by Kathy Bond Borie
Even if you don't see deer browsing through ornamental and edible gardens, you'll know they've been there by their calling cards -- hoof prints and chewed plants. In many regions deer are growing bolder and less fearful of humans, meaning even gardens in urban areas are vulnerable.
The only surefire way to keep deer out of gardens is fencing them out. And it can't be just any fence. A gardening friend of mine was so frustrated by deer chomping on his apple trees that he put up a 7-foot-high electric fence. The deer jumped it. He put a second fence right next to the electric fence. The deer jumped both. He installed a third, 3-foot-high fence a couple of feet away from the second one, and the deer finally gave up. They now travel next to his orchard instead of through it. Apparently deer are intimidated about jumping when they cannot tell how much distance they have to clear. The three parallel fences kept the deer from sighting a clear landing spot.
For the same reason, deer are apt to be skittish about jumping a fence over a long, narrow garden. The two long sides appear too close together for the deer to see a place to land. Installing a fence at a slant so it leans outward from the garden can also work because it makes the fence appear wider.
A 5-foot-high fence can keep deer out if you use taller posts and attach strands of wire at intervals, such as at 6 feet and 7 feet. In extreme cases, you may need to erect a second fence, say a 3-foot-high one, about 3 feet outside of your other fence. Even a barrier made of fishing line attached to posts at a height of 3 to 4 feet is sometimes enough to startle a deer into changing its course. Of course this is dangerous if you have children and pets.
Since deer are creatures of habit, the sooner you can deter their foraging, the better. Baiting an electric fence with peanut butter can train deer to stay out of an area. Tree guards that wrap around the trunks are a must in winter, and I encircle young fruit trees with fencing for the first few years so deer can't reach the branches. Covering shrubs in early spring with fabric row covers can deter feeding long enough for wild food plants to become available.
Come summer, the best way to protect plants that can't be fenced in is to use repellents, and there are many environmentally friendly types to try. Deer Away and Deer Off use egg solids, so they're useful only on ornamentals, not food plants. Deer Out uses essential oils, smells like peppermint, and can be sprayed on edible plants. Hinder -- made from ammonium soaps of fatty acids -- also can be used on food crops. Tree Guard contains an extremely bitter substance and can be used only on non-edibles.
For a little more trouble but a lot less money, you can make your own repellent sprays. Hot pepper sauce mixed with water and a little insecticidal soap is reportedly distasteful to deer. However, there are some reports of hot pepper sauce damaging foliage so test a small area of each plant first. You can also mix up your own rotten egg concoction, if your family will allow it. I've seen recipes as strong as 2 eggs per 2 cups water and as dilute as 3 eggs per gallon of water. Cover the solution and allow it to sit for a few days before spraying plants.
How long repellents remain effective depends on the type as well as the weather. You'll need to reapply most repellents after every rain, and regularly enough to protect new growth -- at least every three weeks during the growing season. Rotating through different repellents may be more effective than sticking to one type.
People have reported success with protecting trees and shrubs from browsing deer by hanging bars of soap from the trees (Irish Spring supposedly works best) at a height of about 3 feet. Each bar protects about a 3-foot radius. Leave the wrapper on to make the soap last longer. Or hang perfumed fabric softener sheets instead of soap. The fragrance of both is apparently a turnoff for deer.
Another strategy is to make use of a deer's wariness of predators. Collect human hair from a hair salon and spread it around the periphery of your garden, or hang it in mesh bags. You also can fool deer into thinking coyotes are lurking nearby by using commercially available coyote urine, available in granular and liquid form.
Motion detector-activated sprayers release a spray of water when they detect movement, startling intruding animals. There are also sonic and ultrasonic devices; even playing a radio in the garden can be a deterrent. These may be marginally effective for a little while, but know that they won't deter a very hungry deer. And be sure to take your neighbors into consideration before using anything that might affect them, too.
If you continually use the same deterrent, they'll get used to it and ignore it. So vary your methods, try different products, and combine them now and then. For example, use predator urine (which repels by scent) along with a bad-tasting, hot pepper spray. Add a motion detector-activated spray once in a while for good measure. Just be sure to turn it off before you venture into the garden.
Lists of deer-resistant plants abound, but if deer are hungry enough they'll eat just about anything. Still, including some of these plants increases the likelihood that at least something will survive. Here's one list: Best Deer Resistant Landscape Plants. Here's another helpful resource: Strategies For Protecting Your Landscape From Deer Browsing