On the Lookout for Signs of Spring Deer Browse

This week I am starting to notice new seasonal signs of plant leaves and buds being eaten by deer. I am on the lookout year round for signs of deer browse because it helps me learn their habits, especially as it relates to our trees, herbs and gardens.

Throughout the season I carefully watch our fruit and nut tree leaves, while Ann is keeping a close eye on her perennial flowers and medicinal herbs, that we’ve planted in the presence of deer.

If we see deer eating too much of anything precious we are motivated to act quick and offer more protection to our plant friends before they are over browsed.

In the winter I get an appreciated break from needing to carefully watch our deciduous trees’ leaves — in the winter the leaves are shed and the trees wait patiently for spring weather to warm up before putting on new growth.

At the time of writing we are in the first few days of May. In fact May day (aka Beltaine), the mid-way point between spring equinox and summer solstice, just passed. Many consider May 1st the beginning of spring, but we celebrate May day as the beginning of summer, with summer solstice — the longest day of the year — marking the peak of summer.

However you label this point in the season, we are moving into warmer days. Most of our deciduous trees have just flowered, or are in flower, and are growing lush new leaves. The entire landscape is bursting with green growth and new life. Biennials are starting to flower and reaching for the sun. Perennial herbs are already flowering or preparing to flower.

Lush spring growth of grass, daikon radish as well as other native and wild plants that I broadcast along the swales in our nut grove. The young nut trees are protected from deer while the daikon and other seedlings are not. I expect much of the radish greens to be eaten by mid summer.

Up until now our tree’s new leaves haven’t been a huge temptation to the deer because they have been interested in other spring fodder like fresh grass and forbs that are loaded with protein. But inevitably there becomes a shift in the deer’s seasonal foraging habits.

Every year is so different with regards to exact timing but the pattern stays the same. In fact this year we’ve enjoyed a very mild spring with regular moisture. Each time the ground starts to dry out it seems we get another shower.

I consider this spring a lucky season for us gardeners because we’ve been able to hold off on watering until later in the season. Its also lucky for us because lush green plants keep growing lusher and the deer still have plenty to eat in all directions.

But recently I’ve started noticing the first signs of deer eating tender flower buds on broadleaf herbs and native perennials. This is a sign post for me because I know the deer are starting to shift their eating habits with the season and before I know it, they’ll be craving more of the browse offered by trees and shrubs.

Some of the first daikon flowerheads that have been eaten by deer. At least two daikon plants have been munched in this photo. Look for the flower stalks and leaf stems that end abruptly.
Here it’s easier to see the bite mark. You can also see the pokey hairs on the flower stalk (also present on the leaves to a lesser degree) which add some minor level of deer resistance. The older parts of the stalk will be less palatable with larger hairs.

I am heeding this warning because I know that now is the proverbial “eye before the storm” with regards to deer browse — deer pressure will only get stronger until late fall or early winter when the rains once more hydrate the land, and when deer’s dietary preferences shift from nutrient dense and protein rich greens to carbs and fats, such as fruits and nuts.

I’ve spent the past seasons training my observational skills. As I walk or drive through the landscape I am often scanning and letting my eyes drift back and forth, feeling the colors and textures. As much as I am enjoying the beauty and feeling the landscape with my eyes and my heart, I am also “listening” for feedback.

Sometimes I am keeping an eye out for something specific, but more often than not I am letting my subconscious process the information it is receiving and let me know when and if there is something I should take a closer look at.

Pacific Sanicle (Sanicula crassicaulis) flower stalk is also starting to be eaten by deer. This is one of the first that I noticed. Also pictured are dandelion and California poppy.

This information might include droopy leaves from trees needing water. Or it might be a gate left open to our deer fence that needs to be closed. Or it might be a new blossom opening that I haven’t seen yet this season (or ever) — yay!

Sometimes a dark shadow has an oddly familiar shape, and doesn’t that charred tree stump look like a turkey? No it’s definitely a tree stump… but wait, it just moved and it is a turkey in our garden! Good thing my subconscious picked this visual pattern out of the landscape and let me know to look closer so I can get that turkey out of there, thank you very much!

Some of the farmers that I apprenticed with showed me how they observe their landscapes and plants through example. We definitely don’t want to receive news about a struggling crop or plant after it is too late!

I also picked up this habit through wildcrafting. When I am scanning a landscape for one or more types of plants that I’d like to harvest, it sure is helpful when my subconscious does all the processing of information and picks one plant out of thousands for me! Amazing!

More relevant to this story are the times when I suddenly notice plants that had been munched by deer (or another critter). My subconscious lets me know that something’s changed and I pause to look closer and investigate.

Just in the last week or so I have been starting to see a few plants here and there whose tender flower buds or succulent new green growth have been munched off. Without some seasons of careful observation I probably wouldn’t have taken a second glance. But now these new munches stick out to me like a sore thumb!

Oregon grape flowers were numerous and large with bright yellow blossoms just a few days ago. Almost overnight they all disappeared and here we can see the evidence that deer chomped the flowers whole!
One of the few Oregon grape flowers that remain on this land, higher up than the others and already making berries. We’ll see if it lasts much longer!

Lone plants and plants on the outside edges of a larger group are the often the first to get nibbled. When deer don’t have to be choosy they will go for the easiest and tastiest meals. Don’t we all?

I am also noticing carefully now that many trees and plants that will definitely get browsed by the deer, as past seasons have shown, haven’t been touched yet this season. So that’s another sign to me that my fruit and nut trees are not fully under pressure quite yet.

In the past I tempted fate and rode this wave as far as I could, leaving some young fruit trees unprotected while deer browse pressure was low. But I paid the price when some trees were defoliated by hungry deer. In a few cases some unprotected trees were even killed with one fell swoop (one fell munch as it may be).

I learned my lesson about leaving trees unprotected. But that lesson and my observation practice are teaching me how to anticipate, and even feel, closer to when that edge of deer pressure lies. This season, now all of our trees that need protection are protected and I am confident knowing that everyone is safe for now.

This well established Lilac bush is not bothered by the deer, but the deer do browse on the many numerous root suckers seen skirting around the bush. We prune the root suckers to the ground every few years. The deer nibble fresh leaves and tips on all of them while leaving the rest of the Lilac alone.
Looking closely, none of the fresh lilac growth has been touched yet.

Our fruit and nut tree’s deer protection will go fairly untested until a bit later in the season after the rains stop, definitely by the time most of the grass dries out and turns golden. Then the fresh, moist succulent herbaceous plants will become much more scarce. Our lush irrigated trees (many of them with leaves that are quite tasty to deer) will start looking very attractive to our cloven hoofed friends.

For now I am enjoying spring’s warming weather, occasional showers, unfurling leaves, swelling flower buds and lots of green beauty to be seen in all directions.

Want to grow trees more naturally in the presence of deer? You don’t need to install a costly deer fence around your entire orchard or property. Protect your fruit and nut trees individually from deer. Fine tune deer protection based on your goals, habits of your local deer and any inherent deer resistant qualities within your trees. Allow deer and other wildlife safe passage through the land you steward.

See our course Protect Fruit and Nut Trees from Deer and Rodents for details!

Lilac blossom after spring rain.

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