A few years ago, marketing executive and green thumb David Jensen of Clare, Michigan, moved outside the city limits so he could grow a bigger, better garden—only to watch it get devoured by deer that seemed to fear nothing. "You could go out and clap at them, and they would just look at you," says Jensen today. He was so inspired to control the critters that he quit his job and opened Deer Resistant Landscape Nursery, which specializes in plants and products that limit the extent of the damage.
Jensen's business is booming, thanks to the proliferation of hungry deer in American towns and suburbs. Their population is at an all-time high—"more now than when the Pilgrims landed," says Michael Conover, a professor of wildlife at Utah State University. He cites the decline of hunting as a major reason that deer are encroaching onto residential lots: "Deer have lost their fear of man, basically."
Handsome as they are, deer really don't belong around your house. Besides destroying expensive plantings, deer carry ticks that spread Lyme disease and cause more than a half-million auto collisions each year. Unfortunately, some of their favorite snacks are common landscape plants, including roses, tulips, hostas, many ornamental shrubs such as rhododendron and yew, to say nothing of leafy vegetable gardens.
But trying to fend off the interlopers can be just as frustrating as having Bambi and friends devour your hard-earned landscaping. Deer are intelligent and highly adaptable creatures; when they get hungry enough, they'll test the limits of just about any preventive measure. That's why experts recommend an "integrated management plan"—that is, using a variety of techniques.
"You have to keep them guessing," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook, a veteran of the deer wars. "Eventually deer will get used to anything, so I always recommend rotating repellents and combining them with other tools like scare tactics and fencing."
Here is a look at the options.
Put in a barrier fence.
Among the most foolproof deterrents are physical barriers like fences. Deer are agile jumpers, so fences need to be high—typically about 8 feet. Black propylene deer fencing in a 2-inch net ($2 to $4 per foot) is virtually invisible in a wooded setting and relatively easy to install; metal sleeves are pounded into the ground every 15 feet, and thin metal posts are inserted in the sleeves. The netting is clipped to the posts, then stretched tight.
Of course, fencing your whole lot is not always feasible—or desirable—and motivated deer will find any opening, such as the driveway. But a fence can effectively enclose a vegetable or cutting garden near the house.
Spray Them Away.
Spritzing on liquids with an offensive odor or taste is the least expensive way to repel them—with varying degrees of success. Commercial products like Deer-Off (based on eggs, hot peppers, and garlic) or Plantskydd (a blood-meal solution) are sprayed directly on plants to render them unpalatable. Other products contain predator scents like coyote urine that can be deposited strategically around the yard. Some gardeners swear by odiferous homebrews made from ingredients like rotten eggs, chili powder, and scented soaps (one This Old House staffer has great success with the recipe shown above).
Any spray—commercial or homemade—needs to be reapplied frequently as plants grow or rain washes it away. And as Roger points out, seriously overpopulated deer herds won't be dissuaded: "A deer that's starving will eat anything, no matter what you spray on it."
Scare them off.
Often deer can be kept at bay with scare tactics, usually a surprise burst of water or a loud noise. One popular product is the Scarecrow ($89; contech-inc.com), which combines a motion detector and a sprinkler that sprays water when deer (or other critters) cross its path. Placement is everything with such products, and hungry deer may eventually learn to ignore them. Some homeowners find that a vigilant dog is the best scare tactic, since canine predators like coyotes and wolves are deer's natural enemies.
Plant their least-favorite foods.
Experts agree that overall, the best defense is a good offense—landscaping around your home with plants that are not to deer's liking. "Many plants have their own repellent built in," says Jensen. Deer will usually turn away from highly aromatic or poisonous plants (such as foxglove), and those with fuzzy leaves; for specific suggestions, see the next page.
"If you have a deer problem, always try to plant from deerresistant lists," says TOH's Roger Cook. "At least it gives you a fighting chance."
When TOH design director Amy Rosenfeld built a house in Ulster County, New York, she heard lots of horror stories about deer ravaging local gardens. Then her neighbor Barbara Fornal, an herbalist, shared this recipe for "deer juice," which Rosenfeld applies vigilantly. "It totally works," she says. "When people come over, they're always like, 'How do you have hostas?'"
Here's how to mix up a batch for yourself:
1 bar of Fels Naptha soap
2 bunches of scallions, roughly chopped
2 heads of garlic, cloves separated
Chili powder, lots
1. Fill 1/2 of a 5-gallon bucket with hot water.
2. Shave soap into bucket to dissolve.
3. Place scallions, garlic, eggs, and chili powder in a large piece of doubled cheesecloth. Tie up ends of cloth tightly; use a wooden spoon to crack the eggs. Place pouch in bucket.
4. Fill the bucket with more water; cover tightly with lid. Place in shaded area. Let sit for 1 week.
5. Transfer in batches to a pump sprayer. Apply after each rainfall or every 2 weeks.
Plants Deer Dislike
Thanks to their fuzzy leaves, strong fragrance, or bitter taste, the following plants aren't among deer's favorite nibbles.
• Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) Shade-loving, fernlike plant with pendulous heart-shaped flowers; hardy to -35° F.
•Bluebell (Hyacinthoide hispanica) Bulb plant with small bell-shaped blue, white, or pink flower clusters; hardy to -25°F.
•Crocus (Crocus sp.) Low, clumping bulb plant with white, yellow, or purple flowers; hardiness varies.
•Daffodil (Narcissus sp.) Bulb plant with showy yellow or white blooms; hardiness varies.
•Fritillaria (Fritillaria imperialis) Bulb plant with bell-shaped orange, yellow, or red flowers atop stalklike stems; hardy to -5°F.
•Bluebeard (Caryopteris) Shrubby plant with deep-blue flower clusters; hardy to -5° F.
•Catmint (Nepeta faassenii) Compact relative of mint; small purple flowers; hardy to -25° F.
•Hyssop (Hyssopus officianalis) Large-leaved plant with purplish flower spikes; hardy to -5° F.
•Lavender (Lavandula) Sun-loving, aromatic flowering herb; many varieties; hardiness varies.
•Monkshood (Aconitum) Shade tolerant, with hoodlike purple-blue flowers; hardy to -35° F.
•Mullein (Verbascum) Woolly leaf rosettes with tall flower spikes; hardy to -15° F.
•Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) Creeping evergreen with dark blue flower whorls; hardy to -35° F.
•Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) Bell-shaped waxy white flowers; hardy to -45° F.
•Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) Shade lover; small white or pink flowers; hardy to -25° F.
•Spotted deadnettle (Lamium) Variegated leaves with white or pink flowers; hardy to -25° F.
•Aralia (Araliaceae) Large, bright green foliage with small white flowers; hardy to 5° F.
•Andromeda (Pieris japonica) Rounded shrub with hanging white or pink flowers clusters; hardy to -5° F.
•Boxwood (Buxus) Compact, tiny-leaved hedging shrub; hardy to -5° F.
•Bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticose) Extremely cold-hardy; roselike flowers; hardy to -35° F.
•Oleander (Nerium) Tall, evergreen shrub with large white or pink flowers; hardy to 15° F.
•Russian olive (Elaeagnus augustifolia) Willowlike leaves and yellowish summer flowers; hardy to -35° F.