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Published August 02, 2009, 12:00 AM

Battles with urban deer in Twin Ports' backyards

Twin Ports gardeners are fighting with anything they have — fence blockades, burlap wraps, tonics of eggs and garlic — to keep the deer away.

By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune

Seeing five or six white-tailed deer a day is common in some Twin Ports neighborhoods where a decade ago they were a rare sight.

But as urban deer invade, helping themselves to gardens and landscape plants, gardeners are fighting back.

They’re building fences, spraying deer repellents and installing motion-activated sprinklers. They’re opting for deer-resistant plants. They’re wrapping cedar bushes in burlap in winter to prevent deer browse. And they’re trying all sorts of home remedies, from human hair to baby powder to deodorant soap to deter the hungry critters.

“Most people are angry at the deer or upset with the deer, but they’re not willing to give up their gardens,” said Liz Robison, manager of Engwall’s garden center in Hermantown.

Homeowners such as Jessica Sterle, who have invested time and money in their landscaping, have reason to be concerned. Since last fall, Sterle has planted 100 shrubs and perennials, used 120 bags of cypress mulch and put in hundreds of hours to transform her formerly sparse yard.

But the deer have nearly destroyed some shrubs, eaten the tops off supposedly deer-resistant perennials and torn up a section of her yard.

Regular sprayings of Liquid Fence, a non-toxic egg and garlic solution, and Plantskydd, which contains dried cow blood, is keeping the deer at bay for now. Still, Sterle nervously walks her yard daily on Duluth’s Observation Hill checking for damage.

“I’m always thinking, what did they get into now?” she said.

As deer numbers have increased, mostly because of a series of mild winters, so has the damage they cause, said Bob Olen, a horticulturist with the Univeristy of Minnesota Extension Service in St. Louis County.

“They’re eating a lot of different things,” he said, “because there are so many of them.”

Battling deer in Superior

Living on the edge of Superior, near woods, avid gardener Lynn Davis faces a greater battle than most. She has watched the deer herd near her home increase dramatically.

“There’s nothing they haven’t eaten because the population is so large,” said Davis who has seen as many as 18 deer in her yard at one time.

What deer prefer is always on Davis’ mind when she chooses plants. As a result, she doesn’t have the varieties she would like. She stopped planting hostas and no longer has many lilies.

To save her hostas, which deer love, she and her husband, Dwight, strung black bird netting. But the deer crushed it to get to the tasty hostas. They tried a hot pepper spray, but found the deer actually liked it. They’ve erected fences to protect their young trees and vegetable garden, which shouldn’t be sprayed with repellents.

Though she’s found that perennials such as astilbe, goatsbeard and coral bells are safe, Davis has seen deer eat plants that are normally poisonous, such as daffodils and monkshood.

She, too, has found commercial deer repellents effective. But at more than $125 a gallon, they were too expensive for all the spraying needed to keep the deer away. So the couple makes their own mix that they spray several times a week.

“All we have to do is miss one day of spraying or have a rain and they’re gone,” Davis said of her plants.

Robison said the most asked question at Engwall’s is, “What won’t the deer eat?”

What deer will avoid

Deer tend to avoid thorny plants, plants with fuzzy leaves and leaves with a strong taste or smell.

Besides deer-resistant plants, sales of commercial repellents have jumped, along with sales of Plant Saver, a natural repellent that is hung in mesh bags and contains cloves, meat meal and bone meal.

At Missinne Greenhouse and Landscape in South Range, sales are down of arborvitae, also known as cedar, because it appears to be the favorite food of urban deer in winter.

“People are definitely basing their plant selection on what deer do and do not eat,” said Eli Corbin, a Missinne landscape foreman. “And arborvitae are definitely at the top of the [eat] list.”

The severe winter browsing of cedar in recent years also has affected Amity Creek Landscaping in rural Duluth.

“We used to plant probably hundreds of cedar a year,” landscape designer Ron Davidson said. “I’ll bet we don’t plant 20 now. If it’s not a protected or fenced-in yard, or near downtown where I doubt they’d go, all you’re doing is planting deer food.”

A key to protecting one’s plants is taking preventative action early, before deer establish your yard as a feeding area.

“You don’t want to give them a taste,” Olen said.

While putting up tall fences provides the greatest protection, some experts suggest planting deer-resistant plants, such as yarrow, columbine, boxwood and rhubarb, on the perimeter of the yard to discourage deer from venturing farther.