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Dahlias are a bold choice for any garden. These flowers are excellent for clipping and creating your own bouquets. They come in a variety of vivid colors, and because they’re so easy to grow, they’re a popular choice among landscapers. But are they equally popular with wild animals? Do deer eat dahlias, or are these flowers deer-resistant?
Deer have been known to eat dahlias. However, there are many other plants that deer prefer to eat instead. By planting deer favorites nearby and taking a few extra precautions, you can keep your dahlias safe from local wildlife.
Do deer like to eat dahlias?
Dahlias do tend to be deer resistant. A food’s texture is a big deal for deer. They like soft foliage that’s tender and smooth. Rough, coarse, fuzzy flowers like dahlias just don’t seem that appealing to the deer. And they’re not too fond of the dahlia’s greenery, either. As a rule, this is one plant that deer will not actively seek out (in fact, butterflies aren’t too crazy about dahlias, either). But every deer is different, so there is no definitive yes or no answer to this one.
Now, when we say a plant is “deer-resistant” what we mean is that most of the time, deer do not like the plant in question. However, nothing is set in stone. For instance, crape myrtles have long been heralded as a deer-resistant flowering shrub. But tell that to the deer come spring, when they’re nibbling away on your crape myrtles’ tender new growth. Apparently, we humans and the deer are not always on the same page when it comes to which plants they don’t like!
We tend to lump deer together. We think every doe or buck we see is just like the last doe or buck we saw. But the fact is, they’re all individuals. Each deer has its own nutritional needs and its own favorite foods. In our experience, most deer do not like to eat dahlias. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few outliers who do.
Why do deer eat dahlias if they prefer other plants instead?
Sometimes deer are forced to eat the foods they don’t like because their preferred food sources are in short supply. In times of drought, you’ll probably notice that your dahlias’ flower heads are being nibbled on. The other flowers in your garden will probably become food for local wildlife, too, simply because they provide much-needed hydration. Even if your plants are all supposed to be deer-resistant, if they’re the only lush greenery around, they may become your resident deer’s next meal.
Overcrowding can also force deer to look for alternative food sources. When the deer population booms, there may not be enough native plants to meet the demand. With limited availability, the deer are forced to eat whatever plants they can find, whether they actually like them or not.
Dahlias can also be a viable energy source for the deer for another reason. As flowering ornamental plants, dahlias are often well-cared for. They get watered on a regular basis, so they’re always in good shape. Some gardeners may even use an all-purpose fertilizer to improve color and performance. All that extra attention can make dahlias a nutritious snack. If a deer can’t meet its vitamin and mineral requirements elsewhere, it may be more inclined to snack on your prized blooms.
How can you tell whether or not deer are eating your dahlias?
When flowering plants get eaten, deer are usually the first ones to take the blame. But, are they always the guilty party? Mmm… maybe, maybe not. If the dahlias in your garden that were starting to bloom yesterday are showing no signs of flowering today, a careful inspection can help you determine which hungry critter is the true culprit.
If the deer are the ones who have been eating your dahlias, the flowers will be the first to go. But you’ll also notice the plant losing height. Bright green new growth disappears. Leaves get gnawed off from the top down. If you look closely in the surrounding area, you may see deer droppings, which look like rabbit pellets only larger. If the soil is muddy or loose, you might even spot some deer tracks.
If the plant has been nibbled around the base, the animal that’s been eating it is likely much smaller. Probably a rabbit. These pesky pests will eat the choicest new leaves off of your dahlias. They’ll eat the flower heads as well, but they prefer the delicate flower buds above all, as the blooms are an excellent source of nutrition.
Squirrels, badgers, mice, and birds also feed on these flowering plants. Whether or not they actually like them depends on their personal tastes. These animals are much smaller than deer, so even though they can do some serious damage to your flowers, it takes them more time to do so. If a deer is eating your dahlias, you’ll notice the difference overnight. If a smaller animal is to blame, it may take you a few days to realize it.
Armadillos, raccoons, foxes, and possums may not eat your dahlias, but they can still cause them harm. These omnivores will dig up flower beds and knock over flower pots in search of the bugs living in the moist soil below. If your dahlias keep getting dug up, but you don’t see any real damage to the plant itself, these animals are likely responsible, not the deer.
How can you protect your dahlias from being eaten by deer (and other animals, too)?
Regardless of which animal is destroying your dahlias, there are measures you can take to protect them. And the good news is that you can keep these animals off your dahlias without having to shoo them out of your yard completely.
Companion planting is an excellent strategy to keep deer away from your precious flowers. Use strong-smelling plants that repel deer, like sage and verbena. Deer also dislike geraniums and roses as a rule, so planting your dahlias near these plants (or vice versa) can discourage them from treating your garden like a salad bar.
Alternatively, you could try providing deer with another food source. Deer love sunflower seeds, watermelon, and bananas. Throwing these foods out in your yard will give them something else to nibble on besides your landscaping. You can also try growing plants that attract deer to another part of your garden. Situating petunias and daylilies away from your dahlias can spare them from hungry deer.
Deer-repellent lights are another option. These lights flash intermittently to scare the deer away. When used in conjunction with reflective tape, they can be extremely helpful in keeping the deer away from your expensive landscaping.
There are also deer-repelling sprays that you can use to coat the leaves and flowers of your plants. These repellants consist of smelly, nasty-tasting substances that deer do not enjoy, like garlic and onion. You may have good luck keeping the deer from eating your dahlias by mixing an egg with water and spraying that solution onto them. Once the deer get a taste of it, they aren’t likely to pester your plants anymore.
Depending on how committed you are, you may choose to install a fence around your garden. If you want to keep the deer out, your fence needs to be at least six feet tall. Be sure to keep it in good repair, as deer can be very good at discovering compromises in your fencing — especially white-tailed deer. These fences won’t just keep the deer away, they’ll deter rabbits, armadillos, and foxes, too, to keep your flowers in tip-top shape!
So, do deer eat dahlias? Yes, sometimes. But when you grow your dahlias with other plants that deer hate and take a few precautionary measures to keep hungry grazers away, you can safely grow these colorful beauties in your flower garden.