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.
You’ll find a list of 20 additional deer resistant annual plants here.
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.
For more info on managing deer in the winter, check out this video.
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
Prevent moles from destroying your lawn
Organic weed control tips for gardeners
Control squash vine borers without chemicals
Grow organic apples with fruit bagging
Malia@Small Town Girl Blog says
Great post! I have so many friends that deal with deer in their gardens. I will be sharing this with them. Thanks!
I had major damage to a young pine tree’s bark from a deer and I hung a deterrent from a limb. Fortunately, there was no further damage. Whether it was the deterrent or that the deer just went away, I don’t know. The tree seems to be recovering even after having it’s bark rubbed off almost halfway around. Frustratingly, he had to rub his little nubs on the tree I planted and was babying along – and not on any of the other trees I wouldn’t have cared about, like the hackberry and the cedar trees right near the pine. How did he know?!
We thought we had our little herd of “deer” friends conquered by planting only things sipuch as those suggested here. But they have now developed a taste for geraniums, iris leaves, bee balm, and tomato plants that they used to leave alone!
I’ve had success with planting lavender, rosemary, and marigolds in pots with the other annuals. So far!
(And spraying deterrent but you do have to be diligent (and stand out of the wind or your spouse will stay away, too! Phew!)
Malia Nesbitt says
Try “Deer Out”. It smells like Wintergreen gum. You can buy it online. It seriously works on my deer.
I have been using a pepper spray that I mix myself – 1 gallon water, 2-3 tablespoons Tabasco sauce, and a generous squirt of Dawn dish detergent. Mix all the ingredients and spray the plants. I also spray the ground in the garden and the surrounding grass in the yard. Additionally, I grate bars of Irish Spring soap and toss around the garden and the yard. I spray every week and I replenish the Irish Spring every month or so. This has worked for me.
I am using your method and the deer have stayed away, from the four new trees, for two days now.
Caden Dahl says
I have noticed some minor damage to my garden area due to deer and I really don’t want it to get worse since they are eating my food! The fence that I have now isn’t cutting it so I’ll have to rip it out and get a new one installed. Now as you said, it would probably be best to get a six-foot high fence to where the deer can’t see over it, which would deter them from jumping.
Gail Gardner says
You could try a fishing line fence first. I’ve seen this suggested on several sites. One said to put the first line 2-3″ from the ground and then put another every foot going up.
I haven’t tried it, yet, but I think you could easily run 50′ between t-posts as long as you can keep them tight in the ground. They claim that deer can’t tell very well what is there, so they just leave.
If 1 doesn’t work, 2 of these 5-6 ft apart should do it. They can only jump wide or tall, but not wide and tall.
Fuzzy/prickly plants do not deter deer. They love my okra, leaves and all. They also love my tomatoes, leaves and all. Maybe they are southern deer since they like their tomatoes green. I have tried an electric fence, but they jump right over it. I also used Plantskydd deer repellent religiously, which worked great for a while, but then seemed to have less and less of an effect. It also doesn’t help that my neighbors put out mineral and salt blocks for the deer. I may try the deer netting fence next year or just sit out by my garden in a lawn chair with a shotgun…
Pat Spahos says
Does are the most tender for your freezer only in deer season.loud noises like radios are good but after a while your deer just want to join the party. But with all this your neighbors will call the police for noise control. May God bless you and good luck with your deer
Gail Gardner says
Try putting a fishing line fence 5-6′ from the existing fence. See directions above. Supposedly, that works and 2 fences will work.
Deborah Cromley says
That’s too funny being southern deer. I’m in PA and they wait till ripe and beat me to it. The day I want to pick they ate last night.
Ssooo frustrating. I’m trying the mixture of siracha and Dawn plus Irish spring pieces.I’ll let u know.
My white vinegar spray worked for a day.😕 darn
We have had good luck with 3 foot fence plus electric wires and then stringing white rope about 3 feet inside and parallel to such outer fence at about a 3 foot height. Plus including plantings of sage, peppermint, garlic.
Thirty years ago I planted 200 6′ pine trees on my property. Noticed after two weeks that bark was being stripped by deer on some of the trees. Drilled 200 bars of Ivory soap and placed them in middle of trees. Never had a problem thereafter.
