Protect your plants from unwanted foragers using methods that really work.
There’s nothing worse than finding your carefully tended garden browsed to within an inch of its life. Nibbled tulips, snipped peas, even trimmed turnips: deer will sample almost any flowers and vegetables, leaving behind a trampled mess of foliage and roots. But there are ways to keep them from feasting on your plants. A combination of prevention, distraction, and outright stealth can help you avoid deer damage for the long term.
What does deer damage look like?
Before you invest too much energy into deer-proofing your garden, be sure you are targeting the right culprit. Slugs, rabbits, and a whole host of other garden pests can leave behind a trail of devastation. The methods for tackling those intruders are often different than controls used for deer.
Here are some telltale signs a deer has been in your garden:
- Plants are clipped off unevenly, with ragged or shredded edges
- Nearby foliage has been trampled or flattened
- There is no silvery slime (a telltale sign of slugs)
- The damage isn’t confined to within a foot from the ground.
- Any droppings left behind are about oval-shaped with a diameter of 0.8 to 1.2 inches.
Keeping deer out
If you’re certain that deer are the cause of your woes, it’s time to find a solution. Deer proofing methods fall into the following categories:
- Barriers: Anything that physically stops deer from entering your garden is your first line of defence. Fences, ditches, rocky berms or swales, cattle guards and other obstructions all have their place, depending on your situation. The key is building them with deer in mind.
- Repellents: Gardeners apply repellents to stop deer from eating specific plants in the garden. Many of these products use scents to ward off deer. Ammonia is a common ingredient that mimics the smell of predator’s urine. Other repellents temporarily taint the taste of your crop, so deer never get beyond the first nibble.
- Scare tactics: Some controls scare deer away from your garden using sound and movement. Deer are highly attuned to their environment, ready to bolt at the smallest sign of a threat. Since you can’t stand in your garden clapping all night long, motion and sound systems do the job for you.
Which deer proofing methods are best?
After forty years of backyard gardening, we’ve tried just about everything that claims to stop deer in their tracks. Some of these methods work, but only under perfect conditions. Others work under a broad range of conditions, but cost more from the outset. So which one is best?
The following five methods are the most cost effective against deer when used correctly and in combination.
1. Deer fencing
A strong perimeter fence is your number one defense against deer. While it’s likely to cost the most out of all the options listed below, you can weigh the overall expense by considering how many years you’ll be using your garden. Most fences pay for themselves over time. If you’re a tenant on rented land, a fence may not be your best option. If you own your land, a well-built fence adds value to your property and landscaping.
Things to know about deer fencing:
- Make sure your fence is tall enough. Deer can jump eight feet high. This may feel like you’re living in a compound, but there are ways to reduce the visual impact. Using a decorative fence up to five or six feet, and then ‘invisible fencing’ or black mesh the rest of the way is one option. Just be sure to tie flagging to the invisible portion of your fence until deer get used to it. This will also help stop birds from becoming entangled.
- When you can’t go tall, go solid. In some locations, ordinances prevent fencing from exceeding five or six feet. Luckily, deer are less likely to jump a solid fence even if it’s well within their range, because they fear what may be on the other side. Use solid fence panels in areas where height restrictions are in place. Ask also about less visible fence extenders.
- Be sure it’s sturdy. More than one gardener has installed a temporary fence of T-posts and plastic mesh, only to have a large buck knock it down without a second thought. Fences are only worth the effort if they truly keep deer out. In most cases, that means installing sturdy 4’ x 4’ posts and wire mesh or solid fence panels.
- Consider electric. Not everyone has the property or the budget to install a full wooden fence. Where your municipality allows, electric fencing can be an effective deterrent. Just be sure your fence is tall enough and is not placed in an area where children might encounter it. Electric wire fencing installed correctly and pulled taut is better than moveable electric mesh—which can entangle wildlife.
2. Deer resistant plants
While deer are known for their healthy appetites, they don’t eat everything. Fuzzy, furry, or prickly foliage isn’t a favorite. Neither are plants with a strong scent or flavor. If you can’t fence in your garden, consider growing vegetables and flowers that deer avoid. Plant a border of these plants around your garden, or try interplanting with tastier crops.
The following deer resistant recommendations are good bets for most locations. Just remember that damage from deer depends on many things. This includes the time of year, the abundance of available food, your local deer population, and the weather. The age of your plants is also important. Tender shoots are more attractive to deer and can sustain less damage.
