By Emily J. Weitz
What could be more serene than an open meadow in the late afternoon, a herd of deer grazing on cool grass? The scene is so lovely, it conjures up thoughts of Eden, and yet, when it comes to cultivating your own personal Eden, deer quickly go from harmless doe-eyed creatures to merciless killers of all things flowering.
On the East End, it is essential to take deer into consideration when planning your outdoor spaces. They are everywhere, and they will devour nearly everything in their path. Thousands of dollars of investment in plants could be destroyed in one evening if the herd passes through. But the list of “safe” plants is shrinking.
“Plants they never touched in the past,” says Matt Werner, who has been working at Whitmores in East Hampton for more than 20 years, “they are starting to eat. We’re seeing more and more plants that used to be on a deer resistant list getting eaten. You can’t say ‘deer-proof’ anymore. Nowadays, they’ll devour everything.”
Plants like Hollywood juniper and forsythia used to be on the list of safe plants, but now they get eaten, along with lilac bushes. Werner believes that the reason the deer have become more and more ruthless is, quite simply, they’re starving. Their habitats are being destroyed, and the woods they used to feed on are becoming manicured properties.
“They want to be in the woods,” says Werner.
The problem is, he says, the woods are shrinking. The problem becomes most pronounced in the fall, when the leaves begin to come off the trees.
“Their food supply runs out,” he explains, “and they come and indulge themselves on everything we just planted for the whole season.”
Couple the destruction of habitat with the lack of local predators, and you have deer population that is out of control, noted several experts this week. Tom Volk, of Ray Smith and Associates in Southampton, sees this as a double blow to landscapes.
“The more development happens,” he says, “the less places deer have to go. Add to that the fact you can’t do population control in residential neighborhood, deer browsing gets worse and worse. You invest thousands in these plants and one night can undo all of that.”
Even though no plants are completely deer-proof anymore, there are plants that have proven to be the least favorite of these uninvited guests.
“Ornamental grasses work great,” says Volk. “Hypericum, which is St John’s wort, and ferns work really well.”
These low-lying plants make great borders for the property, and hypericum blooms yellow flowers. Another choice is ozmanthus, which comes up in every conversation about deer-resistant plants.
“Ozmanthus is a great shrub,” says Volk. “It looks like a holly.”
Werner likes to use ozmanthus as a border to deter deer.
“It can be made into a hedge,” says Werner, “or set up as individual plants. I lean toward ozmanthus a lot as a deer resistant plant.”
Phil Bucking at the Sag Harbor Garden Center says that using deer resistant plants as a border, even if you have other plants on the property, can act as a deterrent.
“If you have an occasional deer passing through,” says Bucking, “that can act as a barrier. But if you have a serious deer problem, like on Shelter Island or North Haven, they’ll pass right through that.”
Bucking suggests using large pots with plants like lavender and marigolds, which the deer tend to stay away from.
Another plant that has stood up to these hungry herbivores is Cephilotaxus, not to be confused with other taxus plants.
“They love most taxus,” says Werner. “But cephilotaxus was specifically grown as a deer resistant plant. You’re starting to see it a lot more out here.”
Other proven plants, he says, are boxwood, pieris, and skinna.
But the best way to keep deer out is fencing. If they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat anything. But if they can’t get in, your garden is safe. Sprays are also somewhat effective, but they need to be consistently applied, and a strong rain can wash them away.
“Your plants are a one-time investment,” says Werner. “Sticking with plants that deer avoid is a better route, but if you have to have your peonies or your azaleas, you’ll need to spray them. Especially when it gets to be September and October, you’ll need to think about deer protection. We live and learn.”