Oh, Deer: Keeping Deer Out of Gardens

I've Tried Every Deer Deterrent Strategy Out There, Here's What Finally Worked

Oh, Deer: Keeping Deer Out of Gardens

By Susan Gateley – Whitetail deer are charismatic, beautiful animals as they leap in graceful 20-foot bounds through your neighbor’s bean field. I like to watch them. Lately, I like to watch them run away. I’m at war with them as I’ve been exploring numerous strategies for keeping deer out of gardens on my property. Their grace and beauty are fueled by an insatiable appetite for my flowers, my garden, and the trees in my small woodlot.

Lots of other country dwellers share my feelings. Deer browse is a growing problem throughout the eastern U.S. and the upper Midwest. If you reside in this region and hope to have a future firewood or timber harvest from your wood lot, or if you plan on canning and freezing excess garden produce, you too, may be wondering how to get a wolf pack started on your land.

Whitetail deer populations have exploded in the last 30 years thanks to changing land use, an aging and dwindling population of human hunters, and a lack of natural predation. This overabundance is re-engineering tens of thousands of acres of forest food webs through over-browsing. Deer are hollowing out forests by killing new young trees vital to forest regeneration. They also destroy, by one estimate, more than 640 million dollars of nursery and farm crops each year in the Northeast alone. They spread Lyme disease as they chomp on suburban flowers and rural crops, and the problem appears to be getting worse.

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Both deer populations and the numbers of people diagnosed with Lyme disease are on the increase. Last year perhaps 300,000 people were infected by the tick-borne bacterial illness. One of them was a young formerly healthy neighbor who told me she had to drop out of her graduate college program in soil science because of the many long-lasting effects she had suffered from an undiagnosed infection she almost certainly picked up while doing her field work.

keeping-deer-out-of-gardens
Left: Bucks have rubbed the bark off of this sapling. Sometimes trees can be infected by fungus and die. Right: Typical deer browse on white cedar.

Before European settlement in North America, there were perhaps three to seven deer per square mile of forestland on average. Today, many areas host up to 10 times that number. As the deer chow down on the young trees and understory shrubs of the woodlands, crucial bird and wildlife habitat and reserves of seedling trees disappear. In many areas, the deer reinforce the spread of invasive shrubs like Japanese honeysuckle and the multiflora rose by selectively avoiding these alien plants as they feed. Invasives choke off and shade out more native tree and plant seedling growth further degrading forest habitat and wood lot production. On my small homesteading land in upstate New York, the deer problem became noticeably worse about 10 years ago. While anti-predator sentiment in my neighborhood pretty much precluded smuggling in a pair of cougars, I had to do something. I tried every deer deterrent known to the internet. I tied dryer sheets and bars of the smelliest, most fragrant soap I could find on my little trees. I distributed hot pepper, various egg-based concoctions, hair from the barbershop floor, and human pee-soaked wood chips around the garden. Nothing worked for more than a few days or weeks at keeping deer out of gardens on my property. Most commercial and homemade repellents wash off or break down fairly quickly and have to be re-applied. This can be tedious, time-consuming and expensive. Deer also learn to tolerate many repellents. One thing I didn’t try making a scarecrow, such as the realistic fake coyote figures my neighbor put out in his orchard. Apparently, deer quickly get used to them. In one suburb, a trail cam caught a deer in the act of pushing over the plywood cutout of a coyote. Evidently, they didn’t want to look at it anymore.

Some gardening and homesteading websites suggested planting deer “deterrent” flowers and trees. I tried. The deer snacked happily on all of them. They ate my spruce trees and my daylilies (both of which are said to be deer resistant) along with the hostas and raspberry bushes. Deer are very adaptable, which is why they are so widespread and increasing in numbers. Once they sample something, they seem to develop a tolerance, if not a taste for it. One person may be able to plant a certain flower or shrub successfully in the flower patch while in a nearby yard the deer will eat it. The only plant they seem to consistently ignore here in my yard is the goldenrod plant.

Tree Tubes
Tree tubes will help prevent deer from nipping off the tops of plants. Fencing helps, but sometimes those tongues can still reach the tender plants inside.