Potatoes (leaves occasionally eaten)
For more information, see this extensive list of plants that deer avoid or rarely damage.
3. Spray-on deer repellents
If someone sprayed rotten egg and sulphur on your salad, would you want to eat it? That’s the rationale behind deer repellents, which combine scent and taste to send deer in the opposite direction. When used properly, deer repellents can be very effective at protecting specific plants. The challenge is remembering to apply them frequently and regularly (every one to three weeks, depending on the brand and the weather).
Repellents are not meant to be used as a general barrier to your yard. Choose specific plants and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to coat the leaves. Reapply regularly and alternate between brands for best results.
To make your own DIY deer repellent, try this proven recipe from the University of Minnesota Extension. As noted in the recipe’s description, adding ingredients other than raw eggs and water may mask the scent and make the spray less effective.
4. Motion activated sprinklers
Sensors that switch on outdoor lights as you’re groping around in the dark are a lifesaver for people. Sadly, they don’t stop deer from coming into your yard. What does work are motion-activated sprinklers.
These little wonders are mounted onto spikes that you can drive into your lawn at intervals. When the sensors detect motion, they’ll send a jet of water 35 to 100 feet in its direction. Not surprisingly, this startles most animals into running away.
Today’s models have varying ranges. Some are even solar powered, so your garden stays protected even if the power grid goes down. Just keep in mind you’ll need to install enough to cover your entire garden, or deer may map out an alternate route to your crops.
5. Other scare tactics
Scaring deer away is effective, if not always easy, in rural areas where deer are more skittish and people-shy. Using noise and motion can stop deer from establishing routine grazing habits on your property, but like repellents above, these must be consistent. They are most effective when used in the short term or in combination with other methods.
- Guard dogs: In addition to deterring deer through scent, an active dog in the yard will also repel deer by sight and sound. While certain breeds are more suited to guarding, any dog that barks, runs, and urinates will have some effect. The important thing to consider is how your neighbours will feel about a dog barking outdoors at twilight or dawn—when much of the deer damage happens.
- Flagging/shiny strips: Adding shiny strips of flagging tape to fences and string lines around raised garden beds can protect a small area in the short term. Over the long term, deer will get used to the look and movement of these kind of deterrents. It’s also worth considering that most of these items end up in the trash within one or two growing seasons.
- Audio: Noise from a radio blaring can keep deer away temporarily. However, over time deer will get used to the sound no matter how loud. Blasting songs or conversation is less practical at night, when you and your neighbours are trying to sleep.
Deer proofing myths and questions
Does hanging human hair in your garden repel deer?
In some cases this does work—for about three weeks until the hair has lost its human scent. Until that time, deer in wild areas may be wary of coming too near. In other locations, deer will be used to human scents and no amount of hair will keep them away.
What about bars of soap? Do those stop deer from coming into the garden?
While bars of strongly perfumed soap hanging in the garden have been known to keep deer away, this is only effective within a small radius. At best, tallow-based soaps offer a small circle of protection, while deer continue to browse on plants nearby. At worst, coconut-based soaps have been known to attract deer into the garden, where they’ll find a smorgasbord of other delights to go along with their soap.
Can you use a fishing line to keep deer out?
Fishing line is meant for one thing: to catch fish. Tying it at intervals around your property to deter deer can entangle birds, strangle wildlife, and leave plastic waste in your soil when it inevitably falls apart.
How do farmers keep deer out?
What do the professionals do? They put up a fence, employ guard dogs, and regularly patrol their crop’s perimeter to make sure nothing has breached their highly effective fortress.
Humane pest control
Keeping deer out of the garden is important when you’ve worked so hard, but causing harm and suffering isn’t the goal. In some cases, the methods we use to protect our crops can have unintended consequences. Follow these tips to minimize harm to wildlife and people.
- Avoid using plastic mesh fencing and netting unless cinched tightly to a frame. Fold, tie, and stow away anything that might ensnare birds and wildlife when not in use.
- Don’t use DIY ingredients that will harm your garden ecosystem. This includes toxins, poisons, and anything that might bioaccumulate.
- Repair broken fencing that can otherwise harm or entrap.
Taking care of your deer-proof garden means it will serve you well over the long term. And who knows? With the time you save after pest proofing, you might want to plant an extra row for wildlife–outside the fence.