What a shock when you realize that the deer got to your hedge over the winter. They are particularly fond of cedar (arborvitae) hedges (Thuja occidentalis) and often the whole bottom of the plant is completely empty of green growth up to height of 5 feet or more. Thus, your beautiful hedge, once your pride and joy, dense from head to foot, now resembles a row of straggly green mushrooms, destroying any effect of intimacy it may once have provided. Can you save it?
Possibly, but it certainly won’t recuperate all on its own. It all depends on the extent of the damage… and how much effort you’re willing to put into saving it.
The Downside to Conifers
You see, like most conifers, cedars won’t regrow from old wood. When you prune them, you always have to stay within the shrub’s green growth, that of last two years. As soon as you reach the inner branches that are completely brown, you have to stop. There are no dormant buds there to fill in with new growth.
But deer don’t know that. In a mild winter, they might only nibble moderately, mostly within the green section, but during a bad winter, when they’re nearly starving, they’ll graze right down to the very last green bud, leaving nothing for the hedge to grow back from.
If they have left at least some green buds here and there, yes, the hedge be saved, but it will take several years. If they haven’t… well, read on!
The First Decision
Before proceeding with any recovery efforts, though, what are you planning to do to keep the deer away in years to come? Because if you don’t intend to do anything, there’s no point trying to save your hedge. To keep deer away in the winter, you’d have to, at the very least, surround the bottom of the hedge with a deer-proof barrier of some sort, like burlap or snow fencing. But do you really want to wrap your hedge up each winter – then take have to the barrier down again each spring – for the rest of your life? I know I wouldn’t: too much work.
There are other ways of keeping deer away, though. Read Deer-Proofing Your Garden for suggestions.
Affirm Your Laidback Nature
Or be realistic. The easiest thing to do, especially when the damage is extensive, is to yank the hedge out. Once deer have found your garden, they are most likely going to be coming back year after year. The easiest thing to do is therefore learn to live with them and their foibles. Any plan you have to “save” the hedge will involve years of effort on your part and will need to be put into practice as long as you and the deer share your current address. That’s a lot of effort!
But there is another “laidback” possibility: you can hide the lower part of the hedge with other plantings. And for that, I’d suggest you use deer-resistant plants. You’ll find a good selection in the article 250 Deer Resistant Plants. Many of plants listed are tall enough to hide the damage or at least to attract attention elsewhere. A beautiful mixed flowerbed planted at the foot of the damaged hedge, for example, and composed of plants of different heights, will completely hide the damage in summer and, if you are not one of those persnickety gardeners who believes in doing a thorough fall clean up every year, but instead leave your plants alone, reasonably well winter as well.
But I Want to Save My Hedge!
I understand that: you’ve invested time and money installing and shaping the hedge and you’re not going let any #*&?$#% deer prevent you from enjoying it.
Here is what to do in both cases you might to have to deal with: when the lower part is capable of filling in… and when it is not.
A. When The Bottom Can Fill In
When the bottom of your hedge is still a bit green, you can encourage it to recover. Every year, trim the top part of hedge (normally around mid-June) rather severely, while remaining within green growth, of course. This will have two effects: since the top is now narrower, more sun will reach the lower branches and that will help them grow in better. And also the lower branches won’t have to grow as long to “catch up” with the top growth.
Don’t prune the lower branches at first: let them grow back a bit. However, when they do start to fill in, probably after 2 or 3 years, lightly prune back the denser sections to give the weak sections more time to catch up. After 5 to 7 years, if all goes well, your hedge will have resumed its original full shape.
But do keep protecting the hedge against deer in the winter!
B. When the Bottom is Dead
If in June there is still no sign of growth at the bottom of the hedge, but only dead branches, you’ll need to try something else.
First remove all those dead branches. Now plant young cedars (they should be of the same variety, otherwise your hedge will look odd) at the foot of the hedge, on both sides, and as close to the bare trunks of the original hedge as possible. You’ll need to chop into the roots of the hedge, so expect a lot of effort. Note that you can plant them at a bit of an angle, leaning them into the bare spot. Keep the young cedars well-watered (there’ll be a lot of competition for moisture, what with more plants now sharing the same space).
Each year, prune them as needed on the outside to stimulate denser growth while allowing the tops of the new plants to grow upward until they begin to merge with the original top growth. Eventually the new cedars will blend in so well with the older ones that you will no longer be able to see the difference and your hedge will then be “saved” … again, as long as you have kept the deer at bay every year.
All this is far too much effort for me. I would have yanked the #*&?$#% hedge after the first signs of damage! (You wouldn’t get me to plant a cedar hedge at any rate: it’s just too much maintenance!)