Sure, they're pretty to look at, if you're quick—and quiet enough to catch a glimpse of deer galloping off into the distance.
But set loose in your garden, they will ravage your tender tulips and plump pansies, leaving foliage raggedy and the fruits of your labor plundered. Fortunately, with a little bit of insight into their habits, you can prevent your flowers, bulbs, and vegetables from becoming a free buffet. Use these 20 tips to keep deer out of your garden.
These range from deer proof plants and home remedies to organic solutions and humane exclusion techniques. Our guide is part of a prevention plan you should put into effect now—even before you've spotted the season's first deer.
1. Don't over-stock your garden with tasty plants
Springtime finds deer at one of their hungriest states: Does are nursing their fawns, and anxious to gain back weight lost during the winter's freeze, every deer is looking to gorge on high-protein, moisture-rich plants. Think twice about growing large amounts of English ivy, lettuces, beans, peas, hostas, impatients, and pansies. Fruit trees are prime targets too. As Rhonda Massingham Hart points out in her book on how to keep deer out of your yard, Deerproofing Your Yard & Garden (Storey), "The sweetness and flavor of strawberries and peaches make them as attractive to deer as they are to people."
2. Keep deer-favorite plants close to the house
That way, you can keep tabs on the plant's progress at all times, making sure it doesn't become a meal. As a general rule, deer love to dine on anything that's smooth, tender, and flavorful, including chrysanthemum, clematis, roses, azalea bushes, and various berries. Plant pungent plants to help deer proof your yard.
3. Plant pungent perennials as a natural barrier
With wildlife biologists' modest estimate of 18 to 24 deer per square mile, and full-grown adults each feeding on 6 to 10 pounds of greenery a day, the best line of defense lies in making your backyard less appetizing than your neighbors. Deer rely heavily on their sense of smell for feeding, so adding patches of strongly scented herbs—from garlic and chives, to mint and lavender (left)—can mask the appealing aroma of nearby annuals.
4. Plant thorny, hairy, or prickly foliage
When a deer is deciding what to have for dinner, the sense of smell trumps touch. But that doesn't mean deer aren't bothered by certain textures mid-meal. Try incorporating fuzzy lamb's ear, barberries, and cleome near the plants you want to protect—and where deer might find entrance into your garden in the first place. See Plants Deer Dislike for a more comprehensive list.
5. Make deer-resistant substitutions
Massingham Hart suggests trading tulips for daffodils, which tend to top the deer-resistant plant lists. Pick roses that are particularly thorny, including Scotch or rugosa roses. And if you're looking for flowers that'll add a certain color or provide a certain function in your outdoor space, consult this list of deer resistant plants from Rutgers University to see what swaps you can make in your garden to keep deer out of your yard.
6. Out of sight, out of mind
Plant large, sprawling deer repellent varieties such as thick hedges of boxwoods or short needle spruces around the borders of your garden. If deer can't see what's inside, they're less likely to take that leap of faith onto your property.
7. Cleanliness counts
Trim tall grasses to deter bedding deer. Pick fruits once they're ripe, and discard crops right after harvest.
8. Create levels
Deer aren't avid climbers so adding terraces or sunken beds can discourage them from coming into the yard. If your property is particularly woodsy and sprawling, consider stacking pallets around your property, which deer are afraid to walk or jump on.
9. Don't underestimate the power of scare tactics
As neophobes, deer fear new, unfamiliar objects. Though they aren't always attractive, scarecrows, sundials, and other garden ornaments—especially those with movable parts—make deer skittish. Use them in combination with wind chimes or bright lights to keep deer out of your yard.
10. Fence it in
The most effective method of exclusion is a fence. Whitetails, which tend to plague most suburban gardens, are quite the jumpers. Make sure fences are at least 8-feet high with no more than 6-inch by 6-inch gaps. Electric fences, which can be put up during the peak feeding seasons of early spring and late fall, are another option.
11. Wrap new plantings
12. Rotating repellents throughout the growing season
The University of Illinois Extension School recommends Havahart's Deer Away Big Game Repellent, a powder that contains a high concentration of smelly egg solids to target sense of smell to keep deer out of your yard. Also on the market: Deer Off, a spray product containing capsaicin that deters predominantly by taste, and Hinder a spray of ammonium salts of higher fatty acids creates an odor barrier. Reapply repellent after rainfall, and use a different formula from time to time to protect plants and prevent deer adaptation. Coverage should start from the ground and extend upward six feet.
13. Use a lot of homespun repellents to keep deer guessing
Some gardeners swear by hanging fabric softener strips and/or wrapped bars of soap from trees, both of which can confuse a deer's sense of smell. Others point to using hot pepper sprays, garlic and rotten egg mixtures, ammonia-soaked rags, and bags of hair and/or blood meal around the garden for the same reason. As with commercial repellents, the trick is to switch things up, learning by trial and error, for maximum efficiency. Check out this tutorial on deer-proofing shrubs with Roger Cook. And experiment with deer juice, a tried-and-true recipe shared by TOH design director Amy Rosenfeld.
14. Avoid products that may be poisonous to people and pets
Whether you choose commercial repellents or homemade formulas, you wouldn't want to accidentally harm your family or other wildlife. Always choose humane formulas—never poisons.
15. String fishing line around prized plants
Relatively cheap and easy when compared to putting up a fence, string a line of monofilament around your beds within the deer feeding zone—ideally two to three feet above ground. Just as deer can't comprehend the concept of glass, this clear, taut barrier also confuses deer, ultimately causing them to flee.
16. Let Fido out as much as possible
Having a dog as a pet is extremely effective in deer management. No matter their size, their scent and bark are natural deer repellents so make sure the dog tags along while you're gardening or the kids are playing in the yard.
17. Strategically place motion-activated sprinklers
Sprinklers with sensors will spray mist on passing deer. The sudden sound and moisture sends deer back off into the woods.
18. Shine a light on it
Deer don't like bright lights so they'll often wait till nightfall to chow down. Installing a system of motion-sensitive floodlights will literally stop a deer in its tracks, though they do come to realize, over time, that the beam is harmless.
Learn how to put one in at How to Install a Garage Floodlight.
19. Make a lot of noise
Deer don't like loud bangs or booms. You could set off firecrackers or create a tin can wind chime, but tuning a radio to the static in between stations might be your best bet.
20. Remember these tips won't work all of the time
Deer are like people. The same thing that deters one won't always deter another, but doubling—or tripling—up on these strategies can only help. Putting a few of these tips into practice, before deer become a problem, is the best way to prevent damage to your vegetation. Think through each of your decisions, however, before taking action, as some solutions are pricier than others.
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