Pest Control Library: Deer

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By National Gardening Association Editors

Deer have become a major pest of gardens throughout North America, from rural farms to urban parks. People and deer share habitat like never before. How can we keep our garden plants intact, yet live in peace with our hooved neighbors?

Although they tend to keep to forest edges and fields grazing on grasses and leaves, they become more daring when food is scarce, venturing into suburban yards. Deer graze and browse leaves, stems, and buds of many woody plants, as well as alfalfa, roses, corn, vegetables, and fruits. Their damage is evident because they leave jagged leaf edges on the eaten plants, not to mention distinctive cloven hoof prints and bean-shaped droppings.

When trying to foil any pest or nuisance animal, learn about its habits, likes, and dislikes. It's no surprise why deer have become a problem. There are fewer predators than years ago, and many gardeners have moved out into country areas where deer have long roamed freely.

Deer in rural areas are often more timid of human presence and activity than those in suburban areas, so different control methods may be effective. Your county agricultural extension service or local wildlife management office can give you the most accurate information about deer activity in your area.

Assess your site. If your landscape is large, with many prized and widely spaced plantings, your choice of deterrents may differ from those of a gardener with only one or two areas susceptible to damage. A repellent that must be reapplied frequently may be more cost-effective for large landscapes, whereas a couple of small barrier fences could work fine for an area with small gardens or just a few fruit trees.

Vary your use of control options. When using repellent products and/or tools designed to scare wildlife, don't use any one method for too long, or the deer may catch on to your game. Mixing things up can keep them guessing for a longer while.

Controlling Deer in your Garden

Although deer will eat anything if hungry enough, given a choice they tend to stay away from succulent plants, poisonous plants, pungent flavored plants, and plants with hairy or furry leaves. Plant ornamentals with these qualities in areas of heavy deer traffic. 

There are four basic ways to prevent deer from damaging your garden:

  1. Repellents. There are quite a few products with flavors and odors offensive to deer that gardeners can spray on plants or spread on the soil. Some (fermented egg yolks) offend deer's sense of smell; others (predator urines) frighten them. More of these products are licensed for use on ornamental plants than on food plants; follow directions for application. Home remedies abound, as well, including cayenne, hot-pepper sauce, talcum powder, blood meal, dog hair, and deodorant soap.
  2. Scare tactics. You can spend hundreds of dollars on ultrasonic noisemakers, motion-sensitive light systems, and water cannons to drive deer away, or a few cents on aluminum pie tins that flash in the sun. Radios cranked up to all-night talk shows or loud music can work, but check with the neighbors first. A barking dog (real or recorded) behind an invisible fence can persuade deer to stay away, too.
  3. Barriers.
    -Permanent boundary fencing requires many tools: the fencing, fence posts, post-hole digger, and a strong crew to put it together. You may also need a permit to erect a fence in your community. Plastic screen netting is cheaper and easier to install.
    -An electric fence is a good choice for garden beds. Bait the fence with peanut butter, and when the deer come in for their snack, they'll learn that your gardens are to be avoided. To avoid injuries, alert neighborhood children and owners of small pets about your electric fence. 
    -Caging tree saplings and young shrubs is a good option where you have just a few to protect. Once trees are older, they'll be more resistant to browsing deer.
    -Fabric row covers supported with hoops can protect vegetable beds. "Invisible" mesh netting can be erected over ornamentals to allow viewing but not chewing.
    -A single strand of monofilament fish line strung across a deer path creates an invisible force that can confuse the creatures enough to detour them around your garden.
  4. Plant choices. Food preferences of deer vary based on population pressures and available choices. Here is where information about local herds comes in handy. There is probably a list of plants that deer shun in your area. In general, deer tend to pass on ferns and ornamental grasses, plants with fuzzy foliage, and plants that taste of lemon, mint, or sage, and those that are bitter and pungent (hot and spicy).

Additional Tips

Plant wisely; fertilize judiciously. Choose plants best suited for your site. Stressed plants are more likely to be browsed. If you fertilize regularly for a lush look, you may attract deer and other pests to your garden, because excess nitrogen in plant tissues makes foliage more appetizing.

Use more than one method to protect your most valuable plants, and alter your strategy frequently to keep deer guessing.

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This article is a part of our Pest Control Library.
This article is a part of our Pest Control Library.
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