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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog

Gardening with Deer too Near

Plant damage from deer is an all too common question at most University of Illinois Extension offices. "Most of the calls are about feeding damage, but rubbing damage is also a problem," says Rhonda Ferree, Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension.

Male deer damage trees and shrubs by rubbing their antlers on them. They do this in the fall to remove the soft velvet covering and to strengthen their back and shoulder muscles. Rubbing damage will tear the bark off small trees. If the bark is stripped all the way around the tree, it can girdle and kill the tree. If the damage is only part way around the tree, the tree should recover. Clean up any loose bark by trimming it back to solid bark material. Do not apply pruning paints. Just let the plant heal naturally.

Overall, feeding damage can be more harmful than rubbing damage. Deer feed on a wide variety of plants, including fruits, buds, flowers, and small stems. Like us, they have favorite foods, but when food is scare they'll eat just about any plant.

What can be done? There are four basic options available: fencing, repellents, predators, and deer-resistant plants. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but using deer-resistant plants is often the easiest solution in the long run. According to Ferree, plant material in deer infested areas should be the type deer don't prefer in their diets. Costly browsing may be reduced or eliminated by planting less-preferred species or by establishing susceptible plants only in areas protected from deer.

Whether or not a particular plant species or variety will be eaten depends on the deer's previous experience, nutritional needs, plant palatability, seasonal factors, weather conditions, and the availability of alternative foods. Deer are creatures of habit and once they become aware of an area with available foodstuffs, you can expect regular visits. Never feed the deer, even with salt blocks.

Considerable research has been done to determine which plants deer prefer to eat. No plant species will be avoided by deer under all conditions, but planting deer-resistant plants works for many gardeners. For example, deer really like to eat hosta, which is a common shade garden plant. Replacement plants that deer don't usually like include bleeding heart, wide ginger, May apple, and jack-in-the-pulpit.

For more information on deer and other wildlife problems, go to the University of Illinois Extension website "Living with Wildlife in Illinois" at

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