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Marin IJ Articles

What to Do When Unwanted Deer Appear

  • Jane Scurich
  • Struggling to coexist with Bambi and family taking up residence in your neighborhood? Rest assured, you are not alone.

    Rather than struggle with planting and replacing your favorite plants that have been nibbled to oblivion, learn a few tips to help make peace with the local herd.

    The reality is, deer are part of our lives here in Marin and Sonoma counties. You will save time, money and endless hours of frustration when you discover strategies to enjoy your garden and accept the doe-eyed darlings as part of our universe.

    Although we see deer almost daily in some areas of Marin, spring is when we start seeing does with their fawns in exploration of our landscape to learn what tastes really yummy. This is when our deer-resistant plantings are put to the test.

    How can a fawn know what doesn't taste good without tasting? A number of taste tests can severely limit a plant's growth. New growth on succulents is particularly tempting to deer. Protect your new nursery plants even though they may be advertised as deer resistant.

    The late fall, before the rainy season, is also a time for large numbers of deer to be attracted to our neighborhoods. As the soil has dried out and tender green growth is limited, they'll be searching for your irrigated gardens to supplement their diet, both for nourishment and liquid. This is also rutting season when you will see the large antlered bucks marking their territory by rubbing or scrapping bushes and shrubs — further damage for our suburban landscape.

    Horticulturist and historian Bob Hornback, a 30-year resident of rural West Marin, will offer gardeners on April 4 tried-and-true techniques — including plant selection, repellents and protective barriers — that will help ensure a more peaceful coexistence with deer.

    There are more deer in our county than there were 10 to 12 years ago, Hornback says. The reason is twofold: predators are few and far between, and we're planting more delicious treats to enable deer to thrive and multiply. While we are recently hearing more reports about mountain lion sightings, there really aren't many natural deer predators in our area.

    Hornback, who owns the landscape design and consultation company Muchas Grasses that specializes in ornamental grasses, has explored many fairly inexpensive techniques for gardening in a deer-filled area. While he acknowledges losing some plants to the grazing deer, he "hasn't given up on anything yet!" He does describe roses as the "single most desirable candy" for deer, but also notes that older, well-established roses can handle some munching without being a total loss.

    The No. 1 deterrent against deer, says Hornback, is fencing, at least 7 to 8 feet tall. Fencing does have a few drawbacks, including cost, maintenance and challenging hillsides and valleys. Even with state-of-the-art fencing, that one guest who casually leaves a gate open can result in major plant loss. As useful as fencing is, no one technique to deter deer is 100-percent sure.

    A new generation of fawns will soon be following mama deer to learn the pathways leading to the most succulent morsels. You do not want your garden in the deer gazette of top 10 grazing fields in your area. This is the time to make your garden totally disinteresting.

    Hornback recommends a loud dog in the yard as a deterrent. More of a cat person? Consider other noise makers: bells, loud chimes, or make yourself a barking, shouting, visible nuisance to the easily startled young family. Deer prefer calm, quiet areas for grazing, so go ahead — scream, wave your arms — make some noise! The more nervous you can make them, the better.

    The Marin Master Gardener website www.marinmg.org also contains excellent articles to help you successfully garden with deer as well as lists of rarely damaged, seldom damaged, occasionally damaged and "deer candy" plants.