Dealing With Those Darling Deer

What To Try When Deer Appear

photo by Leesa at

The first sign is usually cropped foliage, perhaps on perennials or young shrubs. You might initially think, “Wow, somebody did a really poor pruning job here,” until you realize that you are looking at the gnawed ends of juicy twigs and stems. If deer browsed lightly then wandered on their way, it wouldn’t be such a problem. However, once they find their way to your garden, they tend to return often and linger indefinitely.

In my present garden, we have a resident herd of about a dozen deer, including a mom with 2-year-old twins. The young bucks like to play on the little meadow below the house, and sometimes we even see them touching noses with our curious cats, who seem totally unafraid to find such big critters in their own backyard. Sweet? Well, sort of.

Coexistence is certainly possible, especially if you are not a gardener. If you are, it is very challenging to maintain a positive attitude toward the deer and keep on trying to gardening despite their depredations. If you plan to grow your own food and hope to reap the harvest you plant, then you simply must keep deer out of the garden.

Best For The Birds

The best deer deterrent is a big, energetic, noisy dog. Barring that, gardeners resort to a host of strategies, all of which work for a while. Many gardeners report that deer-deterring devices that emit combinations of water, sound, and even lights are very effective (though this can change from year to year). I’ve used the Scare-Crows with success (though crows quickly learn how to trigger them and use the water to wash in on hot summer days).

Other folks swear by sprays such as Deer-Off and Tree Guard. I’ve seen published studies that report totally different (and contradictory) results from applying all of these substances. In general, all these various techniques are most effective when used in combination and when the combinations are changed periodically.

My own garden abuts wooded land on two sides and we are definitely on a deer superhighway, the thoroughfares deer use daily. In my experience, there are no totally deer proof plants. My deer eat ivy, rosemary, and even lavender on occasion. Their appetites vary, and what they gorge on one year may be ignored the next, while plants they disdained for years suddenly become irresistible. Young deer are more adventurous than their elders, happily taste testing almost everything that comes their way.

To Fence Or Not To Fence

Many people swear by deer fencing, which is only effective if well built and comprehensively installed (and thus very expensive). Effective deer fencing must be at least 8 feet high, and 10 feet is better. I’ve seen workable deer fencing made from two 4-foot widths of stockade wire, placed with the denser wires at ground level and at the top. Strung between sturdy supports, this keeps rabbits out as well as deer, but raccoons won’t be deterred at all.

My solution is not to fence but to provide a large assortment of plants, including many kinds of local favorite natives. When there is enough variety, something will always survive to look great. For instance, deer adore our native red twig dogwood, which normally grows to 8 feet high and wide. They are less interested in other twiggy dogwoods, but will nibble them from time to time.

Letting Deer Help You

I was able to use this pattern to advantage when I planted my garden school parking lot some years ago.  The planning department ordered me to put in an 8-foot visual screen of plants to hide the parking lot from the road. The local police department, however, ordered to me plant a screen that was no more than 3 feet high. Hmm.

To satisfy both requirements, I planted the native red twig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), which was on the planning department’s list of acceptable choices. That got me the vital permit required to open our school. Until the Sequoia Center became a synagogue,  the deer kept the dogwood trimmed to a height of 3 feet, which made the police happy and allowed a clear view of the road from the parking lot.

In my current garden, the presence of the red twig dogwoods helps to protect several other, more ornamental dogwoods I grow, which are barely touched when so many tasty red twigs are available. This is what I call “win-win” planting.

Deer and Roses

There are of course other good solutions. In one garden I know, a young boy planted a hedge of “dog” roses around his mother’s garden. These were not the wild dog roses of England’s hedgerows, but a mixed assortment of free roses that nobody really liked much. He figured (quite rightly, as it turns out), that the deer would nibble these and leave the choicer ones inside the garden alone. Another neighbor’s woodland garden is similarly protected by an irregular “hedge” of recycled plants, including many freebie roses, that distract the deer from the garden’s more valued flowers.

In my own gardens, I generally plant several varieties of anything that deer tend to feed on, such as the twiggy dogwoods and smaller willows. By offering a small smorgasbord, I generally escape the wholesale damage that occurs when deer find a concentration of one special plant they really love.

Rose gardens are notable for attracting deer with sorrowful results. When we incorporate our roses and lilies and other delicious plants into naturalistically layered gardens where they share the borders with many other kinds of plants, they are less likely to be found than when they are temptingly massed. It’s silly to set plants out like a salad bar, then get angry when something takes us up on our offer. Mixing tasty plants into mixed borders makes them harder for pests to find.

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