Yes, you read that headline right. Deer eat my plants, and I let them. But I also barely notice the nibbling. Here’s why (and how) I favor coexistence over resistance when it comes to these misunderstood animals.
The baby left in May as quietly as she’d arrived, disappearing while we slept. For two days, she’d nestled in fallen leaves, resting and grooming and standing up on wobbly legs to stretch.
Her departure was a relief, a sign that her mother was still caring for her. To avoid attention, does forage without their fawns, leaving them in dense vegetation and summoning newborns only when it’s time to nurse.
Still, I worried. As my husband and I peeked through the basement door just a few feet away from where the fawn lay, I wondered what would happen if she wandered so close to other members of our kind. For all the camouflage offered by our lush patio garden, her resting spot was surprisingly exposed to us humans, historically the most harmful predator of white-tailed deer.
It’s hard to imagine now, but white-tailed deer were once nearly extinct in dozens of states due to hunting and habitat loss. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had vanished from Vermont, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It wasn’t the first time deer populations went scarce. Shooting the animals out of existence was a national pastime for hundreds of years after European settlement. In the 20th century, efforts to transport them across regions so they could be “restocked” and hunted all over again were so successful that these animals now face different threats. High on the list is the wrath of gardeners calling for their heads.
My rejection of this attitude makes me an object of curiosity (and sometimes ridicule) in the gardening world, where I can count on rants against deer in almost every conversation. “I’ve been through my Bambi phase,” one woman told me, characterizing kindness toward animals—and my questioning of cultural narratives about them—as infantile. “I got over it.”
People ask me whether I’ve taken into account the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer. I like to pose a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we challenge the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life?
I prefer to “get over” our uniquely human arrogance and take a broader view. I don’t know everything about the ecology of deer in forests, where they’re blamed for degrading wildlife habitat. But neither does anyone else. Yes, deer eat plants, but that’s not new. What is more recent are accelerated human-driven changes to plant and animal diversity: the imported earthworms that degrade soils in northern forests, the introduced Japanese stiltgrass and European garlic mustard that suppress the growth of native plants, the fragmented landscapes exacerbated by an insatiable desire for large lawns, and the decline of large predators caused by hunting and habitat destruction.
Occasionally people ask me whether I ever factor the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer and other species into my thinking. Reversing this concept, I like to ask a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we question the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life? The carrying capacity of my land for deer is likely greater than that of my neighbor’s land down the street, even though his is twice the size. Why? Because mine is filled with plants that deer can eat; his is filled with lawn.
I don’t blame deer for being deer in the same way I don’t blame cats for being cats or earthworms for being earthworms. Rather than casting aspersions on other animals, I examine instead the contributions of our own species to degraded habitat—and the ways we can learn from those mistakes and mitigate or even reverse the damage. I garden not just for wildlife but with them, giving weight to their survival needs more than to my own cosmetic preferences. Just because I can’t rejuvenate all the forests around me doesn’t mean I have to keep mowing down my own property. Deer visit our backyard daily to eat, but the following experimental methods have been so successful that we barely notice the nibbling in our prolific gardens.
Nurture nature’s deer food.
When creating habitat for wildlife, it’s important to remember your goals are different from those of conventional landscaping. To meet their mission of making the world safe for lawns (and profitable lawn products), pesticide pushers and turfgrass totalitarians urge us to remove Canada goldenrod, jewelweed, wild grape, and countless other plants that would otherwise nourish deer.
There’s no better way to learn about this special brand of cynicism than to come across a new mystery plant and turn to the Internet for help with identification. Online searches related to one of my recent finds gleaned reviews negative enough to make a grown plant cry: “A grass imposter” that causes “infestations,” pronounced a book on mid-Atlantic gardening. A “Weed of the Month” with an “unsightly” brown appearance in winter pastures, offered a horse magazine. “Often troublesome in pastures, lawns, orchards, nurseries and gardens,” warned university extension specialists.
