Oh Deer!

By J.B. McGowan

Oh deer, oh deer, oh deer.

No, this is not "An Ode to Our White-Tailed Neighbors" but rather as close to profane as one should get on a website.

Allow me to lay out briefly my philosophy about deer, then we can get practical.

Where and when I was growing up, deer hunting and deer enjoying were not seen as incompatible. I remember looking across the hay fields on summer evenings, watching deer forage along the tree line.

My family had several large vegetable and flower gardens. Still, I don't recall ever hearing any discussion of "deer problems," other than from those who were unsuccessful in locating them during the November hunting season.

We now live in a "mostly rural, not quite suburban" setting. Here, as elsewhere, people have encroached upon the once undeveloped acreage. This has created a conflict between the deer and us. We are also near an 800-acre state park that is home to deer but also to moose, mink, ermine, raccoon, porcupine, beaver and even a coyote or two.

Having shared the land with a mix of animals, here are the deer rules I've learned:

Rule #1 ? To paraphrase Shoeless Joe Jackson in the movie Field of Dreams ? "If you build it, they will come." You may never have seen a deer on your property, but if they are in the neighborhood and if you plant something of interest, eventually they will come check it out.

Are these deer spreading the word about favorite dining spots?

Rule #2 - Once deer have decided they like your garden, you are on their itinerary until something better comes along. And being the good parents that they are, they teach their children all about you and your garden. They develop foraging paths and patterns, diet preferences and seem to pass them along to succeeding generations. If someone were to tell me that deer carried personal organizers to maintain all the necessary data about neighborhood gardens, I would not be surprised.

Deer resistant plants: Japanese Iris (iris kaempheri) left, and Yucca ( yucca filamentosa variegata), right

Rule #3 ? Any given deer, at any given time, will eat any given plant, with very few exceptions. That is why I don't put great stock in "deer resistant" plants. The deer around here even eat aconitum (commonly known as Monkshood) which is reportedly poisonous from stem to stern. The few exceptions (so far) at our home: yucca, ferns, daffodils, bergenia, lamb's ear, herbs like sage and thyme, foxgloves, Japanese iris and creeping phlox. For shrubs, potentilla, pieris, and barberry seem safe. Everything else in our Zone 5 garden is up for noshing.

Sure,? it looks cute now...

Rule #4 ? Do not talk about your deer frustrations with people who do not garden or who garden but don't have deer issues, especially if you value their company. It is difficult to maintain your composure after losing an entire perennial garden to a night of dining deer when your friend says, "Oh, but they're so cute."

Suggestions for the determined

If you are determined to garden in somewhat peaceful coexistence with deer, here are some deterrents for you to try.


It must be at least seven feet high. Shorter fencing will only slow them down, although I have read of successes with lower fences with electrified toppers. Deer can jump seven feet (perhaps more) from a standstill.

Cedar, redwood and other materials are beautiful if you have a small area to enclose, or deep pockets. But take a deep breath before you hear the quote from the fencing people, particularly if you are asking them to install it.

This year we are replacing our hodge-podge of barriers with a combination of sheep fencing at the lower level, layered with a seven-foot deer barrier of rigid black plastic mesh. Over time this will be attached to seven-foot cedar posts in the section surrounding the prominent perennial beds. In the meantime, it is being attached to vinyl covered metal posts and among trees in less conspicuous areas.

To say that this plastic mesh fencing is not entirely ugly is speaking high praise. But then my tolerance for less-than-beautiful barriers has grown with the number of deer incursions in the garden. A friend's son successfully uses fishing line at 8-inch horizontal intervals. Didn't work for us.

In those places where our new fencing is installed, the deer are, for the moment, puzzled but still investigating.

You can camouflage unattractive fencing with "sacrificial" plants of lesser interest to the deer and you. Whatever you use, remember that deer will crawl and squeeze between fencing gaps if they can. Fencing should be taut, secure and checked regularly.

"Scented" products

There are lots of recipes for sprays to treat your plants' leaves and flowers. We've had mixed success with these.

Whatever the recipe, it will need to contain something unpalatable to the deer. It will also have to be adhesive enough so you don't have to constantly reapply it. This approach seems more practical for the solitary shrub or clump of perennials, rather than an entire mixed flower border.

Dog hair in nylon knee-highs may work if hung next to vulnerable plants -- and if your deer find your dog's scent sufficiently frightening. Evidently our cocker spaniel does not fit that category. But some friends of ours have a Sheltie whose fur seems effective in protecting their rose bushes. Different dogs, different plants, different deer.

Fragrant soaps are somewhat useful as deterrents. If the soap is placed on the ground or hung in some plants, the deer will not stick in their noses to chew. But plants grow tall and wide and we've chosen not to ornament ours with Irish Spring soap like a balsam fir at Christmas.

Another folk remedy, dried blood, did not bother our deer, but it did agitate our dog. And it must be replaced after every rain.

Our latest venture into scented deterrents is coyote urine.

No doubt that just crossed the line for some of you. But for those of you still reading this, we recently hung small plastic cotton-filled containers at various places along the fence line.

Yes, you can buy the urine and even the bottles at your feed/farm stores and/or nurseries. No, I haven't dwelled much on how they collect it.

Recently, I spoke with a fencing contractor who just started using it on his property. He told the story of his frugal wife who, after hearing a forecast for heavy rains, went out to cover the air holes in the top of the bottles with duct tape so it wouldn't be diluted. Now that's admirable commitment.

I know of some gardening families that send the male occupants out along the perimeter to "mark" the territory. The pitfalls of this approach are as obvious to you, the reader, as they might be to your neighbors.

Mechanical and electronic devices

I have limited personal experience with these. I do know that if deer hear us in the house they are less likely to wander down our driveway. An acquaintance swears by a weather resistant radio enclosed in a plastic bag and tuned to a rock music station. The radio is only on at night or when they are away. I'm not sure what their neighbors think during open window season.

Motion-detector lights worked for a while by unnerving our deer. Now they seem to appreciate the illumination. It helps them see what's in bloom. We still use the lights to alert us that they are visiting.

Those motion-detector sprinklers that purport to frighten garden pests up to a range to 35 feet are intriguing. It might be just the right weapon to use in a big open space like our driveway. However, if placed in the middle of a garden bed, tall garden phlox or daylily blossoms might not appreciate the force of the spray.

Water pistols helped with our cat-on-the-countertop problem, but do we know how deer respond water jets? The battle-weary gardener in me can conjure up the image of singing deer with Irish Spring in their clutches, showering off the hot pepper spray residue after dining on our neighbor's perennials.

So you may want to try a number of these options. Check with gardeners in your area and with your Cooperative Extension Service. If you have some successful experiences to share, drop us an email. Maybe we'll do an end of the season analysis. In the meantime, remember that if all deterrents fail, there are a growing number of us fellow gardeners also under siege, and we send you our moral support.

J. B. McGowan is an avid gardener whose midcoast Maine perennial gardens are a favorite dining spot for the local deer population.

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