What can leap small buildings and decimate your garden before you’ve had your first cup of coffee?
Yes, Bambi’s family can destroy a garden in short order, and keeping them out can be challenging. Waking up to find your prized hostas, delicious strawberries, and crisp lettuce plants eaten down to nubs can be very frustrating. The more you know about deer, the better you can protect your herbs, trees, and produce from these athletic grazers.
Yes, they are beautiful. And who hasn't wanted to pet a spotted fawn? Before you start defending a deer’s right to eat and live, you need to know that deer often carry Lyme disease, as well as ticks and fleas. Other diseases deer may carry include chlamydiosis, leptospirosis, Q fever, salmonellosis, and tuberculosis, just to name a few. The real problem with deer is their appetites. They can ruin a hedgerow, eliminate entire garden beds, and kill trees in their search for food.
To keep deer out of your garden or landscape, you have a few options.
Some municipalities offer culling services. In this case, hunters come to your property and shoot some of the deer. This reduces the number of deer feeding on your tomato plants and makes the remaining deer a little more cautious, for a while, at least. Many times, the venison is then given to local charities to help feed those in need.
Many people see this as cruel but consider my story. Culling and hunting were banned many years ago while I lived in Virginia. At that time, I was volunteering with Fish & Wildlife, doing hawk-banding and eagle counts, so I was spending a lot of time out in the woods, hiding in a blind. What I saw was heartbreaking. The deer were starving to death. There were simply too many of them. They were mangy and diseased and suffering. People had already killed off many of the predators that would have restored the natural balance and deer, being prey animals, are very prolific. They had bred themselves into starvation. It made the bullet from a hunter’s gun look humane by comparison.
When my mother lived on 97 acres in Upstate New York, my then brother-in-law would hunt a few deer and we would get a Christmas box of frozen, wrapped venison. It was delicious, but my mother never won the war against deer in her rural garden. Her plot was too far from the house and she wasn’t willing to install adequate fencing.
A healthy adult deer can leap over anything lower than 10’ tall. Most people don’t want a 10’ fence around their garden. Some people have found that a solid 6’ fence topped with an additional three- to four-foot mesh works, presumably, because the deer can’t see what they’d be jumping into. Electric fences can be somewhat shorter, though they do require regular monitoring. I can tell you from personal experience, touching a hot wire isn’t something you’ll forget any time soon. The advantages of electric fencing are they are less obtrusive, cost less than solid fencing, and they don’t actually harm the deer. [I recently heard about electronic posts that smell like acorns and deliver a shock when touched. Does human ingenuity ever end? I hope not!]
Another tricky fencing solution is to use two 4- to 5-foot fences placed four feet apart. This is believed to confuse the deer since it is difficult for them to clear both fences and they don’t like to feel boxed in.
If garden-wide fencing isn’t an option for you, tall cylinders of wire fencing can be used around individual beds or plants to protect them from deer feeding. You may also want to try stringing a fishing line strategically around your garden and landscape where deer frequently walk. They will run into the invisible barrier and feel threatened. Just watch out you don’t clothesline yourself!
If you grow apples or cherries, beans or beets, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, pumpkins, spinach, well, if you have a garden and there are deer in the neighborhood, there’s going to be a problem. Deer will always go for arborvitae, azaleas, hardy geraniums, hosta, rhododendrons, roses, and tulips. There are some plants, however, that deer don’t eat.
By installing plants that deer are unlikely to eat throughout the landscape, deer should be less likely to cause significant damage. These plants include most herbs, mint and lemon balm, members of the onion family, artichokes, asparagus, eggplant, fennel, figs, lavender, and rhubarb. They also seem to avoid plants with fuzzy leaves, such as lambs ear or yarrow, prickly plants, and plants toxic to deer. That list includes bleeding hearts, daffodils, false indigo, hellebores, monkshood, poppies, and spurges.
There are also plants that deer would rather not eat, but will if they are particularly hungry. This group includes tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, squash, cucumber, Brussels sprouts, cilantro, horseradish, okra, melons, and chard. Keep in mind that tender, young shoots of nearly every plant are considered fair game by deer, and deer do not read reports or studies, or blog posts about what they do and do not eat. If your local deer love artichokes and horseradish, you’ll have to figure out ways to protect them. [Rutgers University offers an extensive list of what deer do and do not generally eat.]
Deer spook easily, so sudden noises and movements can make them turn and run. You can use plastic bags tied to the tops of poles, old CDs hanging in trees, pinwheels, or windchimes. Like scarecrows, scare tactics lose their effectiveness over time. Commercial growers use air cannons but your neighbors probably wouldn’t appreciate that one.
Garden hoses attached to motion-detectors are said to be effective. I can’t help but picture a herd of deer lounging on my lawn, nibbling garden treats and enjoying the cool spray, like a bunch of kids playing in the sprinklers on summer vacation. I could be wrong. I had a neighbor, many years ago, who entertained the neighborhood children each Halloween with well-thought-out theatrics, which often included a leaf-blower attached to a motion detector. It just might work to protect your garden plants, too.
The big stink
Deer rely heavily on their sense of smell and they avoid areas frequented by predators. If they smell predators, they will generally go down a different path. You can find countless recipes online for DIY deer repellants. I have no idea how well any of them work, and some of them sound awful. Personally, I have used Bobbex-R with good results. It stinks (to humans) for about 45 minutes, then goes away. Deer, rats, and squirrels tend to avoid it for several weeks. I imagine that other commercially available deer repellants work in much the same way.
Pungent herbs and scented geraniums are known to repel deer, as does cheap perfume sprayed on strips of fabric and zoo poo from the lion’s den. If you have dogs, they can help discourage deer from grazing in your garden. Other tips to reduce deer damage include:
And be sure to switch things up. Deer can get used to just about anything, especially if they are hungry. If you move things around and cycle through different deer repelling tactics, they are more likely to be effective.
Tell us your deer story! How do you keep deer out of your garden?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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