It was a lot of bad press for a plant that does so much good. Muhlenbergia schreberi, or nimblewill (as it’s known more commonly by the few people who even know it at all), is a pretty native grass. It can outcompete Japanese stiltgrass, which is difficult to eliminate by other means. And perhaps most interesting of all, deer sometimes graze on nimblewill. Yet consumer need for unnatural green is so strong that Syngenta developed a selective herbicide to kill it, while other companies shamelessly encourage homeowners to spray even more broadly. “Don’t be fooled by its cute name,” advises Monsanto on its Roundup website. “This aggressive grass sets seeds in the fall and hides until spring.” (Never mind that Monsanto helped create a monster in the form of a genetically engineered grass now threatening to wreak havoc on sensitive wildlife habitats in Oregon—and later abdicated responsibility for righting the wrong.)
Let woody plants spread.
“Trees could solve the problem if people trying to improve things would only allow them to take over,” writes German forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. He’s referring to the benefits of dense canopies along rivers and streams, where trees could naturally shade out giant hogweed and other invasive species.
But the sentiment hits close to home—and my own backyard—for another reason. Trees and shrubs have been integral to our peaceful coexistence with deer, who count among their favorite treats the staghorn sumacs and sassafras that have suckered into our former lawn. Though we didn’t know it when we began ceding turfgrass to nature, a later reading of the literature confirmed these two species as favorite browse plants for deer in our region. (And contrary to popular belief, staghorn sumacs are not the same plants as poison sumacs; they are not even in the same genus.) Other vigorous spreaders like elderberries, blackberries, and dogwoods are high on the deer menu, too.
Left to their own devices, these plants provide an endless supply of food because of their rippling growth habits. As Wohlleben writes of the trees nibbled by deer in his homeland, “Usually, the deer don’t destroy all the little trees in one small group, so there are always a couple that escape damage and battle on upward.”
The deer don’t destroy all the budding trees and shrubs on my land either; they prune some while leaving dozens of others alone. Most of the time in my community, it’s the humans doing the destroying, usually without even knowing it. “These shrubs can be important for wildlife,” notes a University of Missouri article about deer habitat, “but they are often mowed before they can provide any benefits.”
Let lawn go to meadow.
Deer are attracted to open foraging areas adjacent to woods, or “edge” zones that provides both food and cover. Landscaping standards of modern suburbia mimic the basic framework of this habitat—with open lawns and tree-lined borders—but the food offerings are scant by comparison. In the more natural setting of a sunlit clearing in an intact forest, a diversity of grasses and wildflowers sprout, followed by shrubs and tree saplings.
By contrast, deer looking for nutrition in acres of manicured turfgrass have much less to choose from: typically a couple of hostas, a few daylilies, maybe some tasty rosebuds. In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.
In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.
As we’ve let the trees and shrubs sucker along our woods’ edges, we’ve also let the back acre of formerly mowed grass come into its own—and discovered a diversity of plants that had just been waiting for the right moment to sprout. Some, like broomsedge and purpletop grass, were probably already in the seedbank. Others, like late boneset, may have spread from elsewhere on the property. Goldenrods have popped up for the first time this year. Though deer wander around the edges of the meadow each evening, the only lasting evidence of their presence are depressions in the grasses where they curl up to sleep.
Let plants choose their destinies—and their allies.
A proliferation of spreading shrubs, trees, and meadow plants not only ensures there’s enough food to share; it also mixes things up enough to keep deer guessing. “I have noticed over the years that plants in a meadow rarely suffer from significant browsing by white-tailed deer,” writes landscape designer Larry Weaner in Garden Revolution. “Even the plants that deer favor seem to escape this form of attention when intermingled with plants that the deer don’t eat.”
Incorporating these observations into his gardening techniques, Weaner adds less tasty plants such as ladyferns to the same spot where he’s planting known deer snacks like white wood aster, ensuring that “the deer can’t get to the plant they like without also encountering the one that they don’t.”
