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Days Until First Frost

Keeping Deer Out of the Garden

Photo Courtesy Wallace River Photography

Oh Deer!  What Can the Matter Be? 

The Deer Ate My Plants!  That’s What the Matter Is!!!

By Elizabeth Spence with contributions from local gardeners

Oh, Deer indeed!  All gardeners on the North Shore have to deal with deer.  No question.

We asked gardeners here to tell us what they do to keep them away.  We collected all the information, and together with our own research and experience, we now present the results..

First, there are a few fundamentals that we have to bear in mind:

  • Deer have an amazing sense of hearing and smell (big noses and big ears);
  • Deer have poor depth perception;
  • Deer are prey animals and are therefore scaredy-cats – most of the time;
  • Deer will eat anything in a pinch;
  • Deer are not stupid
  • Note in this picture how each one is looking in a different direction, covering 360 degrees between them.
Photo Courtesy George Klass

The general consensus of people who gave us information said there were some plants that they don’t even bother growing anymore because of the deer.  The most common are:

  • Azaleas
  • Crocuses
  • Daylily
  • Hosta
  • Hydrangeas
  • Lilies 
  • Pansies
  • Most of your above-ground vegetables.
  • Rhododendrons
  • Roses
  • Sunflowers
  • Tulips 
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Let’s have a look at what methods the gardeners in our area say work or don’t work for them to keep the deer away.

1. DEER RESISTANT PLANTS

Notice the general term says deer-resistant not deer-proof.  In other words, there’s no guarantee. But our gardeners generally agree that deer tend to avoid:

Strong smelling plants

  • Alliums (onions of any sort, including chives, garlic, ornamental onions)
  • Beebalm (Monarda spp.)
  • Catmint (Nepeta spp.)
  • Dusty Miller (Senecio spp.)
  • Forget-me-not (Mysotis spp)
  • Ornamental Grasses
  • Iris
  • Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla spp.) 
  • Lung Wort (Pulmonaria spp.)
  • Marigolds (Tagetes spp.)
  • Most herbs, including lavender, basil, oregano, sage, mint, etc.
  • Peonies
  • Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
  • Salvia (Salvia spp.)
  • Wormwood (Artemesia spp.)
  • Yarrow (Achillea spp.)
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Fuzzy and prickly plants

  • Borage
  • Flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp.)
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
  • Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina)
  • Mullein (Verbascum spp.)
  • Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fragilis is one that is hardy here.)
  • Sea Holly (Eryngium planum)
  • Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum, syn. Dipsacus sylvestris)
  • Thistles (Cirsium spp.)
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Poisonous plants

  • Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spp.)
  • Daffodils
  • Daphne
  • Foxgloves (Digitalis spp.)
  • Lupins
  • Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
  • Monkshood (Aconitum spp.)
  • Poppies

2.  SCARE TACTICS

Motion-activated sprinklers.

Often have flashing lights as well.

My problem with these was that I got sprinkled  more than the deer.

They also got used to them.

Noise

    • Tie aluminum pie plates or CDs on branches or poles so they jangle and sparkle.
    • Windchimes
    • Radio
    • Use speakers to play coyotes howling (a suggestion)
    • Propane exploders (a suggestion).
    • Pinwheel

The trouble with these is that they can be quite annoying to us when they are in action, but they do work for some. Again the deer tend to get used to them.

Electronic deer repellent, deer wand or deer spike

Stakes with a scent lure located at the top.  Battery operated. Deer attracted by bait and get a shock on the nose. 

Seemingly only available from U.S. One local user reports 100% effectiveness in a small garden. 

Ultrasonic repelling devices

Often with flashing lights and loud noises.

Solar operated.   Works for some

3. REPELLENTS

Commercial Repellent Sprays:

 Bobbex and Plantskydd. Natural ingredients. Both work well in my experience as long as you alternate them every two months or so.

