Deter these doe-eyed diners from your garden buffet.
By Teri Dunn, Gloucester, Massachusetts
When my friends left behind their tiny urban abode in Queens for a spacious lot in upstate New York, doing battle with deer wasn't a thought. In fact, they were ecstatic the first time they saw the "beautiful creatures" meandering through their new backyard.
But those of you who garden in deer country know exctly what happened to their grand gardening dreams. It's enough to make you throw up your hands and exclaim, "Oh, deer!"
Deer Facts and Myths
As with other wildlife, development has reduced deer's natural habitat. Combine that with a lack of predators and a banquet of tasty, nourishing garden plants, and modern-day deer not only survive—they thrive.
The most important thing to understand about fighting deer is that it's easier to prevent damage than to react to it. So it behooves you to know your enemy. Here is a quick true-or-false quiz.
Deer form roving groups that move where the food is. False. Deer are creatures of habit—they establish feeding patterns and return to the same spot, even when it ceases to offer enough sustenance.
Deer are forest creatures. False. Actually, ideal deer habitat is at the edge of the forest; the forest trees merely offer cover and a place to sleep. For food, deer venture out into fields, farms, orchards...and our yards and gardens.
Deer bother gardens less in the summer months because they're busy giving birth and raising young. True. Often, you'll get a summer respite. Deer especially like to visit gardens in spring because wild food tends to be scarcer, and gardens provide new, young growth, whether it's budding shrubs, young plants or tasty tulips.
There are certain plants deer will never eat. False. If they're hungry and desperate enough, particularly in the winter, deer will eat anything—even prickly evergreen bushes, raspberry stems and coarse rhododendrons. That said, they do have certain dislikes like: Agave, ajuga, aloe, bee balm, black locust, boxwood, butterfly bush, clematis, columbine, daffodil, ferns, foxglove, hellebore, holly, iris, lavender, lilac, marigold, mint, pine, rock rose, rosemary, Russian sage, smokebush, spruce, vinca, wax myrtle, yarrow, yucca and zinnia.
Home Remedies: What Works
If your deer problem isn't severe, some of these low-tech deterrents may be worth a try. None is expensive or time-consuming. But for the smelly and bad-tasting ones, remember: A good rainstorm tends to rinse them away, so you may have to reapply.
Human hair Any hair salon should oblige you with bags of its sweepings. Stuff the hair into mesh bags or discarded panty hose, and hang throughout the yard, on or near the deer's favorite plants.
Soap Some say Irish Spring, others Lava. Just pick a soap with a very strong scent. Loop twine or string around the middle, and hang bars at intervals in the yard like eccentric Christmas ornaments.
Pepper spray Deer are said to dislike hot and spicy flavors. Coat entire plants or leaves in reach. Spray on a dry, windless day and take care not to get any in your eyes.
Radio A battery-operated radio (sealed in a plastic bag if the weather is damp) tuned to a talk station or loud rock music may fool deer into thinking you're in the yard.
Lights Choose either motion-activated or constantly blinking, and place as close to the garden area as possible. When deer come under cover of darkness, this will spook them.
Water Seek out a battery-operated gadget called Water De-Fence; it attaches to a standard garden hose, senses motion up to 35 feet away and fires off a blast of water.
Resort to commercial products only after you've tried homegrown methods. It's not that these are especially expensive or toxic to the environment; it's just that they are heavier artillery. A great deal of research has gone into developing these repellents. Be sure to read the label directions for safety's sake, as well as maximum effectiveness. Properly timed applications are key. Active ingredients (such as putrescent egg solids, ammonia, garlic or hot pepper) tend to repel by taste and odor.
Fence Them Out
If you've exhausted the aforementioned options and the deer damage hasn't been reduced to a tolerable level, a barrier is your last resort. In fact, a "deer fence" is widely acknowledged to be the only thing that truly keeps them out of your yard and garden. If you're looking into this option, be sure to do your homework so you install something effective.
A deer fence is not just a mere wooden or metal fence. While it may be made of such material, it must be substantial, sturdy and reinforced. it must also have two other characteristics.
One is height. Deer are great leapers, and when motivated, can clear barriers of 6 or more feet high. Something as high as 10 to 12 feet tall is often warranted. For smaller flower beds, shorter fencing can be effective. In this case, a 5-foot fence will keep the deer out.
Strong wire is also a must. Deer hooves can kick in, bend or make holes in lesser wire. You'll want to get advice from other landowners in your area, as well as your contractor, before making important decisions about material.