Dear Deer, Please stay away

Ever since my friend sent me the photos of his natural defense against deer damage in his garden, I’ve been giving fresh thought to the fairly wide selection of deer-resistant conifers. Last winter I approached this topic with fairly broad generalities, simply referring to conifer species that have shown resistance. Today, I’d like to take another look at deer-resistant conifers from a regional perspective by listing conifers that have been successful in different parts of the country.

Pinus mugo 'Tannenbaum'
Deer prefer that taste of the Eastern White Pine over the Christmas tree shaped ‘Tannenbaum’.

A great example is from my friend in the Mid-west. In his experience, living in rural eastern Iowa, Picea pungens cultivars have been very deer resistant. That includes both the larger and dwarf forms such as the larger, ‘Fat Albert’ and ‘Hoopsii’ as well as dwarf forms such as, ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ and ‘St. Mary’s Broom’. He also noted that although the deer absolutely love his Eastern White Pine cultivars (Pinus strobus), they seem to stay away from Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’, an intermediate sized, broad tree-form of the Mugo Pine. In his area, the deer also tend not to bother with Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar).

My friend on Long Island, New York has found that all of the Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) are resistant to deer damage. Unfortunately, some conifers that folks in others regions have had success with, such as Cephalotaxus and Thuja plicata ‘Green Giant’, seem to taste just fine to the deer in his area.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Black Dragon'
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’ shows some resistance to browsing deer.

My friends living in various locations along the mid-Atlantic area have found cultivars of Thuja plicata to be resistant to the herds in their region. They have also noted little damage from deer on the cultivars of Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese Cedar) such as ‘Black Dragon’, ‘Kitayama’, or ‘Sekkan’. The Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis) shows resistance in this area whereas the Norway and Colorado spruce (P. abies and P. pungens) only somewhat. Cephalotaxus (Plum Yew) and Thujopsis (Staghorn Cedar) show some resistance in this region.

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Joe Kozey'
‘Joe Kozey’, an excellent cultivar of the highly resistant, Sciadopitys verticillata.

One conifer that none of my friends have ever seen bothered by deer is Sciadopitys verticillata (Japanese Umbrella Pine) and its cultivars. (Update: one of my friends does report some deer damage to Sciadopitys in her section of Connecticut. See comment below.)

Of course all of my friends emphasize that it depends on the size of the herds, the severity of the winter and availability of other foods. As noted in my previous post on this topic, natural defense can go a long way to prevent deer damage. Man’s best friend can also be a deterrent to deer entering the property – many dogs love a good chase after four-legged trespassers.

Conifer Lover

Natural pest control

No one likes to see their garden investments suffer from disease or be eaten away by pesky insects, rodents or deer. I have always been an advocate of utilizing the most natural means toward pest control as possible and recently found myself in a conversation with other like-minded gardeners. We all shared stories about what seemed to work and what didn’t. The funny thing was, a few of the things that worked for some folks proved to be completely ineffective for others. I concluded that there were many factors that influenced our successes and failures in our less than scientific experiments. I also believe that the best pest control includes a number of strategies that work together for the best results.

Diverse conifer garden
A garden filled with a diversity of plants is one of the best ways to prevent insect pest infestation.

I think that one of the best things a gardener can do is to include a wide assortment of plants in their gardens. By keeping the garden environment diverse, you can avoid a major infestation of any one type of insect pest. You also have a greater probability of providing habitat for predators which may include birds or other insects that feed on those that would feed on your prized garden plants. In my experience, insect pests have been the least of my worries.

Over the years, the greatest damage to my garden, and the gardens of my friends across the nation, is from mammals. In my area, the most destructive pest to my conifers are rabbits, while most of my friends in other parts of the country (and even just a few miles away) struggle with deer. We have all tried installing fences, large and small. We have tried predator repellent scents, we’ve tried soap-on-a-rope and nylon stockings filled with human hair. We’ve tried dogs and cats, but these two types of pests in particular not only tend to do the most damage in the shortest period of time, but they have been the most difficult to control – until now.

Bears in the garden
Garden bears can be useful to keep unwanted pests from damaging your garden investment.

A good friend on the east coast has found an absolutely fool-proof method of natural pest control for both of these elusive pests. He tells me that he has never had a deer or rabbit problem in his garden, even though deer, in particular, ravage most gardens in his region.

“What’s your secret?” I asked, expecting a complicated mix of secret ingredients.

“It is a simple and effective natural control – it’s as old as the hills,” he said with a definite lilt to his voice – I could easily imagine the grin on his face and the twinkle in his eye. “I’ll email you a couple pictures that will explain everything.”

Moments later, the answer had arrived.

BEARS! Yes, my friend had bears that regularly wandered through his neighborhood. “Now, how are we going to market this?” I wondered.

Conifer Lover

Ps, If you are interested in learning more about preventing deer damage in your garden, check out the book, 50 Beautiful Deer Resistant Plants. Plus, stay tuned, I’ll be sharing some specific conifers that have proven to be very deer resistant.

Eat or be eaten

My little garden paradise is home to many different kinds of critters. Many species of birds frequent the garden throughout the year, the squirrels are almost always out and playfully busy, I’ve seen small rabbits from time to time, tree frogs can more often be heard than seen, we have the occasional raccoon, opossum or coyote make a visit (usually on their way to the neighbor’s dog food dish I suspect), but I have never seen any sign of deer. Perhaps our place is just urban enough to be outside of their domain – I do know folks with deer sightings a mile or two (and further) away.

A few weeks ago, I was asked about deer-resistant conifers from a new garden friend in Connecticut. I had a few ideas for her, but I knew the best thing to do would be to contact some of my friends living around the country so I could pull from their real-world experience. In the process I discovered that there are many conifers choices available which deer seem to have no interest in whatsoever. I also discovered that just because the local herds of deer in New Jersey may avoid one plant, the herds across the state line on Long Island, may find it to be a delicacy.

Spruce Border
A mixed spruce border may encorage deer to look elsewhere for food.

I have come to the conclusion that there are some very reliable conifers that deer will absolutely avoid until the food supply is so scarce that they are desperate. I wonder if one were to create a border around the property with a selection of those proven deer-resistant trees, would the herd move on to another property that is much more inviting? I also believe that a great way to enjoy conifers – especially the smaller dwarf and miniatures – is to plant them in containers that are kept close to the house on the patio or deck. Deer seem to generally stay away from homes and prefer not to get too close to humans. Man’s best friend also can be a great deer deterrent as many dogs quite enjoy a good chase after four-legged trespassers. One of my friends – an avid hunter – suggests that the best thing to do is eat the deer before they eat your conifers.

Container Garden
The container garden is a perfect way to enjoy the smaller dwarf and miniature conifers near the house and outside of the path of deer.

Below is a list of conifer species which appear to be the most deer resistant. Most cultivars within this group should also enjoy the same deer-resistant qualities of its parent species. For example, Picea pungens appears to be a successful deer resistant conifer species, so it is probable that its cultivarients would exhibit the same qualities. With easily a hundred cultivars of Picea pungens available with a broad assortment of growth rates from large to miniature and colors from forest green to the brightest silvery-blue, the gardener should be able to find several that would be perfect for their garden.

Cryptomeria japonica
Juniperus – the more prickly types
Picea abies
Picea omorika
Picea orientalis
Picea polita
Picea pungens
Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’
Sciadopitys verticillata
Thuja plicata
Thujopsis dolobrata
Keep in mind that resistance depends greatly on the size of the herd, the opportunity to eat other agricultural crops and the time of year. It is always a good idea to talk with neighbors or the local county extension agent for their experience.

Conifer Lover