 Non-commercial repellents:

Vicks rubbed on posts and raised beds
Plant Daffodils everywhere
Human Urine
Tennis balls soaked in ammonia
Stuff a scare-crow with dog hair. Works for a while.
Rub smelly men's cologne on fence-posts or raised beds.
Yellow flowers - deer are not supposed to like them. They liked mine.
Coyote Urine. I tried this and it just attracted the coyotes. Placing a fake coyote in the garden works for a while.
Sprinkle human hair everywhere. This didn't work for me. The deer just munched away with the hair on their noses
Strong-smelling soap. Irish spring or Lifebuoy
Lion manure. Didn’t really work for me and scared the cats.
A scared cat.
  • Local recipes for repellent sprays:

3 eggs

1 tablespoon of cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 drops of dish soap

2 garlic cloves

Mix in a blender

Add water to fill a spray bottle.

1 egg

1cup milk

2 squirts of hot sauce

2 squirts of dish soap

2 squirts of cooking oil

Mix in a blender

Add water to make up one litre. 

1 cup vinegar

1 tablespoon of cooking oil

1 teaspoon dish soap.

 10-20 drops each of cinnamon, clove and mint essential oils.

Mix together and put in spray bottle with enough water to fill.    

Except for the last one, the common ingredient in the home-made sprays is eggs – eventually rotten eggs.  This is the foul smell that really seems to upset deer. It is also the main ingredient in the commercial sprays. Some of the commercial sprays use dried blood as well which seems to help.

You know the phase, “Wake up and smell the roses”?  Well don’t do it if you’ve just sprayed them with any of the egg or milk mixtures given here or with any of the commercial mixtures.  You’ll regret it.  The odour does disappear fairly quickly, though.  We eventually can’t smell it, but the deer still can.

A word of caution regarding the use of certain substances in these remedies. The active ingredient in hot peppers (capsaicin) and the way soaps and detergents work (surfactant) are used to kill insects, including bees, if they come in to physical contact with it.

It seems wise therefore to use sprays containing these in the evening when the bees and most of the pollinators have gone to bed.  Just keep an eye open for night pollinators like moths. 

 If you are growing food, some suggest you should avoid sprays altogether.  I don’t have enough information to comment on this.

If you use soap, it helps to put it in little bags as one of our readers does to keep the pollinators off it:  handmade gauze bag containing little lumps of soap tied to a stick.

All these are successful to a greater or lesser degree for the people who have given us the information.  But we are advised they usually do not work for ever, and we know they do not work for everyone

4. DOGS

Sophie

Jennifer swears by her dog, Sophie.  Her garden is surrounded by fields and forest where the deer roam freely.  In addition to the very presence of Sophie, Jennifer scatters dog-hair around the perimeter of her garden and in 27 years the deer have never come in. There is no fencing at all.

 (Sophie is thinking about becoming the mascot of NSGL!)

Photo Courtesy Wallace River Photography

Others note that when the dog is outside the deer don’t come, but when the dog is in at night, they do.

I was once told to get a dog, but we had 14 cats at the time, so that wasn’t an option.  One evening I spotted the deer chomping away at my hostas.

I went out and started barking at them. I used every bark from chihuahua to rottweiler to hound. The deer just looked at me condescendingly as if I was stupid. 

Lesson:  Barking at them doesn’t work.

Perhaps if you are thinking of getting a dog, a Scottish deerhound might be the answer.  Bred to go after deer, they are said to be large, gentle and loyal.  Aficionados call them “deeries.”

Sirius Black in one of the Harry Potter films turns into a Scottish deerhound called Padfoot, and Lucius Malfoy has them as well.

Scottish Deerhound

In Sir Walter Scott’s novel. The Talisman, one important character is the faithful deerhound belonging to the poor Scottish knight, Sir Kenneth.  Sadly, the dog ends up wounded.

In the book, Scott calls the Scottish deerhound “the most perfect creature of heaven.”  A wonderful reason for getting one, although they are a bit on the big side.

5. FENCES

People here use all kinds of fencing to keep deer at bay.  One contributor reported seeing a deer jump an 8ft fence from a standing position, which gives one pause.

Types of Fencing:

  • Solid wood, split rail, post and rail, lattice, pallet, picket, etc.
  • Wire – single strand or mesh.
  • Netting, usually plastic. Some is advertised as “deer fencing” which seems to be 8ft high at the most.
  • Commercial fishing net, 7ft wide.
  • Chain link fencing available in sheets or panels.
  • Chicken wire.
  • Fedges – fences made of living branches – usually willow.
  • Fishing line – 30 lb test weight
  • Electric 
  • 3-D
  • Micro-enclosure

The posts used vary from metal, plastic, wood, especially hemlock and cedar.

