Inula Royleana
Midwest Gardening
Deer and Rabbit Proof

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The truth about deer and rabbit resistant plants

Even within city limits, deer thrive and rabbits multiply, well, like rabbits.  Keeping them from decimating the garden is definitely a challenge.  Many plants are claimed as deer and rabbit resistant, or deer and rabbit proof.  The truth is, when food is scarce they will eat nearly anything, even plants such as juniper, that they find distasteful.  So there is no such thing as deer proof, the best you can hope for is resistant.

decimated by deer by TOG

Deer, and rabbits, will eat anything in sight if snow cover is too deep or persists too long to find food, if drought has diminished food sources, if the herd has grown too large to be supported by existing food sources, and in spring when tender new growth emerges.  Soft young vegetation is a favorite for deer and rabbits anytime, but even more so when they have endured scarce food over winter.

Although lists of favorite and unsavory plants exist, the lists vary by region.  And the critters are unpredictable.  Hosta are generally considered a favorite for deer, but they have never more than occasionally nibble my many hosta varieties.  There are a few plant characteristics that deer prefer to avoid in general:Deer grazing at dawn by TOG

  • Plants with thorns
  • Prickly leaves and stems
  • Strongly scented plants
  • Plants with pungent taste such as herbs
  • Poisonous plants
  • Plants with thick insoluble sap
  • Hairy or “velvety” leaves

Keep these things in mind for deer resistant plantings, and by all means consult the lists available.  Don’t over fertilize, as lush young growth is rapidly produced which is a tasty treat for deer and rabbits.  Installing fencing is an option, particularly for vegetable gardens.  Keep in mind that deer can jump an 8 foot fence.  However they are vertical jumpers, so a fence installed at an angle will not be attempted.  And rabbits are notorious for wiggling under a fence, so bury the bottom a few inches to prevent them from wiggling or digging under.  And last but not lease, use repellant sprays.  The repellants use odor or taste, or both, to deter rabbits and deer from eating the plants they are applied to.  Again, sometimes they are hungry enough to eat it anyway.  Predator urines are also often used to prevent deer from entering an area.  These are used in a manner that suggests a predator has “marked” the territory in regular intervals.  Deer will not worry too much about entering a territory marked with coyote urine, but they will certainly think twice if they think a mountain lion has marked the territory.

A combination of deterrent methods will probably be necessary, even deer will eventually figure things out.  I was once plagued by a deer family that routinely was standing in a nearby clearing when I let my dog out late each night.  They waited patently each and every night, knowing that it would be morning before the dog was back out.  They figured out exactly when they could dine in peace!

Rutgers agricultural department has a well designed searchable list rating the deer resistance of plants:  http://njaes.rutgers.edu/deerresistance/  Good luck!!

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