Bambi’s cute, but keep him off the lawn. That goes for his relatives, too. Rabbits are awfully fun for the neighbor children to watch, but who wants to replant the landscape bed that Thumper destroyed?
The urban landscape can be a wild world, especially when surrounding areas are wooded, protected sanctuaries, open green space or parkland. Deer aren’t hunting for a cozy place to hang out on a cul-de-sac. They travel from surrounding areas. “People have to anticipate potential wildlife damage by assessing not just their yard, but what land is around them,” says Scott Craven, professor emeritus in the department of forest and wildlife ecology at University of Wisconsin.
Deer are “a big animal with a big diet” and can be a big problem in the landscape, Craven says. Equally troublesome are rabbits and meadow voles.
For property owners, the thought of losing hundreds or even thousands of dollars of plants after a thorough grazing sparks interest in protection services, says Gary Eichen, BioTurf manager at Mike’s Tree Surgeons in Troy, Michigan.
“The aesthetic value of what deer can destroy is mind-blowing,” Eichen says. “They will literally eat plants right to the ground, so people are interested in protecting the value of their landscape and the perceived impact it could have on their property value.”
When are deer and other wildlife most likely to damage the landscape? What control methods can be used to prevent damage, and how landscape firms selling the service? Lawn & Landscape talked to some field professionals to learn how they keep the wild things away from clients’ landscapes.
Identify grazing times.
Eichen was out applying a deer repellent product on a client’s property last spring. “There were two baby fawns – the mother had placed them down in the taxus, and they did not run,” he says. “They stayed right where they were and the mother was 30 yards away. They watched me spray.”
Deer pressure is a year-round ordeal in the Detroit, Michigan, market Eichen serves. “We have urban herds that are out of control and have lost any fear of humans, so they’ll stand there and look at you,” he says.
Burke finds the same thing where he does business in Door County, Wisconsin. “Someone will be eating at a picnic table and the deer will walk up within 10 feet and start eating plants in their yard,” he says.
However, there are certain periods of the year when deer might cause more of a problem in the landscape. That’s when there are fewer green-and-growing snacks in parks and open land. Woody material and perennials are most vulnerable beginning in late fall through winter, Craven says. Prime time for annuals is immediately after planting.
Meadow voles are persistent and can cause a great deal of damage in the landscape – and these guys burrow under the snow and dig into mulch. “Once they are under the snow, you can’t get at them,” Craven says. “They’ll tunnel around, find a burning bush or another preferred woody plant, and they can completely debark it and it’s a goner come spring.”
Voles also tend toward heavily mulched areas of the landscape. “Landscape contractors are prone to use a lot of mulch, and if you are putting mulch around foundation plantings then you are inviting a high vole density because they’ll use that for shelter,” Craven says.
As for rabbits, Craven says fluffy-tailed mopsies tend to fall off people’s radars. “But they are everywhere all of the time, and they are around all the time.”
An optimum control schedule is a preventive campaign in fall, including a repellent or fencing for individual species that call for protection. Protective barriers such as plastic tubing around tree trunks can deter deer and animals from the bark.
As Craven points out, woody plants are not only vulnerable for their evergreen “salad,” but trunks offer a handy place for bucks to polish their antlers during rut season.
What are signs that a deer is scavenging plants vs. a rabbit or other nuisance wildlife? Deer tend to eat the green leaves from the tips down to the stubble, Burke says. “They’ll eat arborvitae from the ground up to 6 to 7 feet high. Rabbits will girdle the bottom 8 to 12 inches of a plant, and they’ll chew right through the bark.”
In Florida, some homeowners deal with wild hogs that can root up grass and sod, says Tony Young with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “To a lesser degree, armadillos can also be destructive by digging holes,” he says.
Fencing is the most sure-fire way to reduce damage and prevent animals from entering the property, Young says. This is not always possible in homeowners’ associations where covenants prevent barriers.
However, individual plants on properties can be protected, and this is a wise strategy for keeping deer and other hungry wildlife away from prized plants.
Eichen uses repellents that he says are up to 90 percent effective at preventing deer damage. DeerPro winter repellent can be applied in October and lasts up to six months because of a latex bonding agent that keeps the active ingredient thiram (a fungicide) on foliage, even through ice, snow and rain.
In spring, he uses a DeerPro spring/summer repellent that is an egg-based odor deterrent spray designed for commercial use. “Once it dries on the leaf tissue, it lasts three to five weeks,” Eichen says.
Taste- and odor-based repellents steer deer away from the food source, and since they are creatures of habit they tend not to return.
Of course, the idea of selecting plants that deer don’t find so tasty seems like an ideal way to plan a landscape. The problem is, Eichen and Burke find that if the deer are hungry enough, they’ll eat even the plants on the “safe list.”
In Florida, deer tend not to munch on evergreens like juniper and ivy, or prickly roses and sego palms.
Local extension services can provide recommendations. But, hungry deer are brave and not so selective about the greens they graze on, Eichen says.
“I have seen roses listed as plants that deer do not eat, but I have roses in five different cities we service that were taken down a foot (by deer), thorns and all.”
Noise deterrents are available, and some find that a dog that spends lots of time outdoors can be a great help in keeping wildlife away from plantings, Young says.
Eichen began offering deer control as a service three years ago and treated about a dozen properties. That first year, the revenue base from that service was about $4,000. “Now, we are doing in excess of $100,000,” he says.
Eichen markets the service by including information in customers’ annual renewal contracts in February. He tucks information in with summer mailings, too because clients want to protect the investment in their landscaping, they’re keen to the option.
Once a deer takes down a mature plant, the damage slows down growth. “Plants might not have the energy to recover from an extensive feeding, so you have to replace a shrub,” Eichen says.
Burke sells deer and rabbit protection as a separate service, sharing information with customers during tree work visits.
“We deal with so many customers in our everyday tree work that it’s real easy for us to talk about deer damage and what can be done to prevent it,” he says.