As much as we all might love the sight of a little Bambi in our yards, deer can pose a serious challenge for urban gardeners.
Starting with the most effective techniques, I’m going to give you a variety of ideas for keeping deer out of the garden.
Ideally, you will probably want to adopt a combination of these strategies.
As your neighborhood deer adapt to your techniques you will have to keep outwitting them. If you are fortunate enough to be spared a significant deer problem, you would be wise to keep your senses alert for future invaders.
As cities and towns grow and encroach into deer habitat, local populations will start to visit neighborhoods that were previously deer-free. Keep your eyes open for signs such as prints, scat (poo) and nibbled leaves.
The earlier you can nip the problem in the bud with some of the techniques below, the better chance you will have to save your garden from becoming deer fodder. Once you’re on their regular route, you’ll have a much harder time getting deer to move on.
Part 1. Physical Barriers
By far the single most effective way to keep deer out of the garden is with tall sturdy deer fencing around the perimeter of the area you want to protect.
There are a number of pros and cons to deer fencing, so you’ll want to put some serious thought into the decision.
The benefits of a tall, strong deer fence are clear. This is really the best way to keep deer out of your garden. The main downsides are generally related to costs and aesthetics.
If you try to cut costs and go with a fence that is too short or flimsy, determined deer will jump over or find a way through your fencing. A professional fencing company would be happy to build an effective deer fence for you.
However, this may cost you a few thousand dollars, depending on the size of your garden. Effective as it may be, the high cost and the sheer ugliness of an eight to ten-foot high fence may cause you to reconsider.
Another potential downside of fencing is that deer will occasionally attempt to jump a fence and not quite clear it, getting stuck on top.
This could be a disturbing sight for a gardener, not to mention the deer could suffer injuries and trauma. This brings us to the important and much-debated issue of fence height.
Eight feet is the recommended standard height for deer fencing. However, there are reports of white-tailed deer jumping as high as twelve to fifteen feet! How high a deer will jump will depend on how desperate it is to get over that fence.
Eight feet is usually sufficient, but if a deer is being chased by a predator or if it is in a state of starvation and can see food through the fence, then it may jump higher than usual.
Angling the top section of a fence outward makes it more difficult for deer to clear. Their wide spaced eyes give deer good peripheral vision but poor depth perception.
They generally will not attempt to jump a fence if they can’t see a clear landing place on the other side. A double fence (yes, a fence with another fence about three to four feet inside it) will cause deer to steer clear for this reason.
Both of these options could let you get away with a somewhat shorter fence height.
Some municipalities have fence height restrictions. If you are unable to erect an eight to ten-foot fence you could put up a six-foot fence and string wires across from the tops of fence posts with metallic or bright colored strips hanging from it, or cover the top of the fenced area with deer netting.
Deer are clever enough to spot gaps in any barrier designed to keep them out. So in addition to ensuring the adequate height of your fence, you’ll also want to make sure there are no breaks in the fence or gaps along the bottom edge.
All it takes is one little opening they can squeeze through and all of your fencing effort and expense has gone to waste.
Floating row covers can prevent deer and a number of other pests from snacking on your food crops. Fabric, plastic, wire or mesh supported with a hoop frame creates a physical barrier to keep out deer, small animals and some insects.
Garden bed cages work well with wood-framed raised beds containing your most valued edibles or those beautiful beds of prize-winning roses.
A simple structure covered on all sides and the top with wire mesh or netting should effectively keep deer out. For more durable, long-lasting protection a sturdy chain link cage is an option, although not an especially attractive one.
New tree plantings will need protection from deer until they are large enough to withstand having their lower branches nibbled away.
A cylinder of heavy wire mesh or flexible plastic secured to sturdy posts may not be attractive, but it should be effective.
Lightweight polyethylene mesh can be purchased in rolls or packages and used to erect temporary fences around beds or small areas.
The mesh can be loosely wrapped around blooming perennials that might be particularly vulnerable.
Care must be taken to ensure that animals will not become entangled in the mesh.
A single or a few strands of electric fencing wire can be enough to keep deer out of your garden.
