Deer-proof Your Plants; Always Hydrate Your Christmas Tree

As the cold, dry weather rolls in, follow these tips on how to effectively protect your plants from hungry deer and keep your Christmas tree green for a longer period of time.

Will Deer Scram actually make deer scram?

Larry writes: “I’m on the board of a homeowners’ association in Howard County. Our landscape contractor wants to apply Deer Scram this fall and winter to protect our violas in the common ground. Is this an effective product? Or a waste of our community funds?

Well a little research turns up that Deer Scram is an interesting and unusual product, Larry. It’s mostly blood meal, which is a well-established deer repellent, and “meat meal,” a meatpacking by-product that, like blood meal, is sometimes used as a fertilizer. Well over 90 percent of the product is a combination of these “meals.”

The product is granulated and meant to be spread on the ground around plants rather than sprayed directly on them, like most deer repellents. Also unlike spray-on repellents, the company website claims that rain will make the product more effective, by releasing more of the carnivorous odors that hopefully make deer “scram.”

I have not used it personally, but based on the well-established effectiveness of its primary ingredients, it should protect low-to-the-ground plants such as your pansies. (Viola is the proper genus name for pansies.)

Now, if I read your question correctly, you would then want to weigh the cost of the material and its application against the price of your plants. But I’ll add that if it’s effective in basically keeping deer away in general, there could be much bigger potential benefits, such as a possible reduction in deer ticks and the protection of bigger, more expensive plants.

I was impressed to see that this product is 100 percent active ingredient — no fillers, which is unusual in the world of repellents — and it says it comes with a guarantee. Keep me posted if you give it the thumbs-up; I’m curious to see whether it lowers the number of deer in general.

Now is the time to protect plants from deer

Larry in Howard County certainly has excellent timing with his question about deer. Their natural food sources out in the woods are getting scarce as we head toward winter, but their caloric needs are increasing with every drop in degrees — and even during good times, each deer needs to eat several pounds of vegetation every day. That all adds up to Bambi and his brethren looking to chow down on your landscape, especially deer-favorite foods such as azaleas, rhododendrons and arborvitae.

If you turn to a spray-on repellent to protect those plants, choose one with a high percentage of active ingredient (“putrescent egg solids” have been shown to be one of the most effective deer repellents) and use it effectively. Instead of spraying it lightly on the entire plant, spray it heavily at browsing height.

“Browsing height” is 32 inches off the ground; that’s the magic number where research has shown deer generally take their first nibbles of tall plants. If they get a little taste of repellent in that first bite, odds are that they’ll ignore it and keep on eating, especially if the application was thin and/or they’re really hungry. But if that first bite is really foul-mouthed and super-nasty, they’ll often turn tail and savage someone else’s rhododendrons.

So use a yardstick to guide your aim and really saturate a foot-or-so-wide swath of greenery with your repellent, centered on that perfect 32-inch mark.

Great cut Christmas-tree advice from a listener

Matt in Beltsville writes: “I know you advise cutting an extra inch or two off the bottom of pre-cut Christmas trees and then standing the freshly cut tree in water to hydrate it well before you set it up. My question is: If you purchase that cut tree just a mile or so from your house and they make a fresh cut at the bottom for you, could it then just go into the bucket of water for the 24-hour period upon arrival or would I need to make another fresh cut?

I think you would be fine to just get it in the water, Matt. And I think your “question” is actually more of a great tip! A lot of places that sell cut trees have the bow saws that are ideal for this kind of work right on hand, while many homeowners may not.

So yes — make the tree pickup your last stop, have them cut off that extra inch at the bottom. Then you can go right in the water when you get home.

The secret solution to a ‘fireproof’ Christmas tree

There is a lot of bad advice on the internet, but “secret recipes” for keeping cut Christmas trees from drying out are at the top of Santa’s “Naughty List” — every “tip” I’ve seen is either worthless or extremely dangerous.

The only real way to keep a cut tree from dropping its needles prematurely is to replace the water that it’s been losing since it was cut. And since most tree-growing regions were extremely dry this fall, that tree may have already been suffering from lack of water before it was cut.

Now, that initial cut has since long healed over, making it difficult for the area just under the bark (the actual water transport system of trees) to take up new water. Making a fresh cut will allow the tree to take up new water much more efficiently. (And quickly — wait’ll you see how fast that first gallon goes in!)

So have a big container of water at the ready and ask the tree seller to use one of their bow saws to cut an extra inch or two off the bottom of the trunk. (Endless thanks to Matt in Beltsville for that Titanic Tip!) Or, if you have your own bow saw, do it yourself. (Anyone with a landscape should have one of these inexpensive and highly useful pruning/cutting tools.)

Then, get the freshly-cut stump into a big container of water promptly. And be prepared to refill that container; I’ve seen my cut trees suck up several gallons during years with normal rainfall during the growing season! After 24 hours or so, you’ll have a tree whose needles should stay put through New Year’s.

Fail to hydrate and you could have a green carpet within a week — a very sharp green carpet …

Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of Organic Gardening magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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