While I’ve never actively employed this practice beyond the vegetable garden, I’ve noticed nature doing it for me. Where Joe Pye weed grows in a large stand I planted, the deer find it not long after its first tender leaves appear. But where Joe Pye reseeds itself among other species—swamp sunflower, boneset, and blue mistflower—the deer leave it alone. Similar strategies have kept our asters from being munched on en masse.
Incorporate harmless sensory deterrents.
Though my main strategy for peacefully coexisting with deer is to plant for them rather than resisting their need to eat, their attraction to tender growth of new plantings occasionally calls for gentle repellents.
Sometimes those repellents come in the form of more plants, even dead or invasive ones. Over the past two years, I’ve created natural caging out of trimmings of invasive multiflora roses growing at our woods’ edge, placing them around the nibbled Joe Pyes. Allowing the surrounding lawn (or whatever is left of it) to grow taller at the edges of the garden where the plants reside also provides a visual and tactile deterrent.
For isolated young trees or shrubs, caging is simplest, but such exclosures may be impractical in larger areas. In those cases, I hang bars of soap or ask my husband to defend the borders by relieving himself around the perimeters of new plantings (a locally sourced, humane and free range alternative to inhumanely produced “predator urine”). I’ve even been known to add a stake and place an upside down plastic pot on top—a lazy woman’s version of a scarecrow. None of these methods requires much time, but because deer quickly adapt, rotating gentle repellents helps keep them on their hooves long enough to ensure we have an ever-growing supply of food for them and all the other fauna, both macro and micro, who share our land.
I’m old enough to remember when deer sightings were rare events; as a little girl, I longed to see one on our camping trips to Virginia—and certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of spotting a herd in our suburban backyard. But I’m also young enough to have missed the chance to see other animals who were common only a few decades ago and have now vanished from these parts. The northern bobwhites my next-door neighbor admired in the 1970s are all but gone from our community, having long ago vanished along with the hedgerows and grasslands they relied on for cover and food.
Rapid declines of such species are now the norm; witness the passenger pigeons, who went extinct when the last one died in a zoo in 1914, just decades after millions of them still filled the skies across much of North America. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we should take no animals for granted, even the common ones—and we should stop blaming other species for their mere presence in the environment and start examining what we can do to help them. It’s not that hard. My small suburban plot of land is living, vibrant proof.
Gardening for All Species
My new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, published in April by Princeton Architectural Press, provides more ideas on planting for wildlife as well as preventing conflict with the animals.
Planting and Cultivation Strategies
While reading Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, I nodded my head in enthusiasm at the turn of nearly every page; most of the planting and cultivation strategies mirror my own, but Weaner has proven their success in large-scale projects. For further inspiration and ideas on identifying and nurturing plants that are valuable to wildlife but often yanked from gardens, check out my #WeedsNotWeeds series.
Though lists of so-called “deer-resistant plants” are easy to come by in gardening circles, finding species actually preferred by deer is trickier. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but you have to know where to look. Illinois Wildflowers, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the Forest Service fire ecology database have helped me make many flora-fauna connections. More deer-specific information is available from natural resources agencies, universities, and hunting organizations that post guidelines for creating deer food plots. Their motivations for feeding deer are usually different from mine, but I’ve found the advice helpful in learning how to plant for the animals. Some interesting articles include “Know Your Native Deer Foods” and “Whitetail 101: What Do Deer Eat?”
Vegetable Gardening with Wildlife
If a farmer can produce enough plants for commercial sale, feed her own family and nourish the many deer, squirrels, birds and other animals who visit her property, it’s a good bet she’s got some great advice for others, too. Tammi Hartung’s book, The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener, provides a wealth of practical information for home gardeners. (Tammi is also profiled in my book as a humane gardening pioneer.) For quick tips, check out my latest All Animals column on the same subject, “Sharing the Bounty.”
A History of White-Tailed Deer Restocking in the United States, 1878 to 2004 provides a state-by-state account of deer management programs. For a fresh perspective on forest ecology as it relates to deer presence, see The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell.
(Photos by Nancy Lawson)