Deer and Native Plants

Although human use accounts for the greatest loss of our natural landscape in Northern Virginia, deer run a close second in the disappearance of vegetation, not only in natural areas, but in home landscapes as well. As deer populations continue to expand, woods are being stripped of the vegetation that other wildlife depend on. 

The most our local landscape can support is 15-20 deer per square mile, but much of Northern Virginia is suffering under the burden of 60-100 deer per square mile, a human-induced phenomenon. We need to help the rest of the living world to fight back!

Plant native plants! There are many NOVA natives that are relatively unpalatable to deer and that make a good choice in deer-ridden environments. The ones that are vulnerable to deer need our protection. Give them a place to grow!

Here's what you can do:


  • Check out the deer-resistance list. Hat tip to Jerry Peters for collating information from many sources to create a list of deer resistance of the plants which are featured in our Native Plants for Northern Virginia guide. The result is a 1-5 rating system. To put it simply, a plant with a score of 1 is most deer-resistant, for example, Holly, Pawpaw, and certain ferns and milkweeds. A plant with a score of 5 is least deer resistant, for example, Strawberry-bush, Turk's cap lily and Helianthus spp.

    As Peters more precisely states: A score of 1 means "all sources indicate low deer preference for the plant and/or high resistance to damage" and a 5 means "all sources indicate high preference for describe.the plant as not deer-resistant." Click here for a more detailed explanation of how to use the deer resistance list.
  • Help expand the list - take the deer survey!If deer have been a problem in your landscape, click here to add your observations of which plants are browsed the most or the least. You may view the tally of other people's responses after you submit your results. Be a good citizen scientist – only check the box for plants you can identify accurately by species and which you have personally observed closely enough to know about deer damage.
  • Spread the word!  Invite your friends and neighbors to take the survey, too.
  • Protect your plants! Here are seven ways to keep deer away from your plants.

    1. 
    Fencing. The only completely reliable protection is a fence. Six feet might do, eight feet is safer. Home supply stores sell a tough black plastic mesh in rolls for this purpose which is nearly invisible when seen from a distance and which can be attached to trees or posts.

    2. Temporary enclosures. Newly planted trees and shrubs may be protected by cages made out of wire fence cloth.

    ​3.
    Netting. Netting over the garden bed is relatively effective, but can be a nuisance. Birds and other animals may get caught in it.

    4. Repellants. It works best to use multiple strategies at once and to rotate products periodically.

    5. Smelly sprays.  Usually based on "putrescent egg solids," sometimes mixed with other oils such as rosemary or lavender, and a spreader sticker.  Must be re-applied periodically, usually every 30 days.

    6.
    Granules such as Deer Scram. These are applied to the ground monthly.

    7. Capsaican tablets. These are put into the ground in spring. As the plant grows, the roots take up the capsaicin, which makes the leaves less palatable.


To learn more about the effect of deer on the environment, click here.