Another suggestion for keeping deer out of gardens on my property for protecting plantings that I didn’t do was feed the deer in the hopes of diverting them from my flowers and trees. The theory is that baiting with cracked corn or a summer clover planting will keep hungry deer away from the garden. In my yard, drops from old wild apple trees attract them. They then head to my garden for dessert. I do not think putting feed out for the deer works as a diversion. It simply attracts more deer.

The reluctant conclusion I came to in my area of heavy browse pressure was to follow the expensive example of several nearby orchard owners and put up fences. Since fencing a wood lot is not too practical, I started using plastic deer netting around the two to three-foot trees I set out. Deer netting is tough and long lasting. But it takes two or three stakes per tree and allows the sapling to grow side branches. Soon the little branches stick thru the netting and get eaten. Still, at least a few of my trees are now surviving.

Tree tubes are a much better solution. Tubes come in three-to-six-foot lengths and are made of various materials. Some are solid; some are made of mesh. Tubes cost $2 to $5, depending on length, material and quantity ordered. You can stake them up with just one stake per tube instead of two or three. Many are reusable once the tree has grown enough for its top to be out of reach of the deer.

Get at least five-foot tall tubes, to protect the top of the tree. Leave them on as long as possible. Even after the tree is too tall for the deer to nip off the top, the bucks will come around in the fall to scrape their antler velvet off by rubbing on and frequently killing the sapling tree. The tubes reduce the buck rub problem. One vendor suggests using PVC pipe like electrical conduit for tube stakes, as it won’t rot like wooden stakes do.

To protect the vegetable garden, I opted for pounded-in steel posts and strung four-foot woven wire. This worked for a few months. Then the deer started hopping over the fence. I then belatedly researched the Internet for tips on deer fencing. After learning that deer could jump seven-foot fences, I purchased two rolls of deer netting and wired wooden furring strips as fence post extensions to each metal stake post. I then stapled the netting onto the strips to create an approximately eight-foot high fence. The new netting was joined to the woven wire fence by tying the two together with light twine. I thought I had Bambi beaten, but one enterprising little guy found an incredibly small gap between the top and bottom portions of the fence and squirmed his way in. Once that was closed up they have stayed out!

It was not a cheap job. The posts and woven wire ran close to $400. Then the two 330-foot rolls of deer netting ran about another $100 each, plus shipping. In hindsight, I should have simply ordered two eight-foot rolls of plastic netting rather than setting the steel posts and installing the wire fence first. But some of us learn the hard way.

There are other less costly ways to keep deer out of gardens. One or several parallel strands of strategically placed monofilament line may do the job if your browse pressure is light. The deer don’t see it, and when they walk into it, it freaks them out. I’ve used this successfully to change their travel paths out in the woodlot as I attempt to divert them away from tree plantings. Another idea is to create an obstacle course on the inside of a low fence. The deer don’t like to jump into the uncertain footing of close spaced tomato stakes and cages, according to a gardener acquaintance of mine. Double fences are a variant of this idea Another scheme that, according to the Internet, is quite effective is to slant the fence outward, making the jump wider. You may get away with stringing monofilament strands using this scheme. But be aware that deer can squirm through amazingly small spaces if they are motivated.

I did not try electric fencing on my garden. My next-door neighbor had problems with her fence getting shorted out. Before long it was breached. However, if you are diligent about keeping the weeds down around the garden perimeter, this might be a cheaper solution than the deer netting I used. Non-electric fences need maintenance too. In just three years I’ve already had a couple tree branches fall on the fence. But it was easily repaired. And as a bonus, I planted the red runner beans next to it inside so they could climb up the mesh.

For the time being, I have at least succeeded in keeping deer out of gardens on my property. Some of my small trees are surviving, though constant vigilance is required out in the wood lot. I’m thinking about taking up bow hunting, but in the meantime, we have reached an uneasy and temporary truce in what I suspect is a long-term siege.

Watch Innovative Deer Fence for one grower’s inexpensive solution to the problem. The internet has many sources for deer netting and for tree tubes.

Originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.

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