Deer and Wildlife Deterrents

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Powerful Perennials: Enduring Flower Gardens That Thrive in Any Climate (Hobble Creek, 2015) by Nedra Secrist, is filled with ideas for gardeners looking to grow perennials in difficult areas. Secrist provides some firsthand experience and a lot of ideas for gardeners to try. Look at all of the beautiful pictures and decide what perennials your will be adding to your yard. Find this excerpt in Chapter 3, “Wildlife-Resistant Perennials.”

Where I live, I have to be aware of local garden pests and how to keep them out of my garden. The Rocky Mountains are the backbone of the West. They stretch more than 3,000 miles from Canada to New Mexico, and every mile is deer habitat. Rocky Mountain deer are called mule deer because of their big, mule-like ears. Mule deer are large. Mature bucks weigh from one hundred to over four hundred pounds and need a lot of food. In the bitter cold of winter, the deer require over five pounds of food per day. During spring birthing, females need more than ten pounds of new green sprouts per day. In early spring, they browse our lawns, pawing out huge circles of snow in order to find food. The lawn will always recover, but flower beds may take longer. The best way to protect your garden is to plant deciduous perennials, or plants that go underground in winter. Evergreen perennials such as ajuga, bergenia, lavender, or creeping phlox all have a reputation for being deer resistant, but when it’s a matter of life or death, deer will consume these and anything else that is evergreen.

When we first started gardening at Bear Lake in Idaho, the deer dilemma was an eye-opening experience. The previous spring, we had planted our total income tax return in trees and shrubs. By the end of that next winter, our entire investment was decimated by deer, and we were devastated. We tried a multitude of deer repellent techniques that never worked. One of the funniest was playing an all-night talk show on the radio. The talk shows were effective until the guardian buck, who watches the herd from the hill, decided that the radio was not a threat. Then with only a simple nod or lifting of his head, the herd moved down into the garden to graze. Without a sound, the buck would again lift his head and the entire herd would evacuate in an instant. 

Deer adapt quickly, so a change of tactics was needed. Electromagnetic or ultrasound devices were useless. We’d heard of some chemical and natural repellents being advertised, so we tried Irish Spring soaps, human hair collected from a beauty parlor, rotten eggs, hot sauce, and even bobcat urine sprays. The philosophy is that the more pungent the odor, the more the deer will avoid the plant. This concept is true up to a point. Artificial smells dissipate, so an egg and hot sauce spray that will only last until the next watering is ridiculous.

About this time, we started to relax with the wildlife and let the old adage “If you can’t beat them, join them” kick in. So many of our special memories—like the time we watched and guarded a herd of elk swimming across the lake on the first day of deer hunting season or the time our beach became the home for twin moose calves—come from that time and are still talked about. A sighting of a pure-white albino doe and two fawns started our grandsons on their photography craze. By rethinking the wildlife situation, we have made some planting adjustments, and the gardens remain full, lush, and worry-free.

You may also find that your garden is overrun by hungry wildlife, whether that wildlife takes the form of deer or something else. If so, then let me recommend a few adjustments you can make to your garden.

Adjustment # 1 Plant Perennials that Are Unappealing to Wildlife

• Plant deciduous perennials that go underground in winter.

• Do not plant any perennial that stays evergreen in winter.

• Do not plant perennials that invite animals like deer into the garden, such as tulips. My neighbors said they enjoyed watching the deer so much they put a salt lick in their yard. Now they wonder why the deer won’t leave.

Several winters ago, gardeners in the West were blessed with a long winter of deep snow. My gardening friend Janet, from across the lake, took pity on a hungry moose that lived near her yard. She would travel to the Brigham City fruit stands and beg for their withered old apples. She fed the hungry moose as long as she was able to keep bringing apples but was greatly relieved when a spring thaw opened up some grazing space for her moose. She forgot about that incident until the next winter when her moose and a hungry calf showed up on her porch again, begging for apples. 

A doe and two fawns took up residence in our yard that same winter. Our four– and five-year-old granddaughters were playing on the sun porch when the fawns moved right up to the sliding glass doors and pressed their leathery noses against the windows. Maybe they were attracted by the girls’ giggling? My granddaughters still talk about this fond memory.

• When deer browse gardens all summer, they destroy vegetable and flower gardens. We are fortunate in the Rockies that our “mulies” move to the more private dining spot of the cooler higher mountain ranges. The following deer-repellent recipe was given to me by a gardener who swears it stinks and works: one egg to a cup of water. If the gardens are large or the sprayer holds more liquid, add eggs and water in the same ratio to fill the sprayer. Add hot sauce for stink and dish soap to make it stick. Spray when needed.

• Plant annuals in accent container pots. The small wildlife such as rabbits love annuals, but they never seem to bother the containers. One of our first experiences planting annuals at the lake was a dismal failure. Two flats of pansies were consumed in an overnight raid of the garden.

• Know that a hungry animal will eat almost anything, and regional differences play a part. What works in one area may not work in other places.

• The most important adjustment is planting wildlife-resistant perennials. It is the smell, taste, and texture of a perennial that makes it deer resistant. Strong, spicy, or scented plants with soft, hairy, or spiky-foliage will be scorned by deer. Planting a row of stinky, spiky chives along the edges of our vegetable gardens protects the plants from deer and rabbits. Cilantro is also a deterrent and keeps fresh lettuce and vegetables safe from rabbits.

Adjustment # 2 Install a Fence

When we first started gardening at Bear Lake, my need for a clean, green piece of lawn was overwhelming. On the Fourth of July holiday, while everyone was at the beach swimming, boating, waterskiing, and fishing, I worked at clearing sagebrush and hand-turning the soil. In the last few minutes of vacation, the grass seed was spread, and a sprinkler was set. Great discipline was required to leave the new lawn and return to the workweek.

