Gardening With (And Without) Deer


Gardening With (And Without) Deer

Standing at the kitchen sink, up to your elbows in dish suds, you gaze out over your garden, lost in happy thoughts of luscious tomatoes, fragrant roses, spicy basil, and colorful tulips. Then you spot them. Four deer, gliding out of the woods toward your garden. Suddenly, your image of a bountiful garden is reduced to nothing but nibbled stalks and a bed punctuated by sharp hooves.

These graceful marauders are an increasing nuisance as suburban sprawl encroaches on their natural habitat. While beautiful to behold from a distance, deer can turn into monstrous pests in your garden or orchard. Is there a way to coexist with them peacefully without sacrificing your garden? Yes, there is hope!

The first thing to keep in mind is that each region may be different, so what works well in other places may not work for you and vice versa. That’s why it is important to start by talking with other gardeners in your area and see what has and has not been effective for them.

Nicole Lemieux and Brian Maynard of the Sustainable Landscapes Program in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, suggest gardeners consider the following questions that will help identify the best deer control strategies for their needs:

  • How much damage is the deer inflicting on your garden?
  • How much damage can you tolerate?
  • How much money are you willing to spend on controls?
  • Are aesthetics very important to you or are you willing to try anything to preserve your garden?
  • What are your short-term and long-term goals? For example, do you want to protect only your asparagus crop or tulip bulbs, or do you want to keep deer out of your yard entirely? Your answers to these questions will prepare you to decide on a suitable plan of attack.
Barberry Beebalm Boxwood
Butterfly weed Columbine Daffodils
False spirea Ferns Foxglove
Juniper Lantana Lavender
Mints Oleander Pine
Rosemary Spruce
If you’ve seen the deer in your yard leave other plants unmauled, come share your experience with other organic gardeners.


The next step is to thoroughly analyze your site. What sort of damage do you have? What plants are being eaten? Where do the deer come from and when do they show up? Remember, each herd is unique in its browsing habits.

Devise a strategy

The solution, note Lemieux and Maynard, may be as simple as relocating particularly choice plants to a central location and then using a variety of tactics to protect them. Or maybe you want to plant substitutions that are less attractive to the deer.

The truth is, the most reliable way to keep deer out of your garden is an 8 to 10 feet tall fence. Deer are remarkable jumpers and will usually clear anything lower with relative ease. Your fence can be constructed from any of a variety of materials including chain link, electrical wire or tape, and plastic mesh.

While deer are good at clearing high obstacles they are reluctant to try jumping wide obstacles. That’s why they won’t even attempt to jump a slanted wire fence—at least 36 inches tall on the outside and slopes inward to a width of 69 inches—will prove too daunting a barrier. [To find a dealer near you that sells this type of fencing, contact Gallagher Power Fence, Inc., (800) 531-5908, or go to]

Of course, fencing is expensive and usually not appealing for an ornamental garden. If you find fencing to be either financially or aesthetically impractical, you can buy commercially made deer repellents or try one or several of the following alternatives.

You might try spraying your plants with a foul-smelling and tasting repellent. You can make such a spray at home using this formula, recommended by The Experts Book of Garden Hints. In a blender, combine 2 or 3 eggs and 1 quart of water. Then pour the mixture into a container with enough additional water to make 1 gallon. Sprayed on plants, the eggs in the solution turn rotten and give off an aroma that’s mercifully subtle to humans but repulsive enough to deer to make them look elsewhere for a meal.

Soap ornaments are not exactly attractive, but studies have consistently shown that soap repels deer, according to The Experts Book of Garden Hints. In fact, bars of soap hung on tree branches proved more effective than many commercial chemical repellents. You don’t even have to unwrap the soap: Field studies in New England apple orchards showed that soap bars hung with their wrappers intact provide better protection from deer than the soap or the wrappers alone.

Since deer do not like the smell of humans, you can try gathering human hair (the local barbershop is a good source) and hanging it in mesh bags from your trees or from stakes around your garden. Some gardeners find this is enough to keep deer at a safe distance.

The effectiveness of any deterrent comes down to how hungry the deer are, notes Dean Pettis, a horticulture specialist at the University of Minnesota and a Master Gardener. He suggests that you experiment with a variety of repellents to determine what works with the herd coming to your garden.

After Pettis tried numerous repellents in his own garden to no avail, he resorted to the most…um…primitive method of protecting his plants. He went out one night and marked his territory the old-fashioned way. This tactic did work for Pettis, but he admits that this may cause other problems for gardeners who live in close proximity to their neighbors. But maybe if a whole neighborhood did this together, there’s no telling how the deer would react…

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