To fence, or not to fence? That is…
… almost never the question, unfortunately. In areas with rabbits or deer, it’s always a good idea to protect new native plants with a fence.
Just like native insects prefer native plants, native herbivores prefer plants they’ve evolved alongside too. The sudden disappearance or destruction of new plantings catches many gardeners—beginners to veterans—off guard (us too!). We've all been used to wildlife largely ignoring non-native landscape plants; they're generally less desirable as food.
In recent decades, unmanaged "wild" landscapes have become overrun with non-native and invasive plants that have little to no nutritional value. So, when wild neighbors spy your generous offering of a delectable snack, they will often quickly and entirely eat your new plant. Even a test nibble can end up pulling your plant up from the roots. "Deer/rabbit resistant" species are not "deer/rabbit proof." If there’s nothing else to eat, they'll give it a go. Chipmunks and other rodents may dig up seeds, tubers, and even bulbs to eat; squirrels enjoy sprouted nuts as well as digging in the freshly disturbed soil of new plantings. Deer have even been known to dig up and eat the shallow and nutritious tubers of sunchokes!
(See footnote for more information, and advice on what to do if your plantings get munched!)
For these reasons NPU recommends the following where deer and/or rabbits are an issue:
- Fence new plants for at least a year so they have a chance to establish. Afterwards, most can survive some browsing and apparently aren't as yummy. Do not hesitate to adjust fencing if plants are routinely heavily browsed! Make the enclosure taller and/or wider as the plant grows (especially true for shrubs). Species that are particularly favored (e.g. Liatris and many species of legumes) may need longer protection so they can withstand heavier browsing, or, in extreme cases, may need permanent protection. Basic fencing suggestions, tips, and pictured examples are provided below!
- Guard the trunks of trees and shrubs until they are at least 6" in diameter. Deer will rub their antlers on almost any woody species, and seem to have a sixth sense as to which ones would be the most inconvenient to damage.
- Plant densely. Not only does this make herbivores more likely to “overlook” some plants, it may spread out their browsing so plants are less affected. When given the choice, herbivores will often eat tender new growth off of many plants rather than eat one plant to the ground. Plantings can begin sparse, and seeds can be scattered between them for a budget-friendly, dense planting. Use purchased seeds, seeds gathered from parks (where permitted), or seeds harvested from your starter plants.
Small plants can get away with smaller cages, roughly large enough for a person to kneel in, with three foot tall fencing and four foot tall stakes. While cheaper, this is not an ideal setup as deer will lean into the fence to bend it down and snip the tops off of whatever they can reach. It will keep deer from eating plants to the ground, but will not allow plants to reach full size.
Fencing can be closed by securing it to the stakes with wire, but we at NPU have found this to be overkill in most cases. One end of the fencing can simply be bent around a post to secure it at the beginning, and the other end bent to hook into the mesh at the closure. This allows easy access the the inside of the enclosure without the trouble of having to untwist weathered wire.
Tree guards are occasionally available at hardware stores and labeled as such, with no assembly required-- unlike the rest of the types we've mentioned. However, they're easy to make using the materials above. They can also be quickly made from plastic drainage pipes cut up one side or tomato cages cut up one side. Forestry tubes, usually used to protect tree seedlings, can also be secured around the trunks of saplings.
Remember to adjust/remove trunk guards as trees grow- constrictions can kill trees, or reduce their lifespan by compromising the integrity of their trunks.
If critters get to your plants, DON'T give up on them! Native plants are tenacious, and most can withstand a good deal of browsing. Even if you find one yanked up by the roots, even if the roots are dried out, put it back, water it, protect it, and wait. They'll frequently surprise you. It may take them some time to regroup, but, as we always say - "They live in their roots." Your patience and trust will very often be rewarded!