Solar powered electric fences can be easier to install if you don’t have direct access to a power source near the garden area you are trying to protect.
Electric fencing relies on deer psychology, rather than being a physical barrier this method trains deer to stay away.
Being creatures of habit, after a few shocks deer will learn to steer clear of areas surrounded by electric fencing.
Be sure to put the fence up early in the spring, so deer get the message to stay away before they’ve added your garden to their daily browsing route.
Baiting the wire with peanut butter or another attractant helps to make sure the deer get the message.
However, this method is not always successful and can be expensive (although not as much as a physical barrier fence). Electric fencing also may be inappropriate if you may have pets or children in your yard.
I also once saw something called a “Wireless Deer Fence”, which is just an electrified post stuck in the yard which has a scent that attracts deer and then gives them a shock if they touch the post.
It seems that the key to its effectiveness lies in actually getting the deer to touch it, get a shock and then be trained to stay away from that area.
Reviews are pretty well split between people who say it works and those who said it did absolutely nothing to deter their deer.
The website claims a two-year money back guarantee if it doesn’t work, so it might be worth a try.
Part 2. Deer Repellents And Deterrents
Homemade Deer Repellents
Rotten eggs, cayenne pepper and garlic can be processed and diluted with water and applied to plants using a spray bottle or backpack sprayer.
Generously applied to specific plants for protection, this method can repel deer if they have other, less offensive, alternative food sources.
The sulphuric smell of the rotting eggs will turn them off, but if they do venture a nibble the burn of the cayenne will ensure they don’t come back for more.
The downside? Deer repellent sprays like this must be reapplied frequently and after every rainfall and it may not be effective when the deer are hungry enough to tolerate the unpleasant smells and tastes.
Commercial Deer Sprays
If you’d rather not bother with making your own spray there are a number of commercial deer sprays on the market such as Bobbex, Deer Off, Hinder and many others.
Commercial sprays may have the added benefit of not needing to be reapplied as often due to special formulations that adhere to plant foliage.
However, in most cases they will still need to be reapplied at least every couple of weeks, sometimes more often depending on weather, humidity and temperature.
Some of these sprays have similar ingredients to the homemade recommendations above, such as sulphuric rotten eggs and hot chilies.
Others utilize ingredients such as coyote urine or animal proteins that rely on deer’s fear response to deter them.
Sprays usually have limited effectiveness, so this is a solution for minor deer problems only.
Deer are less likely to browse near strong scents because they rely on their sense of smell to detect predators. Soap flakes, bar soap or dryer sheets hung in tree branches around the garden may deter them.
You can stuff a pair of pantyhose or old socks with scented items and hang them from branches here and there. I wouldn’t count on this method alone with a bunch of hungry deer though.
For a serious deer problem, you’ll need a more serious solution than this one.
Hair or Urine
Human or animal hair can be scattered around the garden or placed in old pantyhose and hung from trees. You can also try applying dog or human urine around the garden.
The scent from hair or urine will put deer on alert that danger may be lurking. If they have other options, this may be enough to get some ambivalent deer to move along, but this is a less effective technique than many of those listed above.
The American Rose Society recommends using fishing line to make a nearly invisible fence around prized ornamental plants.
This may act as an inexpensive deer deterrent that doesn’t detract from the aesthetic of your garden.
Use thin green garden stakes to blend in with the foliage and string the stakes with rows of fishing line about eight to twelve inches apart.
The deer may not be able to see the lines but they will feel them and may get startled enough to move on to another garden.
However, this is not a fool-proof method and I’d be worried about the deer or other wildlife getting tangled in the line. Use this one with care.
Part 3. Scare Tactics
Motion Detector Activated Sprinklers and Lights
Deer scare easily and will be put off by a sudden burst of water or bright light. Motion lights may be particularly effective in urban areas where deer tend to browse in the wee hours when it’s still dark.
However, over time they can become desensitized to these scare tactics. If this happens try moving these devices or rotating their usage so you can keep up the startle effect.
