Extension Educator, Horticulture
Deer gracefully moving through the landscape - what a beautiful sight. Unfortunately they also eat their way through the landscape along with rabbits and other cute furry creatures. Wildlife can cause some real economic and aesthetic problems.
Deer love to nibble on leaves, stems and buds of many woody plants. In spring and summer non-woody plants are favorites and fruits and nuts especially acorns are important when available in late summer and fall. Don't expect deer to trim your grass since grasses are of little importance as deer food.
Rabbits will eat just about anything. Tulips are favorites especially the first shoots in early spring. Rabbits really love peas, beans and beets. Only a few crops, corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes suffer little damage from rabbits.
In the winter rabbits clip off branches and eat the bark of many landscape plants. Rabbits seem to prefer plants in the rose family including roses, black and red raspberries, blackberries, apple, cherry and plum trees. Young trees are the favorite. Once a tree develops rough bark rabbits tend to leave them alone except for young shoots. Basswood, red maple, sugar maple, red and white oak, sumac and barberry are favorites. I've found they usually eat the newly planted most expensive plant.
Damage caused by deer or rabbits is not difficult to identify. Deer browsing often leaves a jagged or torn surface on twigs and stems. Rabbit or rodent damage will leave a clean cut surface usually at a 45 degree angle like a good pair of Felco pruners.
Some landscape plants are not favored by wildlife. Realize that if deer or rabbit populations are high and food is low due to snow cover, they will eat just about anything.
Trees – ash, beech, birch, juniper, ginkgo, hemlock, honey locust and spruce.
Shrubs – barberry, boxwood, forsythia, lilac and spirea.
Groundcovers – ajuga, ferns, ginger, lily-of-the-valley and sweet woodruff.
Perennial vines – bittersweet, grape, honeysuckle, trumpet creeper and wisteria.
Hardy bulbs – crocus, daffodil, grape hyacinth and snowdrops.
Annuals flowers – ageratum, alyssum, marigolds, lobelia, snapdragons, sunflower and petunia.
Perennials – astilbe, beebalm, coreopsis, columbine, iris, peony, purple coneflower, soapwort, veronica, yucca.
Herbs – basil, catmint, chives, dill, lambs ears, oregano, rosemary and sage.
Rabbit-resistant plants are not as clear. The same plant may appear on the resistant list or preferred list depending on whose list is used. Here are some plants to at least try for rabbit resistance:
Trees and shrubs – alder, birch, boxwood, redtwig dogwood, cotoneaster, deutzia, hydrangea, St. Johnswort, holly, privet, mockorange, large rhododendrons, spiny roses, elderberry, lilac, spirea and yew.
Perennials – vinca, yucca, columbine, spurge, daylily, daffodils, solomon's seal and sedum.
Fencing is the most effective way eliminate damage. Repellants can also be effective in deterring rabbits and deer, but must be used before extensive damage. Formulations of two tablespoons hot pepper sauce in 12 and one half gallons of water with Wilt Pruf anti-dessicant has shown good efficacy. Human hair in bags, blood meal and lion feces all have had mixed results and don't weather well. Bars of smelly soap hung on trees have shown to be fairly effective repellents. Commercially available repellents such as Deer Away and Hinder have had good results. Or consider a large dog with an invisible fencing system.