I mix egg whites with water, in an old milk jug. I pour it around my garden. It sticks to plants and the deer don’t like the smell.
I recently moved into a very secluded area. I now have a 6 point buck that watches me and snorts at my granddaughter and me when we go outside. What can I do to keep it away?
Jessica Walliser says
The suggestions in the article will work to keep the deer away. Fencing would probably be your number one option.
I would also keep the hose hooked to the faucet with a sprayer on it that will go a distance, the faucet turned on full so it’s always ready to go, and spray him when you walk out and he refuses to move. You may have to move it to a different spot every few days. After a while maybe he’ll be scared when he sees you. Maybe not, just a thought. Once temps hit freezing, of course you can’t do that. Good Luck!
Love this page, keep coming back to it! I’ve been putting my plan together for 2 years but have to get my fruit trees in the ground so I get fruit in my lifetime! I have one area in my woods cleared for a small fruit / apple and plum orchard and plan to use all of these ideas and will keep you updated. I’m thinking when I plant my trees in April to start with a small chickenwire fence around each tree and the deer netting, attached to the chicken wire and that should do for a few years while I build the larger outside fence: fishing line with stinky herbs, marigolds, lambs ear on the outside and I really want berries, so gooseberries and currants just inside, maybe some American Holly (to sell when I’m old and need the money) then over time the whole inside around the trees a permaculture garden. Hopefully the berries and holly will fill in so they can’t see over or through. Since the garden is huge, maybe some osage orange trees on one side for a hedge/fence, thinking of growing a willow wall on another side …. yes, deer eat willow but maybe with sage and chives or iris next to it? Or I could use netting again until the willow actually makes a fence. Or do not play with fire and plant more berries the deer don’t like. If anyone has experience with berries that the deer don’t like I’d love to hear your suggestions! I’m in Illinois, zone 5a. My husband thinks I’m crazy, LOL and rolls his eyes … He says, anything you want to grow you can buy !!
Have you ever tried using fishing line on posts surrounding a garden? Desperate to keep deer from our plants. Hostas and day Lilly
Jessica Walliser says
We did that around our chicken yard to keep the deer out and it did work. However, they did blast through it one night and we suspect it was because they couldn’t see the fishing line in the dark. Perhaps if you tied little ribbons to it to let them know it’s there, it might work.
scott diagostine says
put a bunch of cheap mousetraps on edge of the flowers. first night 2 were snapped and broken, second night i snapped and broken. Since then none snapped and nothing eaten. its only been 2 weeks, but so far so good
Debbie G says
I’ve tried most all of these methods. Some are still working and some are not. This year the herd has decided to eat plants they never touched before.
I have recently tried something new. After noticing my cat was afraid of a blue light Laser pointer. Why the blue light scared her I don’t know. I decided to string Solar powered blue mini LED flashing Christmas lights along the top edge of my fence. So far it has worked like a charm. The deer will not jump that fence but they go about 4 feet down and cross in another spot. With 4 acres it will take a while for me to put these lights all around. As with any other deer deterrent once they get a custom to it it no longer is affective. My LED lights have been up since last summer I’m at the end of the second summer and they still work (come on dusk to dawn) and they’re still effective.
The fence I have them on is at the front near my neighborhood street. So at night if you don’t know me and it is your first time going down my street you would think the law has raided a crack house or something. LOL Another upside there’s been a lot less traffic on my street after dark. 🤔
Jessica Walliser says
That’s so interesting! Keep us posted on its continued effectiveness.
Dave rickabaugh says
I ve used plastic grocery bags tied to my 4 ft fence around garden for several years.I think the smell keeps them away.I also tie them to my fruit trees.works also.
I buy the battery-powered, motion activated ghosts/goblins on clearance after Halloween and hang them in my blueberry patch. I get the ones that shake/scream/moan and move them around every two weeks during growing season. I have zero deer problems now.
Jessica Walliser says
What a clever idea!
Deer are very stoic in their attitudes toward my Dutch Sheppard
He is on a long line and the deer have noticed it only goes so far
Outside of that radius anything is fair game for grazing
Installing a fence this year
Maybe a roaming Dutch Shepperd will be a bigger deterrent