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Oh Deer!

Posted by Kari Houle - Articles

Many a gardener has faced the not so lovely experience of white tailed deer using their backyard as their personal smorgasbord. I'll be honest, I've been lucky in that every place I've lived, I haven't had to deal with deer in my backyard. Should I knock on wood now?

At one time, in the late 1800's/early 1900's, the deer population in Illinois was almost eliminated due to over hunting/no hunting regulations as well as changes in the landscape. In 1901, Illinois placed a 5 year moratorium on deer hunting, but the population never resurged. In 1903 the Office of the State Game Commission was created and put into place hunting license requirements. The population of deer still remained low and in 1933, Illinois began reintroducing deer. Illinois wasn't the only state to experience significant deer population decline - Iowa and Northern Missouri did as well. As you know, the deer population rebounded and now the only form of population management is through regulated hunting as their natural predators (wolves and cougars) were extirpated from the state.

So, what options do we have to protect our landscape from deer? There are a few options including deterrents, choosing less desirable plants, and physical barriers (this would be to prevent antler rubbing damage). Some say hanging bars of soap help to deter deer away from plants, but the effective radius is only about 1 foot out, so it would take multiple bars in a landscape. A Cornell University study conducted from 1989-1991, showed soaps made from tallow fatty acid were more effective than those made with coconut fatty acids, so make sure to check the label if this is the route you want to take.

Another research study was released in 2010 about chemical deer deterrent effectiveness in Connecticut and was conducted using yews over a 2 years period. They compared four different types of chemical deterrents – fear, condition-aversion, pain-inducing, and taste to see what worked best as well as having a control group that received no treatment. Over the 2 year period, deterrents did help to reduce the amount of damage, but there were none that provided 100% control. They concluded that products that required a higher rate of reapplication (applied according to the label) had a higher ranking on their Protection Index. If you're interested in reading the study report in full, you can download it here: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/hwi/vol4/iss1/8/

Plant selection gives us another option for minimizing deer damage. There are some plants that deer highly favor over others, but if they are hungry will feed on most anything. Even if a plant is listed as "deer resistant" it means that it's not their first choice, but if given no other options, that plant could still fair game.

Here is a list of deer top favorites:

  • American Arborvitae
  • Apples and Crabapples
  • Burning Bush
  • Cherries and Plums
  • Clematis
  • Corneliancherry Dogwood
  • Daylilies
  • Eastern Redbud
  • Garden Lilies
  • Hostas
  • Hybrid Tea Rose
  • Linden
  • Norway Maple
  • Rhododendron
  • Yews

Here is a selection of "deer resistant" plants:

  • Alyssum
  • Barberry
  • Beautybush
  • Birch
  • Colorado Spruce
  • Columbine
  • Coneflower
  • Forsythia
  • Iris
  • Lilac
  • Honeylocust
  • Marigold
  • Mugo Pine
  • Peony
  • Russian Sage
  • Snapdragons
  • Spruce
  • Yarrow


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