, I tried yet another suggestion. I was told that due to their poor eyesight, deer might be startled by bumping into fishing line strung on poles…breaking their grazing pattern. The fishing line lasted 48 hours before it was breached. We restrung the line, but I am no longer hopeful. The deterrent sprays that have worked for me have very strong unpleasant smells such as a mix of putrescent egg and garlic or include a predator scent such as coyote urine. The sprays are not easily detectable to our human noses after they dry. Sprays are too pricey to use routinely.
- Avoid preferred plants (tulips should be called “deer candy”).
- A dog in the yard will keep critters away. However, in my garden, without a fence, I’m not confident I can restrain a dog when he sees a golf ball whiz by.
- Sometimes, physical barriers are the only solution. I love quail…but not when they are walking on my edibles! When quail families massively expand in spring, bird netting will be covering the herb garden. A hanging basket or a high planter box will protect the few herbs that rabbits nibble.
- You cannot control everything. When food is in short supply or animal populations swell, animals will eat undesirable plants. All you can do is combine careful plant selection with damage control measures.
Recently, my backyard was leveled – we removed trees, shrubs, perennials and grass. Other than adding a water-permeable path, we had it entirely re-planted, and I hired a local landscaper familiar with the critters in my neighborhood. I still have flowering low-water perennials. But, I also have a significant number of dwarf conifers that suit my small yard, give year-round interest and are ignored by wildlife. I am using a spray repellent until the herbaceous plants are well-established and the salt from nursery fertilizer dissipates. I happily have no gopher problems (if you do, check out our free workshops spring and fall).
I decided to pick my battles, and shelved plans for a protected raised vegetable bed. Instead, I am on a waiting list for a local community garden. But, I do have critter-resistant edibles in my yard. Besides a cutting garden for kitchen herbs, an espaliered pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana - formerly Feijoa sellowiana) defines a side property border. Originally, the landscape plan included a fig (Ficus carica), but my neighborhood deer do not know that figs are deer-resistant. Included animal-resistant citrus varieties that tolerate normal Sonoma Valley winter temps are Meyer lemon (Citrus limon ‘Improved Meyer’), Nagami kumquat (Fortunella margarita) and Owari satsuma mandarin orange (Citrus unshiu ’Owari’).
Deer-resistant plants often are smelly plants (Allium, Daphne, most herbs, lavender, Nepeta), prickly plants (Acanthus, Berberis, holly, thistles), hairy-leafed plants (sages), fuzzy-leafed plants (Artemisia, Stachys) or poisonous plants (Digitalis, Euphorbia). Deer-resistant plants appropriate for Sonoma County are listed on the Master Gardner website.HOWEVER, keep in mind that your backyard critters cannot read. Do your own local research before purchasing plants!
Good luck and kudos to you for wanting to live in peace with all creatures.