Few sights are as exciting to the nature observer as seeing native deer coming in close proximity to the home. Despite this picturesque setting, it can also induce anxiety in the home gardener. I live quite rurally, so deer coming up to the backdoor is a common occurrence. As much as I enjoy their presence, I am also often dismayed to find them snacking on my prized plants! There are few things as discouraging as spending countless hours tending to precious seedlings, only to awake to an empty growing bed. I believe that the deer have every right to be in the area as much as I do, so how do we compromise? I hope to share in this article some helpful ways of keeping deer, and other critters, off our precious plants, while also supporting biodiversity in an organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly manner.
I have found that applying a topical spray to my coveted plants as a simple deterrent. I have had relative success making my own spray. I take a pot of boiling water and add crushed garlic, diced onions, black pepper, cayenne pepper (essential ingredient), and any other potent smelling herbs I have at the moment. I let this mixture simmer for about half an hour, preferably with a lid on since this concoction is designed to smell as strong as possible. I strain the mixture and place the liquid in a bottle after it has cooled; this will be our liquid concentrate. I then add a few table spoons of this liquid (I often just eyeball the amount since this is not a science) to a pump sprayer filled with water. The larger your sprayer, the more concentrate you will need. I then apply this topically to my plants. You will want to do this on a dry day when you are not expecting rain in the near future. Your yard should smell very strong. This will help to disguise the appealing taste of your plants (anything we like to eat, most deer also find appealing) and to serve as an unsavory flavor deterrent. If you do not wish to go through the trouble of this procedure, I have had success with some store-bought brands, such as liquid fence. I will warn you, this product smells terrible (similar to rotten meat), but if you find it unappealing, so will our furry friends.
Note: All topical sprays are temporary. I find for best results, I have to reapply weekly. However, if we have experienced heavy rains, I reapply more often. This product does wash off easily!
I have found this to be the only sure way of keeping deer out of certain parts of the garden, while also allowing them to pass freely through other areas. There are many types of fences that can be used and I have no preference for one over the other. I will say that it must be a relatively tall fence (i.e., at least 6 feet tall, but some deer can even jump that height). I have been creative with my fencing. I have used sections of fallen trees and salvaged 4 X 4 posts to attach my fence (see below a section of fence around my vegetable garden; I may do a separate article on creating the gate). I will add that while you can use electrical fencing, I find this inhumane. We have technically intruded on the deer’s territory and shocking them for exploring their natural habitat does not sit well with me. I have also had some success installing individual fencing around sensitive plants. You can see in the picture below what is typically referred to as snow/sand fencing around individual apple trees. However, I have also used more traditional fencing, such as this.
I have found that deer have certain preferences for food and your local deer may have a different taste palate than mine. Through experimentation, I have found what mine find irresistible and I try to grow them a patch of this plant (e.g., corn) in a section of the garden far away from my most important plants. Over time, I have found that the deer tend to congregate in this area and are less inclined to traverse through my fences and horrible smelling plants. Why bother with other food when someone has set your favorite foods out in a more private area of the garden?
You will read online an endless supply of tricks and tips to deter deer from your garden, and I assure you that I’ve tried them all. The above methods are what I have found to be successful, but don’t forget that you will never stop them from completely entering your garden. At the end of the day, it is okay! If native wildlife are unwilling to eat your plants, you probably shouldn’t be growing or consuming them yourself. I have to view their persistent efforts to nip my plants to death as a compliment. Clearly, I’ve done something right and created a delectable for them and my family. It is easy to get into the mindset that gardening is a constant battle against the forces of nature, but it is actually an act of working with nature to create a balance. When one creature dominates (ourselves included) it is typically at the expense of others. We all have the right to be here; find your homeostasis.