Deer resistant evergreens

I've designed and installed plantings all over Westchester County: the shores of the Long Island Sound, the hillsides along the Hudson, homes next to golf courses, lakes and wooded areas, and rural areas in the northern part of the county.  Many of these plantings were done without benefit of deer fencing in deer-infested areas.  There are a handful of trees and shrubs that are my go-to  plants in these situations. These are the ones you should try if you have deer wandering through your property unchecked and have had problems with deer browse damage on your existing plants.  The caveat is, of course, that if the deer get hungry enough they may eat plants that they've never eaten before.  So no guarantees!  But try them anyway!

Evergreens that are deer-resistant are the most important category, since they  are integral to the "bone structure" of your garden, and are important for privacy screening as well.  The most reliably deer-resistant evergreen is boxwood.  Deer really leave it alone!

Other broadleaf evergreens that I often use are skimmia (Skimmia japonica), andromeda (Pieris japonica) and sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana).  If I want to add some flower power and have the right conditions, I plant hybrid mountain laurel (Kalmia hybrids).  New Kalmia cultivars are entering the Nursery trade every year, with more spectacular bloom colors and compact, neater silhouettes.

Another excellent choice is American holly (Ilex opaca).  It takes shade, and is actually found in the forest, but it doesn't mind some sun either.  It is a tree, though, so give it enough space.

The needle evergreens (conifers) that I turn to are Norway spruce (Picea abies), Oriental spruce cultivars (Picea orientalis), Colorado Blue spruce and its cultivars (Picea pungens),  limber pine (Pinus flexilis) and concolor fir (Abies concolor 'Candicans'). 

Too many deer!

One of the most frustrating things that can happen when you install a new mixed shrub border, garden, front foundation planting or annual display is waking up  to find that  some of your new plants have been eaten! Very often, the culprits are whitetail deer.   We've developed so much of the open land and woodlands that their habitat inevitably overlaps with ours.  Yet there's still enough open space for them to find shelter, allowing them to reproduce freely.

What do deer eat in their "natural" habitat?  In most areas, deer eat just about any type of vegetation or mast they can find. They can be picky eaters; if it doesn't taste quite right, a doe will spit it out. Fawns learn which plants, nuts and fruits to eat from their mothers.  A deer's sense of smell tells it whether a plant is good to eat. That's why many strongly scented plants, such as most herbs, are not favored by deer.  That's also why strong scents are used as deer repellants.

Deer forage consists of forbs and mast.  Forbs are herbaceous flowering plants that are not graminoids (grasses, sedges and rushes).  Examples of forbs include clover (which is growing in your lawn), sunflowers (which you're trying to grow for fun) and azaleas (which you were hoping would add curb appeal this spring).

The term "mast" was probably first used to describe a food source for domestic livestock.  Its definition is: "the fruit of oak or beech or other forest trees used as food for hogs and other animals.”  In wildlife biology, mast refers to the fruits of woody plants.  All trees and shrubs produce some type of fruit.  Mast is often characterized as either "hard" or "soft".  Hard mast consists of hard shelled seeds that have a relatively long shelf life and are high in fat, carbohydrate and protein - it's high in energy content, and is a key food source for survival during the winter.  Examples of hard mast include acorns, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, beechnuts and walnuts.

Soft mast is fleshy perishable fruit that is high in sugar, vitamins and carbohydrates.  Soft mast can be an important source of moisture for wildlife in times of drought, as well as a crucial energy source for some species during migration.  Examples of soft mast include cherries, crabapples, apples, persimmons, pawpaws and blackberries.

"The most serious impacts of deer on Westchester County’s flora, fauna, and ecosystems result from browsing of plants for food. Deer consume an average of 4 to 8 pounds of forage per day; one deer can eat one ton of vegetation annually."
William S. Greenawalt, Esq., Chairman Citizens’ Task Force on White-tailed Deer and Forest Regeneration

In winter, deer are often forced to feed on twigs and other woody browse, which are low in nutrients. So if they come upon some really tasty evergreen leaves or buds, they chomp away.  In early spring, when buds start to swell and leaves start to sprout, plants are particularly vulnerable because the deer may be pretty hungry by then.  

The Final Report of the Citizen's Task Force on White-Tailed Deer and Forest Regeneration was issued October 28, 2008, and is available online.  The report explains the history of the problem, cites statistics about deer density in the county and reviews the various methods that could potentially be used to address the deer overpopulation.  There's also analysis of the pros and cons of each idea.