Ilene Sternberg is a multiple-award-winning freelance garden writer and co-author of Best Garden Plants for Pennsylvania and Perennials for Pennsylvania.

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Oh, Deer! 10 Tips for Keeping Deer out of Your Garden
by Ilene Sternberg       #Pests

A small herd of hungry deer —or even just a couple — can wipe out entire hosta beds, rows of hedges, swaths of daylilies and tulips and eat all of your roses. Close your garden “salad bar” by using several of these tips.  

In most of the East and Midwest, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), beautiful as they are, are not a plant lover’s pals. Hard to believe, but in the early 1900s, the estimated 500,000 whitetails in the United States were threatened with extinction. Hunting regulations were put in place until 1958, and today there are more than 20 million, with densities exceeding 40 deer per square mile in rural areas and many browsing into metropolitan areas. Since natural predators (wolves and cougars) are virtually non-existent in most areas — and thank heavens for that — when adequate food abounds, populations can double every two to three years. 

Now Bambi doesn’t seem quite as adorable as we once thought as he munches his way through farmland, forests, orchards, your daylilies, hosta, yews, rhododendron, azaleas and the arborvitae hedge. Each adult deer eats 5 to 9 pounds of food daily and needs 10 to 12 acres on which to browse. 

And when he’s done, he’ll still probably rub his itchy antlers on your trees during his annual bark-scraping ritual and girdle them. He also causes car accidents and carries ticks that cause Lyme disease. 

Here are some battle plans that have been tried unsuccessfully to limit population:

• Controversial controlled hunts became injudicious as animals moved into suburbia and urban parkland.
• Targeting female deer with sterility darts works well only in self-contained, isolated areas. 
• Capturing deer — this is difficult, but even tougher is relocating them to places where they’ll thrive without intruding on people or other deer. 

The following 10 suggestions work well for some people, though not others. Deer are highly adaptable and may be attracted to or repelled by something in your neighbor’s garden but not in yours.

• Consult lists of “Things Deer Don’t Eat” for the least vulnerable plants to grow, although one list says deer love chrysanthemums while another claims they hate them. Moreover, deer don’t read these lists and seem quite broad-minded about testing nouvelle cuisine. When hungry, they’ll eat just about anything, even thorny or poisonous vegetation. 
• Surround your vulnerable plants with aromatic herbs, such as catmint (Nepeta spp.), oregano (Origanum spp.), sage (Salvia spp.) and lavender (Lavandula spp.), and fuzzy plants such as lamb’s ears (Stachys spp.), or poisonous plants, hellebore (Helleborus spp.), monkshood (Aconitum spp.) or foxglove (Digitalis spp.). Most often deer avoid these. They also seem to ignore spirea (Spirea spp.), lilacs (Syringa spp.), blue mist shrub (Caryopteris spp.), magnolia (Magnolia spp.), false spirea (Astilbe spp.), aster (Aster spp.), pigsqueak (Bergenia spp.), coneflower (Echinacea spp.) and barrenwort (Epimedium spp.). Bordering your garden with chives, onions or garlic (Allium spp.) works, but beware of garlic chives (A. tuberosum), as they are truly an invasive menace, impossible to weed out and worse than deer damage. You’ll be able to write your own list after you’ve gardened for a while.
• Plant fruits and vegetables in containers or in the ground near the back door where human traffic may discourage pilfering. Call it your “kitchen garden,” and people will consider you a sophisticated chef.
• Pile rocks as a barrier around vulnerable trees. Deer, apparently, dislike walking on rocks. 
• Encircle immature shrubs with tall, upright sticks — not  particularly nice-looking, but effective.
• Stringing hair-stuffed pantyhose around the yard, aluminum pie plates strung on wire or sweaty T-shirts strewn over shrubbery are sometimes advantageous — also, definitely  not ornamental.
• Play loud music and use strobe lights — this may scare deer but lure teenagers or offend neighbors and attract police to your door.
• Set up a motion-detecting device that blasts deer with water. 
• The scent of creosote, gasoline, turpentine, rotten meat or eggs, loosely woven drawstring bags filled with Milorganite, (an organic sewage fertilizer, the odor of which deer shun,) Irish Spring soap, mothballs, blood meal and all manner of human urine and wild animal excretions around the perimeter of your garden are said to discourage deer, but your garden may smell like a fetid dump. Mix your own concoctions, or buy various types of predator urine drops. Or spray water as an adherent on leaves and sprinkle plants with black or red pepper, garlic or curry powder, but you’ll have to redo this after every rain. (Too labor intensive for most of us.)
• Commercial deer repellent sprays, such as Liquid Fence, Bobbex, Plantskydd, Deer Off and others work, (Rutgers University ranked Deer Off number 1 out of 35 sprays tested, and it’s now labeled for rabbits and squirrels, too). However, repellents often smell putrid. (Rotten eggs and garlic are frequently the active ingredients.) However, Messina Wildlife Deer Stopper smells like rosemary and won’t disappear after a rain, and Deer Out has a pleasant peppermint scent and claims one spraying will last three to four months. (Deer Out makes other repellents that smell like lemon for rabbits, groundhogs, rodents and raccoons.) Hot Pepper Wax is also a deterrent to deer, other animals and insects, but I don’t like them having to taste my plants to decide whether to continue or not.
• Fencing is really the most effective option. Enclose your prized plants or, better still, the entire garden. Fencing (usually polypropylene mesh or metal) should extend partly underground and not have gaps bigger than 6 by 6 inches where deer can squeeze through or crawl under. Most fences can be virtually invisible if done right. One option is a wooden stockade fence, which makes your garden less appealing to deer when they can’t see what’s behind the slats. Fences should be at least 8 to 10 feet high. Some deer can clear an 8-foot fence unless obstacles, such as angled netting, tree branches or thorny shrubs prevent a clear take-off or landing place. True, 10-foot-high fencing surrounding a suburban lot offers the ambiance of serving 10 to 20 years at San Quentin in one’s own backyard, and if you opt for an electric fence, a chance encounter with it on a rainy day is a real turnoff. Also you’ll need a gate that you’ll probably have to open and close manually to enclose the front lawn. Save money by erecting the fence yourself. Deer Busters has videos online to show you how to install the fencing:

With any luck, one or more of these ideas will help deer proof your garden. If it’s any consolation, just be glad you don’t live in Africa where you would have to contend with elephants and rhinoceros crashing through your cauliflower or monkeys raiding your refrigerator. (Kind of makes deer seem more tolerable, doesn’t it?)

50 Beautiful Deer Resistant Plants


Deerproofing Your Yard and Garden

Books You Might Want to Read

Solving Deer Problems by Peter Loewer, Lyons Press, 2002

Deer-Resistant Landscaping by Neil Soderstrom, Rodale, 2009

Outwitting Deer by Bill Adler, Jr., Lyons Press, 1999

Creating A Deer Proof Garden by Peter Derano, Self, 2007

50 Beautiful Deer Resistant Plants by Ruth Rogers Clausen ($19.95)

Deerproofing Your Yard and Garden by Rhonda Massingham Hart ($14.95)

To purchase these two books visit our bookstore,


From State-by-State Gardening July/August 2012. Photos courtesy of Illene Srenderg.


Posted: 09/26/12   RSS | Print


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