Newcomers to the Washington DC metro area will eventually see deer standing on the roadside or coming out of the woods at dusk. At first, it is a lovely bucolic sight, gentle beautiful deer, twitching their tails, flicking their ears back and forth. But as the newcomers settle down into their homes and try their hand at gardening, they quickly 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. The deer’s natural predators–bobcats, coyotes, and panthers–have long been eliminated. Many new homes have common ground 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 vegetables they want. Fortunately, there are multiple methods to deal with deer, depending on one’s 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 really offer little relief. If the smell does not end up repelling you, rain will wash the odor away so they will have to be re-applied. 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.
Deer Resistant Plants
Deer resistant demonstration garden with bluestar (Amsonia) in background
The term “deer resistant plants” 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 number of deer, the limited food supply may drive them to eat plants that they would normally not eat. These lists of plants are actually more helpful when you use them to not buy the plants deer are known to love. For example, it is well known that deer like hostas so unless you have a plan to thwart the animals, you may not want to invest in hostas.
Daffodils are poisonous so deer do not eat them
Some of the deer resistant plants include pungent, poisonous, or highly textured plants. The deer never bother my highly aromatic rosemary, sage, and oregano herbs. Deer 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 by deer. Plants that produce paper-dry flowers such as gomphrena also are not bothered. Thorns don’t seem to deter them though, they eat roses like candy. If you are trying to plan a deer resistant landscape, plant more woody shrubs and less herbaceous perennials, which are soft and succulent to a family of deer.
Another trick is to learn the roaming patterns of the deer in your area. Disrupt their patterns with either 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, deer 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 an intersection of three different fences, all various heights and visibility. Therefore, I can feel safe planting shrubs in the left corner. Deer may walk on the front lawn up to the front strip of plants 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 plant anything in containers on the wooden deck because they won’t walk up on to the deck.
There are scare tactics as well like motion-activated watering devices, lights, and sounds. Usually these are not practical in a suburban area, especially with homeowner association rules. It does not do to wake up the neighbors with flashing lights because deer are roaming in your territory.
Fencing is more of an investment but it is a long-term solution. 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 us 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 deer fencing companies that either sell do it yourself kits or can install a fence for you. Of course, local hardware stores have supplies for you to install a fence yourself.
When erecting a fence, keep in mind that deer do not see well and may accidentally run into the fence. Therefore, the fence has to be strong enough to resist this type of damage. And, if a deer does jump over the fence and land in an enclosed area, have a plan to be able to release the presumably wild and panicked animal. Make sure you construct 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 and it may be a combination of solutions that work best for you. Below are sources for deer resistant plants, deer repellents, fencing options, and books.
Deer Resistant Plant Lists
Rutgers, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Landscape Plants Rated by Deer resistance
Deer Resistant Shrubs and Trees (both Native and Non-Native Species to Virginia), the State Arboretum of Virginia
Cornell Cooperative Extension Deer Resistant Plants
Maryland Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet 655, Wildlife Damage Management, Resistance of Ornamentals to Deer Damage
Commercial Deer Repellents
Maryland Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet 810, Using Commercial Deer Repellents to Manage Deer Browsing in the Landscape
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Low-Cost Slant Fence Excludes Deer from Plantings
University of Maryland Extension, Low-cost Deer Fence Alternative
University of Maryland Extension Fencing for Your Garden
50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs that Deer Do Not Eat by Ruth Rogers Clausen, 2011
Solving Deer Problems: How to Deer Proof Your Yard and Garden by Peter Loewer, 2015
Deer Resistant Landscaping: Proven Advice and Strategies for Outwitting Deer and 20 Other Pesky Mammals by Neil Soderstrom, 2009
Deer Proofing Your Yard and Garden by Rhonda Massingham Hart, 2005