Protecting Young Trees from Deer Damage

Did you know that deer can harm your young trees? Fortunately, there are simple, cheap steps you can take to protect your trees.

Bucks love to rub their antlers against saplings. They do this to scrape the velvet off their antlers, to mark their territory, and to shed their antlers. Bucks tend to do this in fall and winter — the same time as tree-planting season! Our team has noticed that deer damage (sometimes known as “buck rub”) to young trees is often the most extensive in the months of October and November here (and sometimes early December) in Nashville.

The result of this scraping can be ugly scarring to the trunk of the tree. Sometimes the damage is significant enough to kill trees or even snap them in half. When deer rub their antlers against the tree, they damage important tissues known as the xylem and the phloem. The xylem carries water and minerals from the roots of the tree up to the branches and leaves, while the phloem carries sugar and carbs from the leaves down to the roots. If this flow of water, food, and nutrients is interrupted, part or all of the tree can starve and wither.

If you have deer in your area, we recommend protecting your trees with plastic tubing or chicken wire. Wrap one of these around your tree’s trunk, leaving at least an inch of space between the tube and the trunk so that it doesn’t cut into the tree or trap water inside. Both of these materials are widely available at hardware stores for little expense, and one roll of tubing or chicken wire can be shared by many trees and many neighbors!

Using plastic tubing:

  • At most hardware stores, you can purchase a piece of plastic, black drain pipe in the plumbing section (usually stored outside, in the back of the stores).
  • These pieces come in long strips, usually about 10 feet long. So if you have multiple trees, one piece will be plenty, and you can also still likely have enough to share with neighbors with newly planted trees, too. One 10-foot piece costs about $13.
  • Cut the tubing using heavy-duty scissors into pieces about 2-3 feet long. Then, cut all the way up one side of the tube so that you can wrap it around the trunk of your tree. (Cutting the tubing isn’t too difficult, and won’t require heavy machinery or tools — just decent scissors.)

Using chicken wire:

  • Like plastic tubing, chicken wire is also inexpensive and one big piece will be enough for multiple trees.
  • The netting can be cut to shape, and then loosely staked or buried in the ground around the base of the tree.

Providing a barrier also protects against lawn mowers and weed whackers, one of the other biggest causes of mortality for young urban trees. The base area of young trees (the bottom of the trunk, and the “root flare” where the trunk begins to fan out and become the roots of the tree) is a sensitive and critically-important part of the tree, and protecting this zone can ensure your young tree thrives and grows into full, healthy maturity.

An alternative method of protecting your trees from buck rubbing and hungry deer might be to try Music City Gold, an organic biofertilizer produced by Metro Water Services. (Read more about the fascinating development of this fertilizer in this Nashville Scene article.) While its scent isn’t much detectable to humans, the theory is that deer can smell it and usually avoid it. This reasoning isn’t scientifically proven, but our team has applied Music City Gold to newly planted trees in more natural areas with significant deer populations and trouble with damage, and it’s worked for us! We don’t recommend fertilizer or compost at the time of planting young trees, within the hole dug for the tree, since the extra nutrients could be shocking to a newly transplanted tree; instead, to use Music City Gold as deer-repellent, simply add this fertilizer in a circle, berm shape at least 1 foot away from the base of the tree. We love wildlife, and support the full role that trees play in our urban ecosystems — but we definitely recommend deer protection if you have ever seen deer in your neighborhood. Reach out to us at hello@rootnashville.org if you have any questions.

Header image source: Chicago Tribune

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