The Uninvited Guests
Tired of deer treating your yard like a buffet? Here's how one homeowner solved the problem
Shirley Rooker has been waging a battle to save her landscaping for 15 years—ever since white-tailed deer first appeared in the yard of her Bethesda home.
“I’ve lived here for nearly 50 years,” says Rooker, a longtime consumer advocate and the director of WUSA 9’s Call for Action. “When I moved in, there was no deer problem. The first time I saw them in my backyard I thought: how cute—until I saw they were eating my plants! Suddenly I didn’t feel so welcoming.”
Rooker is not alone. Homeowners throughout the Bethesda area are growing increasingly fed up with deer that view their yards as free food courts. In recent years, the animals have become more brazen and less fearful of humans, venturing out even in daylight to nibble on prized azaleas and rosebushes.
Though it may seem as if there are more deer than ever, the opposite is true. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the overall deer population statewide has been in decline since 2000. Still, that’s little consolation for homeowners who spend thousands on plants and shrubs only to find them reduced to nubs by foraging deer.
George Timko, an urban deer biologist for the natural resources department, believes that suburban development actually improves conditions for deer because the fragmentation of woodlands creates the “edge” environment that they prefer—the interspersion of wooded areas with open spaces such as fields and housing lots. A lack of predators and food shortages caused by disappearing habitat are also enticing deer to venture closer to human habitation.
“They aren’t even afraid of coming up to the front door,” Rooker says. “After decimating the lovely tuber begonias once potted at the entrance to my home, I’m surprised the deer didn’t ring my doorbell and ask for dessert.”
Experts employ a variety of methods—some more effective than others—to control the encroachment of deer into suburban areas.
“Hunting is our most effective tool for controlling the deer,” Timko says. “Around 85,000 to 100,000 are killed annually in Maryland by hunters. But this can’t be done everywhere, especially in more developed suburban areas with local restrictions, like discharge ordinances.”
A more benign method of controlling the deer population involves sterilization. Enid Feinberg of Wildlife Rescue Inc., a nonprofit with a rehabilitation center in Freeland, Md., is collaborating with the natural resources department on the state’s first nonlethal deer management program involving doe sterilization; 69 successful ovariectomies have been performed since 2011.
“What people need to know is killing deer is a bit like mowing a lawn,” says Feinberg. “The grass will grow back. Killing doesn’t stop deer from reproducing,” Feinberg says.
After deer began appearing on Rooker’s property, she decided to fully enclose her half-acre backyard with a high, visually unobtrusive fence of 2-inch-square polypropylene meshing that met local zoning requirements. Her backyard, with its canopy of trees and shade-loving plants, has thrived since the fence, now 7 feet tall, was installed. Even the hostas, known as “deer candy,” grow back profusely every year.
Installing the correct type of fence is one step recommended by Sandy Baker, author of How to Deer-Proof Your Garden in Five Easy Steps (Monroe County Alliance for Wildlife Protection, 2003). Based in upstate New York, Baker consults and lectures in Maryland and throughout the Northeast corridor.
“Learning about deer behavior is important,” she says. “Deer are creatures of habit and afraid of anything new, but they’re highly adaptable and territorial. They also travel in family groups and educate their young on what and where to eat.”
Baker also recommends that homeowners select plants resistant to deer, choose effective repellents and deterrents, and develop a customized strategic plan.
Last spring, Rooker decided it was time to revamp her front yard—a straggly mix of holly, yew and azalea—and reclaim it from the deer that snacked there, especially during the winter months when food is more scarce in the woods.
“Of course, there was no way to attractively fence in the front yard,” Rooker says. “When I started to look at plant possibilities, my major concern was spending all this money and feeding the deer.”
One alternative to installing a fence is to use a deer repellent. Whether store-bought or home-concocted, most are easy-to-apply sprays that contain odors or tastes that deter deer, including fish meal, hot pepper, putrid egg, dried blood, wintergreen oil, soap and garlic.
Dr. John Grande, director of the wildlife management farm at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., has spent years researching the field. “Deer repellants in landscaping obviously work,” he says. “But they also require multiple repeat applications, especially after precipitation and during the wintertime, when deer have less available food in their habitats and become more invasive. If the deer population is high and they are really hungry, repellants are also less effective.”
Not willing to constantly spray her yard, Rooker chose another option: planting deer-resistant plants. In addition to researching appropriate flora for her front yard, she also hired landscape designer Tom Aurelio of Green Team, a Manassas, Va.-based company.
“When I first used to do landscaping, we had a whole palette of plants to work with. There were no worries about deer,” recalls Aurelio, who has been in the landscaping business for 30 years. “Now we have a much more limited choice of plants that offer deer resistance.”
Those include plants with sharp thorns, prickly needles or tough-to-chew leaves, such as yucca, holly osmanthus and Southern magnolia. Ornamental grasses also tend to be less prone to deer nibbling. Deer are repelled by specific strong odors, so they are not fond of herbs, including rosemary, anise, thyme, tarragon and catmint. And they avoid plants that are toxic to them, including anything from the narcissus family.
“Tom and I worked closely together to select the right plants that would not only work, but would also thrive over time,” Rooker says.
Her front yard now contains some 22 species of deer-resistant plants—all perennials or evergreen shrubs—that are flourishing. Rooker created a layered garden that includes about 100 plants with year-round interest—without resorting to the showy annuals that deer find irresistible.
There are fragrant flowering plants, including the “Crown Jewel” gardenia and winter daphne. Those providing color range from the blue-tinged “Blue Star” juniper to the bright-green Thujopsis dwarf cypress to sweetbox’s red berries in winter, as well as variegated hue plants like Leucothoe “rainbow,” which also have graceful arching branches. For texture, there are Christmas fern and bird’s nest spruce, among others. Some of the plants add height, such as “Chindo” sweet viburnum, while ornamental grasses, such as mondo, grow closer to the ground.
“Her garden shows it is possible to have an interesting deer-resistant garden with lots of textural differences, variations in color and height, and diverse plant varieties,” Aurelio says.
Not only is Rooker delighted with the result, but she thinks she’s won the war against the deer. She recalls the footprints of visiting deer that she found in her front yard during a snowstorm last winter. The deer appeared to have approached her plants, but they had not eaten many, despite the area having endured one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent years.
“Now I call that a victory!” Rooker says.
Charlotte Safavi is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.