Garlic, Lemon Balm, and Mint, Oh My
A reader is curious about my garlic water deer repellant, as well she might be. Like so many of us, she has tried many things to keep deer from eating her plants. So far, she has experimented with spraying everything from eggs to mint and garlic on her plants, but finds the eggs clog her sprayer. She has also put up bars of various kinds of soap deer are not supposed to like, and is now using a commercial spray, but wants to make her own more successfully.
Well! So glad you asked! Gardeners have struggled with garden pests for centuries, and some of their time-tested techniques are still viable today. Some of those solutions were too dangerous to perpetuate, however; there was plenty of fatal stuff in every Victorian garden, from foxgloves to datura. When dealing with garden pests, gardeners mostly stuck with the classic four deadly plants; hellebore, aconite, nicotine, and hemlock. Extracts of all of these noxious plants were cheerfully sprayed on everything from rose bushes to rutabagas to kill off cutworms and caterpillars, slugs and snails, molds and mildews, or whatever was giving trouble at the time.
Sauce For The Goose
Eventually people began to notice that folks who used these sprays often ended up as dead as the pests they were fighting. That’s not surprising, since heritage pesticides often included mercury and arsenic as well as strychnine, nicotine, and copper. As for deer, they had many a trick, including ha-has, deep trenches with steps going in and out that people could use but small hooves could not manage. A ha-ha served to keep deer (and cattle) out of the garden and safely in the distance, where they could be decorative but not destructive. My yard, sadly, is too small for a decent ha-ha, but on acreage, they are still an excellent means of critter control.
My own yard is visited daily by a small herd of deer, and despite all the published lists of plants deer don’t eat, wherever deer populations are high, there are very few plants that won’t be browsed. For years, I planted the outer areas of my gardens with strongly scented foliage plants, finding that deer rarely ate them. These days, I’m noticing that, while adult deer seldom graze on intensely flavorful herbs like scented geraniums, rosemary, and lavender, young deer will eat anything, at least for a while.
Distracting Deer Denizens
I can’t promise that my advice will rid you of their presence, but I can offer some ideas for making deer and other pests less welcome. As an example, Victorian critter chasers consisted of slim wands like fishing rods, with twine that held a potato stuck with feathers bobbing at the end. They used fly paper in greenhouses and in vegetable gardens to capture aphids, thrips, and whitefly, and painted wooden apples red, then coated them with glue and hung them in orchards to catch apple maggots, all of which work very well indeed even today.
For deer, Victorians who couldn’t afford brick or stone garden walls made wooden fences just as the Romans did, using a series of poles in 3 heights (5- 6- and 7-feet) set 6 inches apart. (Prince Charles has one at Highgate). Today, we have many kinds of deer fencing, from heavy duty netting to stockade wire as well as wood. Where fencing is impractical, we can try an ever-changing array of tricks to keep deer away. They quickly habituate to whatever we use, so it’s most effective to rotate several different techniques. Some folks swear by smelly repellants, from soap to human hair to stinky clothing dryer sheets and rotting salmon.
He Could Pee On That
Male predator urine is generally very effective. Bottles of wolf or coyote urine are inhumanely collected from caged animals, but many of us keep male predators around the home. Teenaged boy pee works best, and they often think it’s hilarious to whizz around the garden. It turns to nitrogen, so that’s all good. Collected pee can be placed in plastic flower bud picks, with a piece of cotton rope for a wick, and set around the garden, a charmingly intimate touch.
Deer love strawberries and I have experimented with many ways to keep deer out of my berry beds. One of the more successful techniques I’ve used is to buy big bargain-sized packets of skinny bamboo kebab skewers and poke them thickly, pointy side up, in amongst the berries. It works even better if you thread some of the stinking dryer sheets on the skewers.
Salt Licks Or Bitrex?
Some folks place salt licks at property edges to entice deer away from their gardens. Other people keep aggressive male dogs, but I’ve found that a commercial Scarecrow (a racheting, water-spraying device) is very effective if you move its stake often. (Otherwise deer get used to it and chow down anyway.) Also Skydd, a spray made from blood meal (sourced from bound-for-steak-steer, not mad cows) really works. Finally, I’ve had excellent results using bittering agents which make plant foliage smell and taste bad to deer.
Bitrex spray is mixed with a clear latex carrier that coats stems and foliage. Repellex systemic tablets are placed in soil when planting, repel not only deer but rodents, gophers, rabbits and other herbivores, providing up to two years of protection for roses, lilies, and so forth, according to field studies performed at Rutgers and other testing institutes. As an added bonus, the best antidote to the bitter taste (which transfers readily to hand and mouth) is chocolate!
Chocolate Is Always A Plus
Con: It takes about a month for the bittering agents to enter the plant’s system fully. Thus, bulbs, roots, shoots, and foliage may need physical protection during that window of vulnerability. Also, if not used according to package directions (tablets inserted about 3 inches into the soil), the product may not be as effective. In addition, if this extremely bitter stuff gets on your hands, it inevitably reaches your mouth, where it can take a day or two to wear off, Chocolate! More chocolate!
In the meantime, you can try my deer-away recipe. I use lemon balm because I’ve got groves of it, but spearmint works too. The soap acts as a surfactant but the eucalyptus really is deer-offensive on its own (though you can use any kind; peppermint would be good too). Straining through cheesecloth stops the clogging, and the remains can be strewn around strawberries or other favored plants.
Deer Away Spray
10 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 cups fresh lemon balm, coarsely chopped
2 cups spearmint, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap
(any kind, though eucalyptus seems especially good)
In a food processor, grind garlic and herbs with a few tablespoons of water to a fine slurry. Add enough water to make it pourable and transfer to a gallon jug. Fill with water, add soap and let stand overnight. Strain through cheesecloth and spray around the edges of the garden and on deer-nibbled plants. Renew every few days or if it rains (if it ever does again).