Gardening with deer presents a unique set of challenges. Those of us familiar with the battle know how difficult it can be to have a beautiful garden in deer territory. The furry buggers seem to know exactly which plants are our favorites, don’t they? Over the last twenty years I’ve tended over 40 gardens as a professional horticulturist, and I’ve learned a lot about the ups and downs of gardening with deer in that time. Today, I’d like to share all of the things I’ve learned and present a four step plan for building gorgeous, nearly deer proof gardens.
4 Tactics for deer proof gardens
As the white-tailed deer population in the east and the mule deer population in the west expand, and suburbia continues to encroach on their territory, deer have become more and more problematic for gardeners. Each herd eats differently, so gardening with deer requires patience and experimentation. But most of all, it requires a willingness to be flexible in your plant choices and deer management techniques. In other words, what works for Jane may not work for Joe. The key for me has been employing a combination of all four of the tactics I list below and being vigilant about noting which ones are the most effective against each different herd. If something stops working, I’m always willing to tweak my deer management strategy until I find something that does. That being said, even in areas of heavy deer browse (like my front yard), my diligence has paid off. Though I find deer foot prints and droppings in my gardens almost every day, because of these four tactics, their feeding damage is almost nonexistent and the result is a series of beautiful, deer proof gardens.
Tactic 1: Choose deer resistant garden plants
This step may seem like a no-brainer, but I’m constantly surprised by the number of gardeners who complain about the deer eating their hosta. For Pete’s sake, if the deer eat your hosta and you’re not happy about it, replace the hosta with plants resistant to deer. There are lots of choices out there, I promise.
Your first line of defense against deer is always smart plant selection. If you garden with deer, DO NOT put a plant in your garden unless it has one of the following traits:
- Fuzzy or hairy foliage: Before buying a plant to include in your garden, rub the foliage against your cheek. If you feel small hairs on the leaves – whether bristly or soft – it’s probably a good plant choice for deer proof gardens. Deer don’t like fuzzy or hairy textures against their tongues. Deer-resistant garden plants in this category include lambs ear (Stachys), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), tuberous begonias, heliotrope, yarrow (Achillea), Ageratum, poppies, purple top vervain (Verbena bonariensis), and many others.
- Prickly foliage: Also disliked by most deer are plants with spines on their leaves. Though some deer learn to eat around the thorns of rose canes to nibble off the leaves, they generally avoid plants with spines on the leaves themselves. In this category are bear’s breeches (Acanthus), globe thistle (Echinops), Cardoon, and sea hollies (Eryngium), among others.
- Heavily fragranced foliage: Like us, deer eat with their noses first. If something smells distasteful, they’re less likely to dive in for a taste. Plants with very aromatic foliage confuse Bambi’s olfactory system and discourage feeding, making them the perfect addition to deer proof gardens. Many flowering herbs, including sage, thyme, lavender, and oregano, fit in this group. Other plants resistant to deer with fragrant foliage are catmint (Nepeta), hyssop (Agastache), Artemisia, Russian sage (Perovskia), boxwood (Buxus), Salvias, tansy (Tanacetum), bee balm (Monarda), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum), dead nettle (Lamium), blue mist shrub (Caryopteris), dill, lantana, and calamint (Calamintha).
- Toxic foliage: Among my list of must-have deer resistant plants are those that contain compounds toxic to deer. Fawns learn which plants to avoid from their mothers – or from their upset tummies. All ferns contain compounds that deer can’t tolerate, so do false indigo (Baptisia), bleeding hearts (Lamprocapnos/Dicentra), daffodils, Helleborus, monkshood (Aconitum), spurges (Euphorbia), and poppies (Papaver). Use caution, though, because some of these plants are also toxic to humans and pets who might sample a bite.
- Leathery or fibrous foliage: Plants with leaves that are tough to digest are also typically avoided by deer. Pachysandra is in this category, as are most irises, wax and dragonwing begonias, elephant ears (Colocasia and Alocasia), peonies, and some viburnums (including leatherleaf and arrowwood).
