Grow-How: What's The Deal With Deer?

by Isabel Vinton

Believe it or not, during the first half of the twentieth century, we wanted to increase deer populations. Uncontrolled hunting in the decades before had nearly wiped them out. These days, however, deer are so prolific than many people consider them pests, and it's not just because of those repopulation efforts. Hunting, as well as farming practices concerning animals like wolves, mountain lions, bears, bobcats, and coyotes means natural predators no longer have a strong enough influence in the ecosystem to keep deer numbers in balance. In addition, loss of habitat due to human development means both that predators have yet another challenge and that deer and humans are being brought closer together. Because of this, deer are now probably the most notorious garden pest. Not only can they take out a whole plant in a single bite--they'll do it with just about anything. Every gardener's dream is a comprehensive pact between humans and deer, but in lieu of that, our team provides their top tips for getting by in this deer-eat-garden world.

Are tomatoes deer resistant? Evidently not...

1. Deer Resistant Plants: Since keeping plants safe can be difficult or sometimes impossible, many people hope to plant a garden consisting of varieties deer simply won't munch. Does such a plant exist? The short answer is, alas, no. While some plants are more or less likely to be damaged, a deer will try practically anything once, even if they then decide they don't prefer it. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers has a handy plant rating guide, not in terms of if it will be damaged, but how often it might be. Some of the plants they rate as "rarely damaged" include Anise Hyssop, Forget-Me-Not, and Common Sage. In general, the thinking goes that pungent-smelling plants like lavender, catmint, or alliums; fuzzy or hairy ones like lamb's ears, yarrow, or nicotiana; or thorny ones like roses can deter deer. However, like people, deer have different tastes, and some may find these perfectly acceptable meals. Some plants, like daffodils and poppies, can also be toxic to them.

2. Sprays: There are many common liquid solutions that can be applied to plants to deter deer, with mixed success. Cayenne pepper and water is a common one, as is Irish Spring soap. The trick to this sort of treatment is to be on top of reapplying them, especially after it rains. Letting down your guard even temporarily means deer will waltz in and feast. Our team recommends Deer Defeat, a company local to the Hudson Valley. Their liquid deer repellent is made from egg, garlic, lemongrass, sulfur, and other ingredients that deer and other browsing mammals find thoroughly unappetizing. They claim it won't wash away with rain, but they do recommend reapplication every thirty days or so. As with all aspects of gardening, we strongly advocate for natural and organic practices that won't harm you, your pets  or loved ones, your plants, or the environment.

Farmer Steven waves adieu to some deer on the other side of our fence.

3. Habitat: One way to keep deer away is to keep them from feeling at home. Tall weeds and dense vegetation make them feel like they can nibble without being seen and give their fawns a place to bed down. Open spaces are less likely to attract them, so if possible, reduce those sheltered deer hiding places. And while we're not suggesting you need a puppy to grow spinach, people with dogs do have markedly fewer problems with deer. Even just making your own presence known can help. If you stay vigilant and scare off deer when you see them (often in the early morning), they may eventually come to think of your land as hostile territory. Even though we have a fence surrounding our farm, we've seen our farm crew waving off deer on the other side, just so that deer know that we know they're interested. Plants growing closer to your house may feel more risky to deer as well, so keep your most vulnerable fruits, veggies, and flowers close to your door.

4. Barriers: For those who can't install a full-on fence, either for practical or financial reasons, smaller physical barriers can be used to protect specific areas and plants. Chicken wire or other kinds of wire can easily be used to make cages, and netting can be used as well. Wooden poles, if set close enough together, can also work. This option is often used for trees and shrubs, but could easily be extended to other garden plants as well.

5. Fences: The fence is the mother of all defense strategies. If deer quite frankly can't get within reach of your garden, they won't cause any damage. Our farm is surrounded by fencing, and the number of plants we have damaged by deer each year is, well, pretty much zero. The ideal deer fence is at least eight feet tall. Common fencing materials include polypropylene mesh, chain link, and wood. Make sure the gate is deer proof as well. Keep in mind that deer may try to gain access by going under the fence, so mesh fences should both have some slack and be staked to the ground, and it's a good idea to keep around some extra materials for repairs. Some people choose  to go wide instead of tall. Three wire deer fences, with one line in front of the other two, is said to befuddle a deer's sense of depth perception. Electric deer fences are an option too, though not always as effective, and some gardeners have luck using taught strings of fishing line or hedges.

Deer are smarter than we like to give them credit for. They know what they like and how to find it, and as they become more and more integrated with our lives, they become more courageous. And just like us, their habits and tastes change over time. Because of this, there is no simple solution to a deer-free garden. Without a deer fence, deer prevention is a constantly evolving strategic game. You will probably have to use a combination of methods (liquid sprays and a motion-sensing sprinkler, cages and mowing the weeds--or all of the above). This doesn't mean gardening is futile--far from it, a successful harvest and thriving blooms are even more rewarding having protected them yourself. Just as with all areas of gardening, deer protection is a process of trial and error.