Deer can cause a lot of destruction in a home garden. Can we really keep them out or stop them from eating our plants? Let’s look at popular recommendations for deterring deer and find out which tips might help.
Slugs and snails are another destructive pest in the garden. Learn tips for stopping slugs and snails in organic gardens here.
Keeping Deer Out of Your Garden
If you have deer frequenting your garden, you know how frustrating it can be. Just one or two deer dropping by overnight is all it takes to wipe out your hostas, strawberries, or tulips. Or strip all the bark off tree trunks—as far up as they can reach on their tippy toes.
While deer have been called “North America’s largest garden pest,” our gardening friends in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand also have to deal with them.
There are different species in different regions but one thing we all agree on: deer do not abide by deer-deterring tips.
- Fences may work for a while, but, unless, designed just right, some smarty pants deer will make the first jump and her friends follow suit.
- Plants deemed repulsive to deer quickly rise to the top of the menu when other food sources are scarce.
- A blast from the motion-detector sprinkler is suddenly not so scary on a hot, humid summer evening. I had one friend tell me her deer would use the sprinkler as a massager!
Realistically, unless you’ve got the resources to build a mega deer fence completely enclosing your garden, protecting your plants from deer will be, at best, managed, not cured.
Over time, deer grow accustomed to deterrents and, to stay a half step ahead, you’ll need to keep changing things up.
Have a look at the suggestions and see what you might try in your garden.
Make Safe Choices
While researching this article we found numerous reports of deer and other wildlife getting caught in fish netting, fishing line, soccer nets, hockey nets, and caught in wrought iron fences, causing suffering or death. Do
While a tall, solid wood fence or electric fence are the most likely means to keep deer out long-term, these are not realistic options for many of us.
Depending on your location, the right type of fence—at the right height—may not even be permitted or within your budget. Or, you’ve moved to a rural location for the very reason that you don’t want to be boxed in by fencing.
Gardeners with resident deer populations recommend a solid (not see-through) fence at least 8-feet tall, although 12-feet is considered to be truly deer-proof. They are highly-skilled jumpers! Look up the jumping capabilities of your local deer species to see what they are capable of.
Solid fence is recommended because deer tend to avoid jumping toward something they cannot see.
Electric fence is another suggestion. You’d need to check if it’s legal, seems ethical to you, and might work in your situation.
There are also various examples of strong fishing line used to cordon off garden beds. T-bars are secured in the ground and the lines are spaced about 6-inches apart, presumably higher than the deer will jump, forming a pen around the flower bed (or whatever). Gardeners report it seems to confuse the deer. Unfortunately, there are also so many reports of entanglements and harm that it does not seem like a safe recommendation.
With safer fence options it is also frustrating to note that you could go to all this expense and trouble only to have the deer outsmart you.
Also, deer don’t just jump over fence—they can also wriggle underneath fencing. When installing deer fence, it should include underground barricades to stop ground-level breaches.
The unfortunate part is, fences don’t just restrict the animals you don’t want in your garden. They can also block natural wildlife corridors, restricting much-needed access to food and habitat for a variety of living creatures. This poses quite a conundrum when you want to contribute to local ecosystems while trying to keep deer away.
A workaround is to install small passageways at the base of fences to allow smaller animals access. Think of it like adding little train tunnels made of pipe connecting one yard to another.
In addition to fences, it is also suggested to make the terrain near the fence impossible to navigate.
By adding piles of uneven rocks, deer will have trouble getting their footing and not have enough runway to allow leaping.
Again, it’s expensive, but something to consider if your budget and space allows it.
If you aren’t allowed super tall fencing, two mid-size fences running parallel with space in between can also inhibit the ability to jump. This is something to research if you think it might work with your setup.
Barriers Around Plants
If you can’t restrict entry to the yard, there are instances where hardware cloth, or tree guards can at least divert deer from eating particular plants. Avoid anything that the animal can get tangled or trapped in like netting.
There may also be the option to build cages or enclosures around vegetable gardens. If you do, be sure to enclose the sides and top, otherwise the deer will hop right in.
Grow Plants Deer Do Not Like
The internet is overflowing with lists of plants deer don’t like (“deer-resistant plants”). These often mention plants with unpleasant tastes, smells, and textures. Deer are thought to dislike anything tough, leathery, or prickly. Or leaves that are fuzzy, hairy, or strongly-scented.
