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Protecting Pine Seedlings From Deer Browsing

Young trees are a favorite snack of hungry deer, especially in the spring and fall while there's still snow on the ground. Most young pines can recover from minor amounts of repeat browsing as long as the terminal bud remains intact. Here is a cheap and effective solution to protect terminal bud clusters and help get your pine seedlings get through the winter.


Why Protect the Terminal Bud?

A tree seedling's terminal bud (the bud or cluster of buds at the very top of the tree), is a key factor in determining the overall height and future growth of the tree. As long as the terminal bud remains undamaged, growth continues in a vertical manner and the tree's natural shape is maintained. However, when the terminal bud is eaten or damaged, growth can become restricted, deformed and unbalanced. Many trees will never achieve their natural shape or true growth potential once their terminal bud is chewed off by deer. They may adapt when an adjacent branch bends upward and eventually takes over as the "leader" branch, but their growth and form may be forever compromised.

Bud Capping: A Cheap and Effective Solution

Bud capping is a method of protecting tree seedlings that has been used in forest management for years. It involves stapling a small "cap" made from paper around the terminal bud cluster on the leader branch. The caps are typically applied in the fall before snow cover forces the deer to start nibbling on whatever they can find above ground. If left on through the following spring, new growth is simply pushed out through the opening in the folded paper. Bud caps should be applied annually until the terminal leaders are at least 4-5 feet tall and out of reach of hungry deer.


Constructing Bud Caps

To construct bud caps, cut paper into 4 x 6 inch pieces. Use the lightest weight paper possible (fax, photocopy, notebook, etc.) so that new growth can push through easily in the spring. White pines have fragile terminal buds, so the paper should only be 3 x 4 inches in size. The weight of snow sticking to the paper can cause the terminal bud to bend over, and a smaller piece of paper will not catch as much snow.

Applying Bud Caps

Using a common office stapler, fold the piece of paper around the terminal bud of the leader branch and using three staples, staple it to some needles near the top. The paper should be positioned so that the terminal bud cluster is at least 1/2 inch below the top of the paper, but no lower than the paper cap's mid-point. Apply each staple no more than 1 inch from the edge of the paper. Place one staple vertically near the middle edge, and one each near the top and bottom corners at 45 degree angles. The bud cap should be secured tight enough with the staples so it won't blow off in the wind.



  • Bud caps should be applied in the fall before the first snowfall (usually October, no later than December/January).

  • A bud cap only needs to last a few months, so use a lightweight paper like computer paper or notebook paper. Caps manufactured from metal or plastic mesh can be purchased in bulk from tree farm supply companies. If you plan to leave caps on all year, they may be better than paper because they allow air and light to reach new growth.

  • Caps are normally 4x6 inches but may be smaller for tree species with weak terminal buds like white pines.

  • Use three staples, each containing some needles, to hold the cap snugly in place.

  • Depending on the tree species, caps should be applied annually until the sapling's terminal leader grows too tall for browsing.

  • If you have a large number of tree seedlings that need protecting, you may want to contact a local tree service to request a bid for this type of work. Bids should be submitted on a per tree or per acre basis. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, about 200-300 bud caps can be applied per hour by an experienced person and may average about 5 cents per tree.

  • Bud caps will not prevent the rest of your seedling from being eaten by deer. Most trees will survive minor browsing, however in areas of heavy browsing, bud caps may not be enough to deter deer. In these cases, use tubing or fencing to protect seedlings from damage by deer and other animals.

Hardwood Tree Seedlings

Bud caps are usually used on conifers, but hardwood seedlings (like oak) can be bud capped, too. This can also be done during the dormant season (fall), however they typically get browed most heavily as new growth emerges in the spring. As an alternative to paper bud caps, hardwood seedlings can be protected with ordinary latex party balloons. These can be applied in the fall after the seedling goes dormant (leaf off) and removed again in the spring (April/early May) before bud break. Use a balloon with the appropriate size opening and pull it down over the top buds and down over the stem. The bottom end of the balloon (the open end) can then be stretched out and stapled shut close to the stem to keep it secure.

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services.

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February 8, 20170 found this helpful

My experience with bud caps is that these work as long as deer are not in starvation mode. Once is starvation mode, they will break the terminal stem to try to get at the capped bud. Snow cover has been low this winter, around a foot or so, allowing more limbs to be exposed for grazing. So this year, apart from all the lower buds, I've lost the terminal buds of half of my five to six year old pines...and counting. . And judging by how high they stand on their hind legs, you would have to get to 10' high before the terminal bud was safe on its own. How do you know deer are in starvation mode? First signs typically show up in January when the eastern cedar runs out. They then start eating more eastern white pine, when that runs out, they go after spruces of all kinds, larch and yes, even junipers. Nothing is safe in the evergreen world, at least not where I am, in southern Québec. What don't they touch? In my experience, anything in the Russian Olive family (eleagnus angustifolia), buckthorn (same type species). Apart from that, everything gets a variable degree of nibbles, all depending on the starvation level of the deer. Most leafy plants recover well, but as stated in this article, evergreen munching is mostly always permanent damage.

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