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Oh Deer: Tactics and Strategies for Protecting Your Garden: Home

deer amidst garden plants; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/James Lee
Oh deer!; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/James Lee

The Problem:  Deer and their Feeding Habits

In the past century, the nationwide population of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) has skyrocketed from half a million to 15 million. With this enormous rise, it is not surprising that homeowners are experiencing an increase in the amount of devastation in their gardens. Not only has there been a tremendous increase in population but development of suburban and rural areas has reduced their natural territories and deer are being forced into suburbia for their supper.

The amount of deer damage in your garden depends on several factors: size of the local population, size of its territory, other available food sources and time of year. Deer tend to eat annuals and herbaceous perennials in the spring and summer and woody plants (trees and shrubs) in the winter.

Deer are creatures of habit; they have preferred pathways that they ritually follow as they roam through their territory. Their past foraging experience will influence which areas get hit hardest. While understanding their habitual ways may cause some of us to rejoice in our battle against deer, the celebration is often short-lived. What a deer eats depends in large part on its nutritional needs, past experiences and available food sources. What one deer may ignore, another may devour.

Listed below are tips to help you combat the problem in your garden. Experiment with a number of them to see what works.

The Solution:  Different strategies for protecting your garden

The three main lines of defense:

Fences

Deer fences need to be 8 to 10 feet high to be effective. Many are made of lightweight, black plastic and are fairly unobtrusive if camouflaged at the edge of your garden. If the deer enter through your driveway, you will need to either install a gate or a cattle guard. If you have the space, an effective deer fence is the slanted fence that is set up at a 45 degree angle. It should be 4 feet wide and 6 feet tall. A double fence (two fences 4 feet tall separated by a space of 4 feet) also works well.  Many people in deer country are opting for electrical fences. If a fence surrounding your property is not an option, plastic netting and wire cages can be used on individual plants in the garden. Smaller sections of your garden can also be fenced off. There are many good companies that specialize in deer fencing that can be found on the Internet.

The Warnell School of Forestry at the University of Georgia has run trials on the three strand Gallagher® fence and found it quite effective even among dense deer populations. It is installed in two layers but involves only three, electrified strands and keeps a relatively low profile in the yard. Information on this study can be found by following the Warnell link on this page.

Repellents

Repellents fall into two categories: those that repel by taste and those that repel by odor. The repellents with a disagreeable odor tend to be more effective in controlling damage than those that repel by taste. They come in an exotic array of odors - sewage, putrid eggs and garlic to name a few. For your more fragrant plants, try repellents made with essential oils such as peppermint or rosemary. Repellents are effective if used in a small area or sprayed on individual plants. Most repellents last for three to five weeks. Apply repellents when the temperature is between 40 and 80 degrees Farenheit. Make sure that you have dry weather when you apply the repellent and 48 hours without rain. Alternate repellents so that deer do not get habituated to the scent.

While there are plenty of repellents on the market, a few home remedies also work. A strong scented soap, such as Irish Spring (still in its wrapper), tied on a rope can be dangled on a tree or staked 30 inches above ground. Use one bar every ten feet. If you live near a hair salon, collect a handful of human hair and place it in a mesh bag or in an old pair of panty hose. Position it in the same way as the soap. The problem that most people find with these home remedies is that deer are becoming so sophisticated that they often are seen eating the soap and other devices.

Landscaping with Deer-Resistant Plants

For gardeners, probably the most appealing option in the battle against deer is to start experimenting with deer-resistant plants. Some plants are ignored by deer, others less preferred - with the caveat that if deer are hungry, they will eat just about anything. Deer tend to have regional preferences, so be careful when you are referring to lists compiled outside of your region. Lists of deer-resistant plants are a good starting point and offer a wide variety of interesting options for the home gardener. Our guide to Deer-resistant plants can be found here.

Achillea 'Coronation Gold' is a deer resistant plant; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Achillea 'Coronation Gold' is a deer resistant plant; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Anti-deer tactics to try at home

  • Get to know the habits of your local population.
  • Plant susceptible plants closest to your home.
  • Surround plants that are preferred by deer with deer-resistant plants - you may get away with hiding your "deer candy" among less desirable snacks.
  • Plant a diverse garden. If the deer graze on just a few varieties, you will still have something left to look at.
  • Fertilized plants tend to be more susceptible to deer damage than unfertilized plants, as they contain more tender new growth.
  • Young plants also tend to be more susceptible than older plants. Cover young plants with a wire cage until they begin to reach maturity.
  • Spray new plantings with an odor based repellent so that deer develop a negative association with the area and not view the plant as food.
  • Place plants densely within a low fenced garden. Deer's eye structure and placement give them excellent perception of movement at a distance, but poor depth perception. They will be less likely to jump even a low fence if a clear landing area is not visible.
  • Surround vulnerable shrubs with a mesh fence in the winter time.
  • Use your yard. A well lived-in, noisy area will be less prone to deer damage.

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