When you’re getting young fruit trees established, deer can be a major challenge. There’s not much that’s more frustrating than proudly planting out a very special young fruit tree, only to to discover the next day that your precious little tree has been reduced to a skeleton, with every leaf and green twig stripped off by four-legged visitors during the night.
Like all of us, deer enjoy eating some types of food more than others. In my experience, deer have one absolute favorite food, above all else: mulberry leaves and green twigs. Around here, in any area that deer have access to, if you plant out a young mulberry tree, the deer WILL discover it and strip it bare. What’s more, they’ll keep coming back night after night to devour any new leaves that sprout out, so the poor little mulberry tree never gets a chance to recover and make any growth.
Other trees which the deer are fond of munching on include many of the other fruit trees I grow here: avocado, fig, and loquat. I’ve seen substantial deer damage on all of those – usually not completely stripped completely bare as with mulberry, but often the animals eat enough leaves and new shoots to seriously impair the young tree’s ability to get any bigger.
Fortunately, I’ve found a pretty easy way to protect my young fruit trees from these nocturnal visitors. I put a cylindrical cage of galvanized wire fencing, open at top and bottom, around the tree for its first few years, until the tree is tall enough that the majority of its foliage is above the height that deer can reach.
Putting protective cages around individual young trees like this is much less expensive than surrounding your entire property with a fence tall enough that deer can’t jump over it (deer can jump pretty high!).
I use galvanized metal fencing, usually with a 2 inch by four inch grid (5 by 10 cm), commonly available at hardware stores. (The exact size of the holes isn’t that important, the holes just need to be small enough that the deer can’t reach their heads through.) I find that this material is often available for free if you look around: sometimes there will be a roll disposed on the side of the road for trash pickup. Or people with country property often have a few rolls of used metal fencing lying around, left over from previous projects, and they’re happy to part with it either for free or for very little cost. Also it’s worth checking local buy-sell-trade and “free-cycle” type boards online to see if anyone in your area is listing some of this material for cheap or free.
I like to make these cylinders wide enough that they easily support themselves, without being prone to tipping. This diameter is important. When I first started experimenting with this technique, I made the mistake of making my cylinder cages too narrow, a skinny tube only about one foot (30 cm) wide. I figured that the cylinder didn’t need to be any wider, since I was trying to train the tree to have a single straight trunk, only branching out above the height which deer can reach. To keep those skinny tubes from falling over, I stuck a couple of pieces of rebar on either side of the tree as a support for the cylinder.
The problem with those skinny cages is that they made weed maintenance around the tree almost impossible. The fruit tree shared the inside the cage with a mini jungle of unwanted weedy plants, some of them vines, which found the mesh cylinder an ideal trellis to grow on. With such a narrow cylinder full of vegetation, it was almost impossible to slide the tube off the tree to do weed control, and the fruit trees struggled amidst all the competition.
Now I make my wire cylinders much wider, 2.5 to 3 feet (75cm to 1m) across. That way, the cylinder is stable without any stakes, and I can easily lift the cage off the tree and set it aside to to mow around the tree, do hand weeding, and top off the mulch circle which I keep around young fruit trees. Then I just slide the cylinder back over the tree, setting it in place. (If the deer in your area are especially persistent, you might need to stake even this type of wide cylinder, to keep them from just pushing it over and devouring the plant. So far the deer in my area haven’t discovered that trick.)
The height of the deer or other browsing animals in your area will determine how tall the cylinder needs to be. For the size deer around here in North Florida, a cylinder about five feet (1.5 meter) high works great – if the deer in your area are larger, you’ll need a taller cylinder.
(Note: the deer I’m dealing with are not the famous miniature “Key Deer” that occur much farther south, in the Florida Keys, the chain of islands off the south end of the Florida peninsula. The ones around here are regular Eastern white-tailed deer, although the populations in peninsular Florida are slightly smaller than animals of the same species further north.)
Once your fruit trees are tall enough that the majority of their foliage is above the height that deer can reach, simply pull the cylinders off them for the last time, and your work protecting the trees from deer is done. Unlike some animals like goats, deer don’t strip bark from tree trunks (at least I’ve never seen the deer around here do that). They only eat leaves and young twigs. So for a tree that’s above that critical height, the deer can party all night among your fruit trees – browsing on those lowest leaves and branches does no real harm.
In fact, I even find that the browsing by deer has a beneficial effect on fruit trees – it keeps the underside of the tree clear and easy for people to walk under. Look at the accompanying photo of a mature mulberry tree in my fruit grove, to see the nice effect which the deer “browse line” has created on this tree.
I don’t know how well this method will work to protect trees from different types of animals – my experience is only with deer. If you’ve got other types of grazing or browsing animals in your area, your fruit trees might need other kinds of protection from them.
Galvanized wire fencing has a very long life span, even here in a rainy humid climate like Florida. When the cylinders are no longer needed, you can open up your cylinders and stack the pieces of fencing for easy storage, for when you plant more trees in the future. Or just pass them on to someone else who’s planting out young fruit trees.
This wire mesh cylinder technique has solved the problem of coexisting peacefully with deer while getting my young fruit trees established.