Don't Feed The Deer

from Garden Shed
Learn how to build garden border “fences” to keep deer from eating your entire garden, or plant a garden with our list of plants deer detest.

When you look around your yard, you may see trees, shrubs, colorful flowers, a verdant lawn, and perhaps a tidy patch of veggies. To foraging deer, however, the view must look like a giant complimentary salad bar that never closes. The animals eagerly belly up to a bottomless bowl of leafy hosta, daylilies, and azaleas, layered with a smattering of savory yew and arborvitae, topped off with a colorful garnish of tulips and roses. The visitors clean their plates and, without so much as a thank-you, move on to a neighbor’s yard. If the meal you provided was satisfactory, deer express their gratitude by becoming repeat customers.

As suburban developments continue to expand into formerly rural areas, humans are crossing paths with deer more than ever. The result is a horticultural battle, pitting residential gardeners against hungry, displaced deer that face ever-shrinking territories and fewer predators to keep their populations in check. Homeowners who feed deer often make the problem worse for themselves and their neighbors by attracting more deer than can be fed and by reducing the animals’ fear of humans. Summer droughts lead to scarce natural forage and invariably make late summer and fall particularly trying times for deer-plagued gardeners.

Just as gardeners develop xeriscape gardens to deal with desert conditions and plant shade gardens to accommodate low light, you can create a deer-resistant garden filled with plants that cause deer to turn up their noses. When planning your garden, look for plants with pungent odors and use them particularly around the perimeter, where they create a scent barrier. Deer rely on smell to determine what is safe to eat. A wide variety of strong (not sweet) odors confuses them, and they tend to leave the area in search of more palatable food. Deer generally refuse many herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and tarragon, as well as boxwoods and wax myrtles, which emit strong odors and perhaps indicate to curious deer that they might be poisonous.

Deer are smart enough to avoid poisonous plants such as oleander, daffodils, and bleeding heart, but they tolerate — and even relish — other plants that are toxic to humans, such as rhododendrons. Cacti, yucca, and other spiny plants might also survive browsing, but deer are capable of delicately plucking the fruit from thorny raspberry and blackberry bushes. Deer often munch the buds and flowers of roses but leave the stiff, thorny canes to produce more blooms for another midnight snack a few weeks later.

It’s difficult to create a truly deerproof garden because it’s tough to account for particularly harsh conditions and the peculiar tastes of individual deer. By following our suggestions, however, you can create a garden that sends deer in search of another salad bar.

Deer Deterrents
There are probably as many methods for keeping deer out of gardens as there are hungry deer in the woods. Fill your garden with deer-resistant plants and, for good measure, use one or more of the following deterrents.
  • Dogs, one of the most effective means of keeping deer at bay, don’t need to be large and aggressive. Even a small terrier with a good bark will do the trick. Just the smell of a dog in the area might scare deer away. Weather permitting, dogs need to be outside at night, which means you need to invest in fencing and a shelter. You also need to be considerate of sleeping neighbors.
  • Electronic fencing, one of the newer forms of deer deterrents, typically looks like a series of electronic tiki torches. Placed around your garden, each unit holds a small reservoir filled with bait that attracts deer. When the deer lick or sniff the device, they receive a harmless charge (like static electricity) delivered by two AA batteries. The slight shock reportedly trains the deer to avoid the area.
  • Mechanical fencing seems to be an obvious solution, but a fence must be at least 8 feet tall to keep out deer. The other drawback to permanent fencing is its expense, particularly around a large property. Be certain local zoning ordinances permit you to construct a tall fence. So the structure doesn’t completely block your view, look for metal fencing with pickets spaced far enough apart that they blend into the landscape. A lower fence might work if your garden doesn’t contain particularly delectable plants, or you might try temporary netting, an inexpensive alternative that is virtually invisible at a distance. Netting works best if the top edge is angled away from your garden, because deer touch it with their sensitive noses, ears, or antlers and turn away. Be certain to anchor the netting well and close all gaps. If deer get in and have a hard time getting out, they could decimate your garden.
  • Milorganite-brand organic nitrogen fertilizer produced from sewage sludge sometimes keeps deer away. If you try this product, keep in mind that it is a fertilizer, so you don’t want to apply it too frequently, particularly not in fall when plants need to discontinue growth in preparation for winter. The product contains trace amounts of heavy metals, and some people believe it may not be appropriate for use around fruits, vegetables, and herbs that humans eat.
  • Motion-sensor sprinklers, relatively cheap and effective deterrents, dowse deer with jets of water when the animals come within range. The drawback is you might need several sprinklers and a network of unattractive hoses to surround your property.
  • Organic sprays come in a number of forms. They need to be reapplied frequently, particularly after rain. Many are made from potent garlic oil or hot-pepper wax. Follow directions carefully when applying pepper sprays and be cautious if children play in your garden. Other organic sprays, made from fox, bobcat, and other predator urines, are falling out of favor because humane collection is difficult.
  • Home remedies that sometimes deter deer include perfumed soap shavings, human hair (collected from salons), and foam floral blocks soaked in ammonia. However, deer often become accustomed to the odors over time, and the deterrents may lose their effectiveness.

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