The following weekend, instead of my imagined picture of germinating green grass . . . I got a big shock! Every cow on the east side of Bear Lake was wallowing in our mud puddle of supposed lawn. Now we laugh at having provided the cattle with a free spa mud bath. We really needed a basic knowledge of the environment in our new gardening situation. Knowledge is a first priority to success in landscaping.

In the West, only about 4 percent of the mountain ranges are under cultivation, but 35 percent of the land is utilized for livestock grazing purposes. Livestock represents the largest portion of farm income within the states. Idaho is an open-range state, meaning cattle are fenced out. Utah’s range cattle law is to fence in. Fence in or fence out, a fence was needed!

Fencing the property was not an option but a necessity. The standard requirement for a deer fence is that it be over seven feet in height with a capacity for an electric shock system. The mule deer’s stiff-legged gait bounces them right over a shorter fence. Invisible deer fencing was also available at an enormous cost, far over our budget. 

We wanted a more decorative type fence than an invisible or electric one. With the constant flow of family and friends in and out and on their way to the beach, there were not satisfying alternatives. What we ended up installing was a black metal pipe fence that also serves as a sprinkler system. This fence not only keeps out the cattle, but it also waters the gardens. The deer can still easily jump over this fence, but they seem to have chosen not to anymore.

Adjustment # 3 Get a Large Dog or Cat or Both 

A large dog will almost always keep wildlife away. Even the scent of a dog is a deterrent to deer and other animals. Our golden lab, Drake, does an amazing job of keeping the Bear Lake gardens deer-free. Fortunately, Drake’s fine puppies have continued this service.

Rabbits and other small pests are in many ways more destructive than deer. Our rabbits live across the road and like to play what we call “the go-out game.” First, they sneak across the road. Then they look around and hop to the lawn where they wait, frozen to see if we notice them. If we do, they hustle into the flower beds to hide. Most of the deer-resistant perennials are also rabbit resistant, and soon they return to the grass to help us cut and fertilize the lawn.

The entire Rocky Mountain range is a habitat for ground squirrels that we call “potguts.” The potguts emerge from their tunnels in early spring to gather food storage for their expected offspring. They stand up on hind legs and chatter as if laughing while they fill their cheeks as full as possible before returning to their tunnels to pack all the food into storage areas. This is where their babies are born. Before it gets hot, the fat little fur balls settle into their burrows, not to be seen until the next spring.

There are a variety of removal methods for these ground squirrels from electromagnetic or vibration devices to mothballs in the tunnels. None of these made any difference. However, when we bring the cats to the lake for the summer, the small wildlife pests seem to evaporate.

Outside pets can solve wildlife problems but are frowned at for bring­ing their own bathroom usage problems into the garden. Cleaning up after a dog is a regular chore, but cats can be encouraged to use only a certain area for their business. Bare soil attracts a cat because they have natural scratching instincts to dig a hole. The same plants that repel other wildlife will repel cats, especially lavender and Melissa officinalis, or lemon balm. Add these perennials to your garden. The shade areas under pine trees are also avoided by cats because the fallen pinecones are prickly to their feet. Coffee grounds scattered in a problem area will also stop a cat and so will citrus peelings left under bushes.

Adjustment # 4 Install a Motion Sensor or Night Light 

At Bear Lake, all electric power is buried underground along the east side of the lake. Black light or star-filled nights are a value treasured by homeowners, but the number of deer getting hit on the highway, especially through winter, was heart wrenching. A solution was to have the power company install a light pole with an electric eye that comes on after dark. We paid for this service, and it is just one of a few night lights located along this entire side of the lake.

Now the number of deer hit by cars in front of our cabin has dropped to nearly nothing. Nighttime drivers can now see that deer are crossing the road and can stop for them.

A surprising new benefit of the installation of the streetlight was an eye-opening shocker. Deer are very savvy! After the streetlight was installed, the deer changed their route to the lake by cross­ing the highway under the lights. They then followed a new, deer-created, well-packed, well-worn trail behind the green­houses. Deer are so shy that the greenhouse walls must have made them feel more safe and comfortable.

We rewarded them by leaving huge piles of harvested trimmings along their trail. This must serve them as winter food, because they will have pawed through and sorted out what they liked to eat by spring. They reward us by consuming the trimmings and leaving a calling card of deer droppings, which helps accelerate the composting action of what is left. It makes a gardener stop to ponder—could the streetlight and compost food serve as a training tool to help eliminate damage in the garden? Or is it just that deer randomly changed to another path? I don’t think so, and here is another reason: year after year, as soon as the first fall freeze occurs, the deer will move into the garden and start stripping every­thing. They seem to know it’s okay now. Mutual respect and apprecia­tion flows toward and from the deer. With a little thought and effort, interacting with nature is surprisingly enlightening and rewarding.

Adjustment # 5 Appreciate the Helpful Benefits Wildlife Provide

Deer and other wildlife animals are helpful in cleaning the yard. Tons of Hemerocallis, or daylilies, are grown in our gardens, and fall cleanup of these tough, hard-to-pull leaves is both time consuming and nearly impossible. We leave the daylilies untouched in fall, and by spring the tough, strap-like leaves remove easily. I suppose the deer discovered this also because when I get to the lake in spring, the daylilies are completely cleaned right to the ground. Also, a nice deposit of organic deer pellets surrounds the daylilies to help them grow and bloom better through summer.

Elk and deer venison are food for a family. Wild game is an excellent nutritional source. A mature buck will yield 150 pounds of meat, while a mature elk will provide over 600 pounds. 

From Nedra Secrist’s Powerful Perennials: Enduring Flower Gardens That Thrive in Any Climate (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2015). Used by permission.