How to protect your landscape investment
Living in the Shenandoah Valley, not far from the boundaries of the Shenandoah National Park in northwest Virginia, we see deer all the time. I enjoy them. We don’t hunt them, as many of our neighbors do, nor do I allow anyone to hunt on our property. But as much as I love seeing them raise their young on our meadow, and graze on the pasture side by side with the llamas, the deer can be a nuisance. They eat anything, and there seems to be a mathematical correlation to their dining desires: the more expensive the plant, the more delectable it is, and our yard is haute cuisine.
When we bought the 20 acre property, it was a wooded tangle, multiflora rose, honeysuckle, briars and wild grape vine, running rampant and strangling the trees. Over the last 12 years, my husband and I have toiled to clear the underbrush and clean up the woods. 4 years ago, we had a ½ acre pond dug in the bog, and throughout the cleanup process, we have planted ornamental trees and shrubs, which the deer have appreciated.
In the beginning, we lost a large percentage of the plantings. That was before we found the definitive deer deterrent. In the meantime, we tried everything. There was the Deer Away, Liquid Fence, and the home made recipe my nurseryman swore by, with raw eggs, hot sauce and garlic, all of which may work for a short time after applied, but rely on constant reapplication, especially after a rain. With all the farm chores, and the heavy mowing schedule, we need a leave it and forget it solution to the deer damage.
We tried a motion activated radio, a motion activated water jet, fertilizer made from human waste, human hair cuttings, dog hair brushings, little clip on tubes filled with garlic odor that was so stinky it made us gag within 10 feet of the plant. We ran electric wire around a bed of ivy to keep the deer from pulling it up by the roots. When we noticed that the deer were just shinnying under the wire to get to the ivy, we added another lower strand AND something completely different – a small metal cap with a cotton ball in it that we attached to the wire at 15 foot intervals that we filled with apple scent. The idea was that the deer would smell the apple and touch their noses to the cap and receive a shock. We never saw it work. In fact, none of these deterred the determined deer. When the winters are hard and the ground is covered with snow, the desperate deer will literally eat anything. Forget the “deer resistant” label on a plant.
But we did find one simple solution that has consistently fended them off, and that is a bar of Irish Spring soap. It absolutely has to be Irish Spring and in the original scent because of its intense pungent odor. Initially we cut the bars in half and tied a half bar into the netting of a discarded bath pouf, and hung them from the branches of the trees and shrubs. One or two soaps will take care of most young trees. We had great success with this for several years, until one summer we discovered that some animal was actually gnawing though the netting and eating the soap. We never did discover the culprit, but the soaps that were eaten were on small shrubs right on the edge of the pond. We speculated that we had particularly fastidious raccoons that were washing their hands with soap before chowing down on a succulent sushi smorgasbord.
Modifications were required. What could we put the soap in that couldn’t be chewed through? We came up with the idea of putting a bar of the soap into one of the wire cages made for suet cakes. This has worked beautifully. The cages never disintegrate as the netting did, and it is easy to replace the soap when necessary. We have found that a bar of soap lasts at least a whole year, and maybe two, as it slowly dissolves with the rainfall. Trees that had been heavily devoured prior to the soap are now not touched at all.
The one thing that the soap will not work for is our pond plants. For the last 4 years, we have reveled in the beauty of the purple pickerel that we planted either side of our boat launch. The plants have thrived and each year put on a gazillion purple flower spikes that last for months and attract butterflies, dragonflies, bumblebees, hummingbirds, you name it. This year it attracted the deer. Before it ever had a chance to bloom, they ate it to the ground. Witness the culprits, caught in action by our motion activated game camera. (No, we do not have a fetish for motion activated electronic devices…Maybe?)
I can’t guarantee that the soap will work for you, as you may have a species of aberrant deer that actually loves the scent of under arm deodorant. But it is a relatively cheap, low maintenance setup, and it makes for a great conversation starter when your friends comment on your unusual taste in garden décor.