Dealing with Bambi: The Plant Terminator

Date Published: 
February, 2004
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, February 2004

What could be cuter than a spotted fawn, looking helpless and adorable?
Most people see deer and think "Bambi." But cemetery grounds personnel see deer and think, "No tulips this spring!" and "Oh, no, those trees are going to be stripped!" and "How are we going to keep them away from those bushes?"

WHAT: Twenty-five years ago, if we saw a deer at Spring Grove, we would get kind of excited, because they weren't common. But here in Cincinnati and in many other areas of the country, communities have developed more and more of our greenbelts, leaving the remaining greenbelts fragmented. At the same time, the number of predators has been reduced.

The result has been an exploding deer population. Deer are everywhere, destroying the landscape as they forage for food.

WHY: There's no doubt that deer and cemeteries are problematic. The deer rub against trees and they treat the landscaping like a salad bar.

A great way to bring visitors out to the cemetery is with a big show of spring color. But for 10 years, we did not plant a single tulip bulb at Spring Grove for the simple reason that tulips are the ultimate deer snack food—there's nothing they like more. They would search for them and ruin the spring plantings. It became an embarrassment and brought so much negative press we decided not to plant any more tulips until we figured out how to handle the deer.

HOW: There are plants deer especially love—like tulip bulbs—so one way to cut down on the number of deer dining at your cemetery is to avoid adding their favorite foods to your landscaping.

Consider using plants from the list below to decrease deer browsing. However, keep in mind there is no guarantee that deer won't eat plants they don't particularly like, or don't like as much as tulip bulbs. If deer are hungry enough and can't find what they love to eat, they'll eat something they don't love. Deer might turn to an alternative food source after a serious snowfall, for example.

However, when you're planting a spring bed and are afraid to use tulips, you can plant every single kind of daffodil that exists (if you're in south Florida, you need to use pre-chilled bulbs) and the deer won't touch them. Daffodil bulbs contain a deadly alkaloid; no grazing animal will eat daffodil bulbs.

Another good choice is an evergreen that was promoted by Ohio's plant selection committee. The first place they'd ever seen it was Spring Grove, so it's now known as the Spring Grove arborvitae. We've never heard of any significant damage from deer browsing anywhere in the country this plant has been used. And, since it's an evergreen, the trunk is never exposed, so there won't be any damage from deer rubbing, either.

Keep in mind that if the deer have nothing else to eat, they will eat whatever's available, including plants they would normally shun.

Exclusion—using fencing to keep the deer out of certain areas—is a wonderful method where it's practical for the cemetery. Spring Grove is divided between developed and undeveloped properties, so one step we took was to install a deer fence a mile long designed to keep the deer in the undeveloped part of the cemetery. We figured it was going to be hard to get rid of the deer entirely, but at least we could keep them out of the developed areas.

Fences cost a lot but they work well. The fencing at Spring Grove has done a great job. It's not 100 percent effective, but we don't think anything is. Deer will hop over a fence, or even crawl under it sometimes. But at least the fence has kept the deer at bay.  We also use wire mesh to keep deer from rubbing against trees.

Spraying plants can provide excellent control. We use some chemical products designed to keep the deer from consuming plants like tulips. Most of those products contain pubescent eggs or some kind of hot, bitter additives. We spray tender plants or annuals like red begonias (a super-favorite of deer), and the sprays do help.

Check with your local game warden and state authorities about other ways to control an area's deer population. Here, a big deer harvest has been conducted the past couple of years in some parks. They use high-powered rifles to hunt the deer.

When you talk about controlling the deer population through hunting, the initial reaction is often, "Oh, no—they want to shoot the little Bambis," But once you show people the statistics for how many automobile accidents are caused by deer hitting cars, the "Bambi" factor becomes almost a non-issue.

In some places, the venison is donated to soup-kitchen or food-pantry types of operations, so that provides an additional benefit.

In some cases, an increase in the number of natural predators may help control the deer population. Ohio has more deer today—more than a half million—than it did when it became a state in 1803.

Unfortunately, the number of predators has not kept up. Coyotes were abundant in Ohio 100 years ago. Today, the coyote population is lagging far behind the deer population, but it's started to increase. A lot of people get paranoid at the thought of the number of coyotes increasing, but the predator-prey equation is how the balance of nature is supposed to work.

What Could Be Worse Than Deer, Geese or Groundhogs?
You Don't Want to Know!

What's the next "big thing" on the horizon as far as cemetery nuisance animals? In preparing for a program about pests recently, we asked a state wildlife expert this question and he predicted it would be exotic pets abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

Pythons, boa constrictors, alligators, poisonous snakes, iguanas, gila monsters—you name it, somebody is keeping it as a "pet," at least until it becomes too difficult and/or dangerous to handle. Or until it manages to escape and slither or crawl away.

An alligator has been found walking along the side of the road in Ohio. It wasn't in Spring Grove, thank goodness, but it's only a matter of time. People buy them when they're small, then when they get to be 3 or 4 feet long, they decide they can't take care of them. Someone's going to think, "Heck, Spring Grove's got 14 lakes—I bet the 'gator would love it down there."

This sounds a lot worse than dealing with geese or deer, but one thing's for sure: If a dangerous animal is spotted in the cemetery, state officials will be down here in a hurry to take care of the problem.

If you spot an exotic, potentially dangerous animal, call your state wildlife division game warden. We can't overemphasize how important it is to develop good relationships with your wildlife people, who are specially educated and trained to deal with these problems.

If you have consulted the wildlife people regularly and made sure you follow all federal, state and local rules and regulations, when you have a boa constrictor on your property and you call them, they know who you are and they'll be right there to help.