Height

  • Readers report that fences of the following heights do or don’t work for them: 4ft, 6’5ft, 8ft.
  • The ones that do work without question are 10ft and above.
  • Gardeners who use single strands of wire or fishing line find that having them at 2ft, 4ft and 6ft heights in one system can be effective. Others find that just one strand is sufficient.

 

Visibility

Some claim that if the fence is invisible, the deer will bump into it, be frightened and run off. This is where fishing line, invisible netting and to some extent electric fencing come into play.

Others say that if the deer can see the fence, they are more likely to think twice about jumping it. That would depend on other qualities of the fence, I would think.

Electric Fencing

Many people are successful at keeping deer out with one- two- and three-stranded electric fences.  

There are solar powered chargers available too which make the job easier.

When it comes to commercial ventures, one of our local organic blueberry growers use higher voltage fences than would normally be used in a garden. They get them from a specialty company.

One trick is to tie a piece of cloth with peanut butter on it to the fence.  That way the deer are attracted to the peanut butter, touch the fence, get a bop on the nose and then run off.  You hope.

3-D Fencing

An old form of fencing called double-fencing is now appearing under the name 3-D fencing.

It is, as the original name suggests, two fences about 3ft to 4ft apart which surround the garden.

The theory is that since deer are known to have fairly poor depth-perception, they will not jump the first fence because they cannot make out a clear landing place – the second fence confuses them.  Neither of the fences therefore needs to be that high.

Early versions of this were an outer rail fence of about 4 ft with an inner fence of plain old white clothesline strung at about 3ft off the ground.

Another version is to have a sloping fence.

A modern version is two electric or non-electric fences at different heights made visible by tying pie plates or bits of cloth to them if they are not very obvious

A second method is to use two chicken wire fences at different heights and make the interior space a chicken run.

Basically, you could use any type of the fences mentioned above.

Our readers have had great success with this, although they do say that keeping the grass down between and around the fences can be a bit of a pain, especially if they are electric fences, since you don’t want the grass touching the wire.

Micro-Enclosure

Micro-enclosures are based on the same principle as 3-D fencing:  poor depth-perception in deer.

Here, you make the garden bed less than 3-4ft wide, but as long as you like.  This way when you look at it from a long side, the opposite fence acts as a 3-D fence.  The end width of 3-4ft is too narrow for them to jump into with confidence.

The picture shows it being used with a raised bed, but it doesn’t have  to be.

The main difficulty here is accessing the bed, short of leaning over the fence.  I’m sure there must be all sorts of ways of sorting that one out.

Fedges

“Fedges” are a combination of FEnces and heDGES. They are fences made of living branches – usually willow.  Here’s a wonderful site with instructions on how to make them.

If you need some inspiration here are some pictures of old ways of building fences:

Jack Fence
A Wattle or Hurdle Fence
Log Pallisade Fence
A Laid-Hedge
Stump Fence
Buckingham Palace

Aesthetics

The method of keeping deer out of the garden will depend on what sort of gardener you are.   If you are an ornamental gardener you might not want fences and devices all over the place to interfere the beauty of your creation. 

This is not to say, of course, that fences cannot be very beautiful as well, but you might want to resort to invisible methods if they interfere with the view.  Depends on the context and what you want our garden to be.

Expense

Many of the remedies discussed can be very expensive indeed, especially if you have a very large area to deal with. 

There is a massive industry trying to sell us things that are “guaranteed” to work.  We know that is an almost impossible claim when it comes to deer, and that is one reason that we all try our hands at everything else we can think of.

The Bottom Line

It is very clear that almost nothing works for everyone.  If you have hit upon a method that works for you – rejoice! rejoice! rejoice!

There seem to be only two methods that are 100% effective.  One is a 10ft fence, the other, regrettably, is: 

All of this is a fine example of humans butting heads with the natural world.  We are not winning here.  In fact, when it comes down to it, we are not the ones controlling our gardens.  The deer are.

Copyright © Elizabeth Spence. 2024

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