Noise deterrents for deer can be as simple as some metal cans, pie plates or wind chimes tied in a tree to make noise in the breeze or something as complex as a solar powered, motion activated ultrasonic device.
This method relies on a fear response to get the deer to flee, but deer can become habituated to the noise over time. Once they realize there is no real threat, deer will continue to visit despite the ruckus.
You can increase effectiveness by combining noise deterrents with other scare tactics such as water or light or some of the other methods mentioned above.
Dogs are similar enough to natural deer predators such as coyotes that deer will avoid them. Medium to large barking dogs in your yard will scare away the deer.
If it’s possible to give Fido free range in your yard for the better part of the day, your garden will thank you (unless of course Fido is a digger!).
Even after you bring your dog inside, the scent of its urine should act as a lasting deterrent.
Decorations for the garden that flap, jingle or spin in the wind can frighten wary deer. Metallic or reflective objects may also have a similar effect when they glint in the sunlight.
Some people try hanging things like strips of foil or old CDs from tree branches. I wouldn’t invest a lot of time or money on this particular strategy though.
Even if they work at first, deer can become conditioned to these items so their effectiveness may wear off over time and if they are hungry enough these tactics probably won’t stop them.
Part 4. Planting to Minimize Deer Damage
Plant Location Selection
One way to minimize deer damage is to keep your most valued plants (to you and the deer) closest to your home. Of course, the more time you spend in your yard, the more effective this strategy will be.
Deer love beans, peas, lettuces, brassicas, berries and fruit trees, so you will want to keep these as close to your door as you can or protect them with a row cover, cage or netting.
In general, deer are less interested in rhubarb, asparagus, onions, garlic and hot chilies, so these plants may not need as much protection as some of your other edibles.
Deer are also attracted to ornamentals such as English ivy, hostas, azaleas, clematis, daylilies, chrysanthemums, pansies and impatiens, so keep them close to the house.
Deer Repellent Plants
You may want to plant the perimeter of your yard with strongly scented herbs that will deter deer. You could also inter-plant aromatics in your veggie garden to make it less attractive to browsing deer.
Example deer repellent plants are lavender, scented geraniums, rosemary, oregano, sage and thyme.
Given a choice, deer prefer not to forage near strong scents because it makes it more difficult for them to detect the scent of any potential predators approaching.
Deer Resistant Plants
Try planting your ornamental beds with so-called “deer resistant” plants, such as hellebore, yarrow, boxwood, salvia, buddleia, eucalyptus, bleeding heart, mullein, euphorbia, foxglove, poppies, daffodils and many others.
But keep in mind that deer will eat almost any plants if they get hungry enough. Talk to your neighbors or take a look around the yards in your area to see which plants have been spared by your local deer population.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind sharing, you could consider planting some decoy plants around the outer perimeter of your yard.
These would be plants you know deer are attracted to and will probably eat, but plants that you don’t mind sacrificing in hopes that the deer might leave the rest of your garden alone.
However, this could backfire if deer are drawn in by the decoys and then start to snack on other plants in your yard.
Part 5. The Big Picture
This may seem obvious, but if you are planning to grow a large food garden or small farm avoid choosing a property that is on the path of a deer migration corridor or near a common fawning site.
Unless you plan to erect a fortress-like fence, you will be constantly plagued by invading deer.
If you haven’t selected your site already, take the time to research movement patterns of your local deer population to try to find a site where you and the deer will be less likely to be in competition for your food plants.
Deer Population Issues
Some municipalities have taken measures to try to control the wild deer population. This is clearly a controversial issue with strong emotions on both sides.
There are various methods such as a contraceptive vaccine, surgical sterilization, trapping, relocation, extermination, traditional hunting for venison and increased natural predation with laws protecting predator species.
If you have a serious deer problem and feel strongly about the issue you may want to take it to your local council to see what, if any, options have been tried in your area.
Ultimately, as gardeners, we need to strike a balance between our own needs for fresh fruit and veggies, aesthetic beauty and attractive landscaping, with the needs of local wildlife.
We are part of a larger ecosystem and must learn to coexist with our furred and feathered neighbors who are simply trying to meet their own needs for food and shelter.