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Garden Q&A: Deer browse won't kill all plants

Jessica Walliser
| Saturday, March 21, 2015, 7:18 p.m.
This rhododendron has lots of new growth a few months after a winter of heavy browsing by deer.
Jessica Walliser
This rhododendron has lots of new growth a few months after a winter of heavy browsing by deer.

Question: I was ill last fall and did not get to put deer netting over my shrubs. The deer have managed to nibble every single leaf off all my rhododendrons, azaleas and Japanese hollies this winter. I'm at a loss. Should I just pull them out and start over, or do you think they'll come back? Are they all going to die?

Answer: This has definitely been a rough winter for the deer. At my house, they even nibbled the boxwoods which they typically leave untouched. I found myself running outside in the snow and tossing deer netting over assorted shrubs quite a few times over the past few months.

I understand your frustration. It's difficult to watch all your hard-earned money literally get eaten right before your eyes. Landscaping is expensive.

As a first line of defense, when creating new plantings, be sure to install plants that are not preferred by deer. A good local nursery, a conversation with someone at the Penn State Extension Service, or a quick online search will help you come up with a list of plants that are far more deer-resistant than rhododendrons, azaleas and Japanese hollies.

Do know, however, that no plant is completely deer-proof.

But there's no need to rush to the nursery quite yet. In the vast majority of cases, these particular plants will bounce back. They will not bloom this year because the flower buds of your azaleas and rhododendrons were formed last fall and have since been eaten off, but the plants will likely go on to produce new leaves over the coming months, if they are protected from further deer damage.

That being said, three or four years of complete winter defoliation such as this will certainly impact the health of the shrubs and may cause branch die-back and even death. It's important to protect them with deer netting or repellent sprays in the future.

While rhododendrons, azaleas and hollies often bounce back from deer browse pretty quickly, there are plants that do not. Arborvitae, yews, several types of junipers, Hinoki cypress, threadleaf cypress and many other evergreens don't recover nearly as well. They're likely to need more time to generate new growth, if they do at all.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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