- Grasses: Deer much prefer to eat forbs (flowering plants) and woody plant shoots over grasses, though a small percentage of a deer’s diet consists of young, succulent grasses. White-tailed deer cannot survive on grasses alone, and they’ll mostly consume even young grasses as a last resort. Because of this, ornamental grasses are a great plant choice for deer proof gardens.
Tactic 2: Put up the right kind of garden deer fence
The second step in creating deer proof gardens is realizing when fencing is in order. The only way to truly keep deer from eating your plants is to fence them out, a task easier said than done. Putting up a proper deer fence is an expensive proposition, and when it’s finished, it may feel like you’ve fenced yourself in, instead of fencing the deer out. Deer can jump over an eight-foot-tall fence lickety-split, so if you’re going to put up a fence, make sure it’s at least that tall.
Here are some of my most useful observations when it comes to fencing deer out of the garden:
- Stockade fences work better than those the deer can see through. Deer do not like to jump over something unless they can see what’s on the other side, so stockade fences don’t have to be as tall as other fences. The six-foot-tall stockade fence we have around the side of our house works great; the deer will readily jump over our split rail fence but they won’t jump over the stockade.
- Sometimes the best fence is no fence at all. If you’ve been to a public zoo lately, you may notice that some facilities now separate the giraffes, zebras, cattle, and gazelles from us humans with a wide border of large, irregularly shaped rocks, instead of with a fence. This is because hooved animals like these won’t walk over unstable, rocky areas. Deer are the same. Creating a six- to eight-foot wide border of these kinds of large rocks around an area will keep deer from entering. The rock bed needs to be wide enough to prevent the deer from leaping over it. Cattle guards are also quite useful for preventing deer from entering properties via unfenced driveways or roadways.
- Go electric. Electric fences are another useful way to keep deer out of the garden, though not all municipalities allow them. Before installing an electric fence, check your local zoning laws. You can hire a specialty company to install one or do it yourself, just be sure to follow all installation instructions carefully to prevent any hazardous conditions. Electric deer fences can be solar powered or plug-in; either way, you have to regularly maintain the fence line to make sure weeds and other plants don’t come in contact with the fence and render it ineffective. Electric deer fences deliver quite a shock (ask me, I know!), so be very careful when working around them and avoid using them if you have small children. They aren’t for everyone, but they are a very effective way to have deer proof gardens, especially if the fence is properly installed and maintained.
- Double fence layers work like a charm. Deer do not like to jump into enclosed spaces where they feel trapped. Because of this, a double fence can be an effective tool to prevent deer damage in the garden. Surround the exterior of your yard or garden with a four- to five-foot tall picket fence, then erect a second fence of the same height about five feet inside of the first one. The inner fence layer can be made of boxwire, chicken wire, wire lines, or another less expensive material, if you want to save some money. Deer have lousy depth perception and won’t try to jump over both fences at once.
- Use “invisible” deer netting. Probably the most common deer fencing type, black mesh deer netting fastened to wooden 4x4s or metal t-bar garden posts is an effective way to keep deer out of the garden. It must be at least eight feet tall to keep the deer from jumping over it. And, for the first few months after putting the fence up, tie colorful strings or streamers to the fence to keep the deer from accidentally running through it if they get spooked.
- Fence individual plants. If you don’t want to fence your whole garden, fence individual plants instead. I have a few non-deer-resistant plants that I just can’t bear to part with. So, rather than replacing them, I just keep a layer of deer/bird netting over them at all times. My Hinoki cypress, for example, is constantly surrounded by deer netting. I also have a hydrangea that belonged to my grandmother that’s always under the protection of deer netting. I save this method for the most-treasured plants in my deer proof gardens.
Tactic 3: Using deer repellents – religiously!
If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that they’ve tried deer sprays and they don’t work, I’d be a rich woman. More often than not, after I ask the person a few questions about how they’re using these products, I come to learn that the failure of the product is due to human error, not the product itself.
