Deer are causing more and more problems to gardeners.
As homes spread out into their territory, they become habituated to humans and no longer see them as much of a threat. Plus their numbers have never been greater, largely because humans have eliminated their main predator, the wolf, from most inhabited areas.
In gardens, they ravage plantings, chowing down on vegetables and fruits, decimating flowerbeds, destroying arborvitae hedges and much more.
What can be done to stop them?
Start Without Delay
The initial reaction that any good gardener should have when they first see a deer on their property should not be to exclaim, “Isn’t he cute!” and to run off to get a camera, but to rush out of the house screaming and gesticulating angrily… with a barking dog at their side, if possible.
That first deer is only exploring. If you chase it off before it realizes that your garden is full of interesting food, it won’t know to come back. A good initial scare can keep deer away for years. Once it has discovered that your property is practically an all-you-can-eat deer buffet, though, with delicious veggies, flower beds full of hostas or apple trees dripping in fruit, it will be much more difficult to convince it not to return.
Deer Deterrents: Keep Them Rotating
There are dozens of commercial and homemade deer deterrents and repellents, especially objects that move or make noise or products that emit a suspicious odor. They work by scaring deer: like most prey animals, they’re extremely timid and fearful, naturally afraid of anything new or that they don’t understand. If something is just a bit off, they’ll tend to stay away… for a while.
That’s why most deterrents give great results… at first. But deer are intelligent and once they figure out there is no real danger (and they know you have something they want), they’ll soon be back.
The secret, therefore, is not to have a single repellent or deterrent, but several, and to use them in rotation. Normally, a deterrent will be effective for about two weeks. That means you’ll need a whole arsenal of repellents if you want to spend a summer in peace.
Here are a few:
- Aluminum plates or metal cans attached to string so they bang together in the wind;
- Bits of cloth soaked in creosote;
- Blood meal or chicken manure (and they’re fertilizers too!);
- Bright light set off by a motion detector;
- Cat or dog fur (get some from a pet groomer);
- Commercial deer repellents (Plantskydd, Bobbex, etc.);
- Garlic-based sprays;
- Highly perfumed fabric softener sheets;
- Human hair (ask your hairdresser to save some for you);
- Irish Spring or any other strongly scented soap;
- Loud music;
- Moth balls (be careful not to leave them where kids or pets can get to them!);
- Predator urine (coyote, fox and even lion urine can be purchased);
- Recordings of explosions or rifle shots;
- Repellent plants (dill, chives, garlic, lavender, onion, oregano, Russian sage, tansy, tarragon, thyme, wormwood and yarrow are examples: they’ll avoid these plants… for a while!);
- Sprays made from rotten eggs;
- Treated sewage sludge (Milorganite, for example);
- Ultrasonic devices (actually, though widely available, they have not been found very effective against deer);
- White rags that move in the wind (this imitates the “danger” signal that many deer species give off as they flee, showing the white underside of their tail);
It’s best to move deterrents about or to spray repellents in new spots: that will help extend their usefulness.
Note that many of the repellents described above smell or sound so awful you too may not want to spend much time in your garden!
One Long-term Deterrent
The only deterrent that seems to work in the long term is the motion-activated sprinkler. There are several commercial models that you ought to be able to find in most garden centers or hardware stores, if not, on-line. However more technologically savvy readers could probably build one on their own.
You simply connect it to a garden hose and place it where the deer usually enter the property. It can be adjusted to cover more or less space and to shoot more or less water. As soon as a deer passes by, either day or night, it gets sprayed. Obviously, getting soaked doesn’t hurt the deer, but actually being touched, even if just by water, is a terrible shock and many deer will simply not come back… ever. Those that do may try another path, although certainly not for a while, so don’t hesitate to move the sprinkler around if they start to approach again. Deer never seem to get used to being sprayed.
One concern: make sure the sprinkler is set up in such a way that you don’t accidentally spray yourself, your family… or the mailman!
And note that a motion-activated sprinkler will be of no use during the winter in cold climates: the water will be frozen!
Make Walking Uncomfortable
Deer hate feeling that their hoofs may become stuck. To discourage them from visiting your flower beds or vegetable garden, try covering the ground with chicken wire (wire netting). They’ll pretty much stop dead in their tracks when they put their weight on it and don’t seem to think they could just jump over it. Simply placing a few squares of chicken wire here and there sometimes can be enough to discourage them.
A Free-Running Dog
Dog or wolf? They’re both the same to deer and they’re deathly afraid of them. But if your dog spends most of its time indoors (especially at night), the deer will quickly figure out its schedule and will visit when it’s not there. For a dog to be useful in chasing deer away, it has to be kept outdoors. Most dogs will naturally chase deer. If not, they can be taught to.
It’s vital that your property have some kind of fencing, though, to keep the dog in (and let the deer leave). It’s illegal in most areas to let a dog run wild. Plus a dog allowed to roam freely probably won’t live long if there’s a highway nearby!
Put in a Deer Fence
This method is one of the most effective ways of keeping deer out. In fact, in many areas, you won’t find many homes without deer fencing. However, it’s also the most costly method of preventing deer damage.
You can’t use just any fence. A decorative fence will not work, nor will a cattle fence: deer will easily jump over either. You’ll need a fence at least 7 feet (2.4 m) high, ideally with its base buried at least another 2 feet (60 cm) deep. Yes, deer won’t hesitate to dig if there’s something really delicious on the other side. So ideally you’d need fencing 9 to 10 feet (3 m) high.
If you can’t find deer fencing locally, it’s readily available on-line. Look for “deer netting”: commercial heavyweight black deer netting is easier to work with than wire mesh, less expensive and blends more readily into the landscape.
If that’s too high for your tastes, there is another option. True enough, deer can easily jump a 4-foot (1.2-m) fence, but only if there is no obstacle on the other side. If there is a second fence they can see located just where they will land, they won’t jump even a 4-foot (1.2-m) fence. So install two 4-foot (1.2 m) fences 5 feet (1.5 m) apart and tie colored ribbons to the second fence as a warning, as otherwise the deer might not see it and could be seriously injured by landing on the second fence.
Efficient deer fencing is expensive, no doubt about it, but if you really want to garden in peace in a region where deer are causing serious problems, it can be a worthwhile investment.
But the Most Laidback Solution is…
…To systematically eliminate the plants that the deer prefer and to replace them with varieties they dislike. Yep, pull out your hosta beds and arborvitae hedge and cut down your apple trees, then replace them with astilbes, wormwoods and spruce. This tip usually works so well that the deer are no longer even an enemy. Since they find nothing of interest to munch on, you now can simply admire their beauty when they cross your lot to visit your neighbor’s yard, still chock-full of their favorite munchies.
In general, deer don’t like prickly plants like hawthorns or those with fuzzy or hairy leaves like wormwoods. They also avoid, obviously, plants that are toxic to them, such as foxgloves. Check out the list 250 Deer Resistant Plants for more suggestions.
That said, even the plants listed aren’t necessarily 100% deer proof. For one thing, deer tastes differ from one region to another and it’s possible that in some they’ve learned to eat things that they won’t consume elsewhere. Also, starving deer will ingest almost anything, even slightly poisonous plants, and they are occasionally in that state at the end of a very hard winter. If so, though, damage will likely be minor and the plants should recuperate very rapidly.
Try landscaping with deer-resistant plants: it just makes gardening so much easier!