Newcomers to this area will eventually see deer standing on the roadside or venturing out of the woods at dusk. At first, they admire the lovely bucolic sight, gentle deer, twitching their tails, flicking their ears back and forth. But as the newcomers settle down and try their hand at gardening, they learn that the deer are not as cute as they once thought.
In this area, the suburbs provide ideal conditions for deer. There is plenty of food and water in the landscape and ample cover. Their natural predators–bobcats, coyotes, and panthers–have long been eliminated. Many new homes have common ground to make for easier mowing, thus eliminating fencing. As homeowners sleep at night, families of deer wander in and help themselves to luscious hosta, delightful roses, and all the tomatoes they want. Fortunately, there are multiple tactics to employ, depending on budget and time.
Those who have had their gardens ravaged by deer are tempted to try homemade repellents such as human hair, deodorant soap, and stinky garlic/pepper sprays. The truth is, they offer little relief. If the smell does not end up repelling you, rain will wash the odor away so you have to re-apply constantly. Commercial sprays are more effective but are not cheap. You have to determine just how often you will have to apply in one growing season multiplied by the number of years you intend to live on that property. Or you can weigh the damage versus the cost and time spent on the commercial spray. In my home, the deer will run through the tomato patch once in the spring and then they are gone for the rest of the season. The tomato plants grow back in the summer so I have learned to grow plenty of tomatoes (from seed) and forgo the cost of a repellent spray.
An additional tactic is to plant “deer resistant plants.” This term refers to plants that deer usually won’t bother because of taste or difficulty to consume. However, if there is a summer drought or an unusually large population, the limited food supply may drive them to eat plants that they would not normally eat. These lists of plants are actually more helpful when you use them to not buy the plants they are known to love. For example, it is well known that they like hostas so unless you have a plan to thwart the animals, you may not want to purchase hostas.
Many deer resistant plants are pungent, poisonous, or highly textured. The deer never bother my rosemary, sage, and oregano, which are highly aromatic herbs. Four-legged creatures are not interested in poisonous daffodils, Christmas rose (Helleborus), foxglove (Digitalis), and monkshood (Aconitum). Plants that have hairy, fuzzy, or gray/silver leaves are usually ignored. Plants that produce paper-dry flowers such as gomphrena also are not bothered. Thorns don’t seem to deter them though, roses are like candy. If you are trying to plan a deer resistant landscape, focus on more woodies (woody shrubs) and less herbaceous perennials.
Another trick is to learn their roaming patterns in your area and disrupt them either with plants they won’t bother or with structures. Deer are creatures of habit so once you learn their habit you can foil them. At my home, they usually jump the fence in front of my house to go through the backyard and over the low fence in the far right corner. They never go to the left corner because it is a corner of three different fences with various heights, poor visibility, and a downward slope. Therefore, I feel safe planting shrubs in the left corner. Deer may walk on the front lawn up to the front garden strip but never walk up the concrete steps to the door. And they never walk on to the wooden deck in the back of the house. This means I can plant the aromatic herbs in the front strip and the hostas toward the front door. I can grow anything, especially edibles, in containers on the wooden deck.
There are scare tactics as well such as motion-activated watering devices, lights, and sounds. Several sources are listed below. If you live in an area with homeowner association rules you may want to check those first to see if these types of devices are even allowed. Also, you have to take into consideration your lawn service and how stakes in the ground may impact their lawnmowers.
Fencing is a long-term solution but the fencing does not have to be for the entire property. A fence around the vegetable garden might be all you need to keep them out of the edibles. A fence should be at least 8 feet tall, or a slant fence, or a double fence. Unless scared, deer won’t jump blindly, they need to know they have a safe place to land. A slant or double fence makes them realize they cannot land safely on the other side. Fencing can be made of metal or polypropylene or can be electric. There are professional fencing companies that either sell do it yourself kits or install the fence for you. Of course, local hardware stores have supplies for you to build a fence yourself.
When erecting a fence, keep in mind that deer do not see well and may accidentally run into the fence before it gets used to it so the fence has to be strong enough to resist this type of damage. And, if a deer does jump over the fence and lands in an enclosed area, you should have a plan to be able to release the presumably wild and panicked animal without hurting the deer or you. Have a door or opening so the deer can come out on its own.
If you have a deer problem, don’t be disheartened. There are solutions but it may be a combination of solutions that works best for you. Below are lists of deer resistant plants, a study on deer repellents (which can be ordered online or purchased at local garden centers and hardware stores), fencing videos, sources for mechanical scare devices, and books.
Deer Resistant Plant Lists
Study on Commercial Deer Repellents
Mechanical Scare Devices
Books on Deer and Gardens
Deer Resistant Native Plants for the Northeast by Ruth Rogers Clausen and Gregory D. Tepper, 2021
Ultimate Guide to Deer Proofing Your Yard and Garden: Proven Advice and Strategies for Outwitting Deer and 20 Other Pesky Mammals by Neil Soderstrom, 2020
Deer Resistant Design: Fence-free Gardens that Thrive Despite Deer by Karen Chapman, 2019
Solving Deer Problems: How to Deer Proof Your Yard and Garden by Peter Loewer, 2015
50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs that Deer Do N0t Eat by Ruth Rogers Clausen, 2011