There are many, many effective deer repellents and deterrents on the market, but how well they work is almost completely dependent on how they are used. If you want these products to yield anything close to the great results I get, you absolutely have to be religious about using them. You cannot go out to the garden and spray them once and be done with it. I set a weekly reminder on my cell phone so I can stay on top of applying deer repellent. And, keep in mind, I’m only applying it to a select few plants I grow that are not naturally deer-resistant. The twigs of our young apple trees, for example, are often nibbled by deer during the winter months; so too are our junipers and Japanese holly bushes (which are not as deer resistant as I’d hoped) – these are the plants I use deer repellent sprays on and I do it every week, without fail and without excuses. They work wonderfully, but only because I’m consistent.
Here are some great tips for using deer repellents effectively.
- Almost all repellents work by using a combination of odor and taste deterrents. Because of this, most deer deterrent products smell bad, at least until they’re dry. I’ve tried at least a dozen different commercial brands and my consistent application practices are a far greater factor in determining the product’s success or failure than the actual ingredients they’re made of.
- My favorite deer deterrents have some type of spreader-sticker additive. They stick to the leaves better and longer, and I find they work particularly well on trees and shrubs during the winter months. These products are my “big guns” – I use them in the winter and early spring, when deer browse is the worst where I live. They do leave a white residue behind, but it’s worth it because I don’t have to apply them quite as frequently as some other products.
- Deer repellents are most often made from putrified eggs, dried blood, garlic, or soaps. Several studies, including this one, have found that egg-based products are the most effective. These include Deer Away, Bobbex, and Liquid Fence. I’ve used all of these and have had good results. I’ve also used dried-blood based Plantskydd and a soap-based brand named Hinder with positive results.
- Admittedly, I have never used any granular, hanging, or “clip on” deer repellents because I haven’t come across many independent studies that indicate they’re as effective as the spray products I’ve been using for years. At this point, I don’t want to risk plant damage to experiment with them myself, but someday I’ll set up an unofficial study to see if any of these granular, hanging, or clip-on deer repellents work for me and allow me to continue to have nearly deer proof gardens.
- Deer deterrents with limited effectiveness include bars of soap, bags of hair, vials of predator urine (how do they get that pee in the first place???), and other such items. They may work for a short time and in a very small area, but in my experience, eventually, the deer completely ignore their presence.
Tactic 4: Deter deer by scaring them
While grandma may have put clattering aluminum pie pans or strips of tin foil in the garden to scare away the deer, most of us have quickly come to learn that these methods are completely ineffective against todays super-tame, suburban deer. But, there is one scare tactic that I’ve had excellent results from.
Motion-activated sprinklers are a real game-changer when it comes to deterring deer from specific garden areas, but not all of them are created equal. When they sense motion, these sprinklers deliver a sharp burst of water in the direction of the motion, scaring the wits out of the deer and sending them running. The range of the sprinkler’s aim can be easily adjusted to target a fairly accurate area, making them ideal for protecting vegetable gardens and individual shrub or flower beds.
Here are some tips for using motion-activated sprinklers properly.
- Though they’re effective throughout most of the growing season, these sprinklers are completely useless in the winter, when hoses quickly freeze. The sprinklers must be drained and stored properly for the winter.
- One sprinkler can protect a small to medium vegetable garden, but you’ll need more than one to make larger deer proof gardens.
- Move the sprinkler to a new spot around the garden’s perimeter every few days for maximum protection.
- Look for brands with an infrared sensor, such as Contech’s Scarecrow and HavaHart Spray-Away, so they’ll also work at night. Models without this sensor are only useful during the day.
- Taller sprinklers work better than shorter types, in my experience, as the sensor isn’t “tricked” by moving foliage and the water jet shoots out above plant tops.
- I prefer battery-powered motion-activated sprinklers over solar powered types that don’t seem to emit as hard a burst of water.
Short of adopting a pack of border collies, employing a combination of all four of these deer deterring tactics is your biggest and smartest step toward having deer proof gardens of your own.
For more information on solving problems in the garden, check out these posts:
Preventing pests in your garden: 5 strategies for success
Organic weed control tips for gardeners
Control squash vine borers without chemicals
Grow organic apples with fruit bagging