Deer will eat almost anything when their favorite food sources run out…including all species of evergreens. For us here in Michigan, all species of Cedar seem to get hit the hardest [and firstest], Pines tend to be next [higher sugar content in the needles], then firs due to their large, soft needles, and spruces tend to be last [pungens is latin for “sharp”. In truth, virtually no evergreens are safe when a deer is really hungry. If you haven’t eaten in days, would you pass up a PBJ while looking for a cheeseburger?
It is generally best to choose evergreen species which are suitable for the area in which you intend to plant, because trees ill-suited to the location will probably not be around long enough to bother protecting. Our evergreen tree buyers guide is a good place to start. Once you’ve made wise species selections, you can then develop a plan to protect them from deer.
Protecting young evergreen trees from deer damage
Once the trees are several feet tall, deer browsing damage is generally not fatal, but it will set the trees back a year or two. To assist the trees through this vulnerable time, you can buy deer repellents such as synthetic coyote urine or other chemical deterrents [Plantskydd], or you can put a home-made tube of chicken wire over the tree and stake it down…but that is a lot of work.
As of winter 2019/2020, we now swear by “Deer And Rabbit Repellent“, a granular product made by Liquid Fence [this is not a paid endorsement, just free advice]. The product label says it contains “putrescent whole egg solids, garlic, sodium lauryl sulfate, thyme oil, and other ingredients”. Reviewers online say it may not be very effective for rabbits, but I will say this: the deer completely avoided our crops after application. The difference was immediate and effective. The container does not dispense the granular product very well, so I poured it into a screened pasta strainer with a good handle on it. This made physically applying the product much easier, and I was able to apply it much more evenly as well.
Another interesting nugget of deer repellent wisdom that I heard about from another nurseryman recently is that deer do not like the strong artificial fragrances found in many consumer products, particularly scented dryer sheets. So yes, what I am suggesting is tying a dryer sheet around the trunk of each tree, or on a stake driven into the ground next to each tree. If you have had problems with deer and find that this solution works, please let us know! This winter I will probably do an informal test in the woods behind our nursery on some species of native woody plants which are constantly being browsed by deer.
Sometimes it is best to harvest and temporarily store the deer in a climate controlled cooler, and use them up to add protein to your diet, if you catch my drift.