Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
June, 2005
Regional Report

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Even in a wildlife-friendly garden, you can keep some areas off limits to deer ... at least some of the time.

Go Away Deer

Ahhh, early summer mornings. I gaze out the bedroom window upon waking and see a bit of mist still on the hills, the garden sitting pretty from this high vantage point and ... wait ... what's that movement? I never catch the deer IN the garden, but their hoof prints are all over it, and the chewed tops of black-eyed Susans and coneflowers, among others, are their calling cards. These flowers are definitely high on their "preferred breakfast plant" list. One year I planted about a dozen coneflowers and never saw a single bloom.

A Fencing Strategy
A gardening friend of mine was so frustrated by deer chomping on his apple trees that he put up a 7-foot-high electric fence. The deer jumped it. He put a second fence right next to the electric fence. The deer jumped both. He installed a third, 3-foot-high fence a couple of feet away from the second one, and the deer finally gave up. They now travel next to his orchard instead of through it. Apparently deer are intimidated about jumping when they cannot tell how much distance they have to clear. The three parallel fences kept the deer from sighting a clear landing spot.

For the same reason, deer are apt to be skittish about jumping a fence over a long, narrow garden. The two long sides appear too close together for the deer to see a place to land. Installing a fence at a slant so it leans outward from the garden can also work because it makes the fence appear wider.

A 5-foot-high fence can keep deer out if you use taller posts and attach strands of wire at intervals, such as at 6 feet and 7 feet. In extreme cases, you may need to erect a second fence, say a 3-foot-high one about 3 feet outside of your other fence. Even a barrier made of fishing line attached to posts at a height of 3 to 4 feet is sometimes enough to startle a deer into changing its course. Of course this is dangerous if you have children and pets.

Since deer are creatures of habit, the sooner you can deter their foraging, the better. Tree guards that wrap around the trunks are a must in winter, and I encircle young fruit trees with fencing for the first few years so deer can't reach the branches. Covering shrubs in early spring with fabric row covers can deter feeding long enough for wild food plants to become available.

If It Smells Bad, Use It
Come summer, the best way to protect plants that can't be fenced in is to use repellents, and there are many environmentally friendly types to try. Deer Away and Deer Off use egg solids, so they're useful only on ornamentals, not food plants. Deer Out uses essential oils, smells like peppermint, and can be sprayed on edible plants. Hinder -- made from ammonium soaps of fatty acids -- also can be used on food crops. Deervik is a petroleum-based goo that you smear on strips of cardboard and hang from stakes at the periphery of your garden. It seemed to repel the deer but it attracted my dog.

For a little more trouble but a lot less money, you can make your own repellent sprays. Hot pepper sauce mixed with water and a little insecticidal soap is reportedly distasteful to deer. You can also mix up your own rotten egg concoction, if your family will allow it. I've seen recipes as strong as 2 eggs per 2 cups water and as dilute as 3 eggs per gallon of water. Cover the solution and allow it to sit for a few days before spraying plants.

People have reported success with protecting trees and shrubs from browsing deer by hanging bars of soap from the trees (Irish Spring supposedly works best) at a height of about 3 feet. Each bar protects about a 3-foot radius. Leave the wrapper on to make the soap last longer. Or hang perfumed fabric softener sheets instead of soap. The fragrance of both is apparently a turn-off for deer.

Beware, Predators
Another strategy is to make use of a deer's wariness of predators. Collect human hair from a hair salon and spread it around the periphery of your garden, or hang it in mesh bags. You also can fool deer into thinking coyotes are lurking nearby by using commercially available coyote urine. I just sprinkled the granular form around the periphery of a perennial border, so I'm keeping a close watch for hoof prints. A liquid form also is available at garden centers and from mail-order suppliers.

Perhaps because deer are creatures of habit, if you continually use the same deterrent, they'll get used to it and ignore it. So vary your methods, try different products, and combine them now and then. For example, use predator urine (which repels by scent) along with a bad-tasting, hot pepper spray.

Even a family dog can be a deterrent, although if he spends the night inside on his doggy bed, the deer will catch on pretty quick and venture into enemy territory. Those coneflowers are just too tempting. Just like leftovers on the table.

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