But there’s no firm scientific basis for much of this.
These plant lists are often compiled from personal anecdotes, staff at plant nurseries, and landscapers.
In the US, they might comes from people at a local extension office or from the master gardener program.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) list in the UK is based on a public survey1.
So these are primarily aggregations of anecdotal reports.
It’s better than nothing, but it’s not like there’s been any rigorous tests in most cases.
And we know deer behaviors differ depending on circumstances.
Here in eastern North America, our white-tailed deer are known for eating hostas and rhododendrons. Yet, if you consult a list of deer-resistant plants in the UK2, they recommend those same plants as undesirable to deer.
Ultimately, a very hungry or starving deer—like most mammals—will eat just about anything to survive. Even if it’s yucky tasting, thorny, or potentially poisonous.
Plant List Contradictions
Plant lists for deer-resistant plants in North America also have contradictions.
For example, Rutgers University and the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) are about an hour’s drive apart and both have white-tailed deer populations. Yet each of their lists includes plants that the other does not. They is some overlap but there are also differences.
Rutgers3 ranks hardy geraniums as one of the worst, noting it’s “frequently severely damaged” by deer, while that same plant is on the NYBG deer-resistant list4.
Keep this in mind for your own garden. Your local deer may not follow the lists. They just do what they need to do to survive.
Your best resource may be your neighbor’s garden. If deer prefer your garden plants over theirs, figure out the difference and see what changes you can make.
Repellents & Deterrents
Some gardeners try to deter deer with surprises—unexpected sights, smells, objects, or sounds.
While you might improve your deer-repelling odds with some of these, their effectiveness is likely limited. Or, they’ll require ongoing maintenance—which may be your best bet if you do get results.
Using water sprinklers on timers with motion sensors is one tactic. Activated at night, the first few visits, the deer will likely flee. But, as mentioned, in my friend’s garden they not only got accustomed to the water but began using the spray as a back massager and drinking fountain.
You will also see gardeners swearing by strong-scented soap as a deterrent. They claim: Hang up bars of Irish Spring soap and the deer will hold their noses and go elsewhere! But are you really going to hang soap up throughout your yard? It might help for a short time, but, if the food source is too good to pass over, they’ll learn to put up with the odor.
Commercial repellents combine various ingredients deer may not like.
These may include:
- putrescent whole egg solids (rotten eggs)
- peppermint oil
- garlic oil
- white pepper
- thyme oil
or some form of sulphate (including sulphur). All things we know can give quite a blast to our noses.
There are also products using bobcat or coyote urine or blood meal—presumably to signal to the deer that predators are nearby.
Some of these products are sold as sprays you apply to your plants. They often include some kind of sticking agent like an oil to keep them in place. They all require ongoing applications as they wear off with rain or time. Testing suggests if you get a 50-percent reduction in deer damage, you’re doing great.
Motion-sensor lights are also suggested. But, given how light pollution poses threats to the survival and well-being of various wildlife, it doesn’t seem worth it to temporarily dissuade deer.
There are no simple, inexpensive, or guaranteed ways to keep deer out of a garden or prevent them from eating plants.
- Solid, 12-foot fences and electric fences are most effective long-term for the largest deer species. However, solid fencing also blocks other wildlife from accessing food and habitat which is a big drawback in ecological gardening. Electric fence may not be legal, safe, or practical.
- Caging or barricading certain plants or garden beds may be a more affordable option.
- Unexpected water sprays, noises, or scents may temporarily deter deer.
- Deer-repelling products sprayed on plants may slow or stop deer from eating plants temporarily. Ongoing application is required.
Ultimately, deer adapt to most scare tactics and hungry deer will do whatever they can to survive.
United States & Canada | Deer populations are usually dominated by white-tailed deer in the east and mule deer in the west, and then quite a range in between where you can find either. The two species are closely related and can even mate with each other, although that only happens rarely. They generally stick to their own areas.
United Kingdom | Deer populations include red deer, roe deer, fallow deer, and others.
Australia & New Zealand | There are no native deer in Australia or New Zealand. Deer were introduced primarily from the UK starting in the 1800s. There is now quite a concern about the spread of wild deer in Australia.
- 1. Deer-resistant plants | RHS (UK)
- 2. Deer in Gardens | British Deer Society
- 3. Landscape Plants Rated By Deer-resistance | Rutgers
- 4. Deer-resistant plants | New York Botanical Gardens
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
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