Organic Deer Control for Your Garden

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By Richard

Deer are mostly crepuscular or nocturnal–active at dawn and dusk, though they will often be active all night as well. During the day, they usually reside in protected shady areas, bed down, and stay quiet. When we understand the times of day they are most active, we can be more aware and watch for them.

Deer and auto crashes are common and cause millions of dollars in insurance claims each year. Because of the closer interaction of deer and human communities we have also seen an increase in Lyme disease and other diseases. (Due also to a better understanding, diagnosis, and reporting of the disease.) Lyme is transmitted by the deer tick, now known as the blacklegged tick, Ixodesscapularis, which is found on the deer and in their territory.

Deer are herd animals that have lost most natural predators. We have taken over much of the places they used to live and they have graciously allowed us to do so and try to live with us. They find our manicured landscapes, filled with tasty plants and free of many predators–except cars–to be quite acceptable. We have made many of our neighborhoods perfect deer habitats.

Deer usually travel their territory on specific trails at specific times. They keep the same schedule most of the time, so if you can disrupt their daily visit to your yard or garden they may bypass your area and bother others instead.

If you know where they enter your property, consider adding a fence there. It can be a sturdy 8-foot-tall fence or it can be a simple 5- to 7-foot temporary fence of deer netting. This netting is monofilament line (like fishing line), usually black in color, with 3/4- to 1-inch squares. From a few feet away, it is not very visible. Since deer will not see it easily, they bump into it with their sensitive noses. Not seeing it clearly or being able to know what it is may be enough to cause them to change their route, as is the uncertainty of running into it on “their” path. They may also break through it but, because it is temporary, it can be put up again.

If you have a larger open area where deer may enter, use a permaculture response. Plant a hedgerow of plants. Permaculture (a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture”) is a way of gardening that looks at the whole system and all the parts and activities involved in that system. It is a way of working with nature and using what we learn to garden more easily–for example, “stacking” plant functions so that every plant creates more than one useful benefit. When using permaculture there is no waste, energy is recycled again and again, small changes are made when needed, and observation is important. While there is a lot that goes into this, basically it is working with nature and harnessing the systems of energy in nature to create a more sustainable and resilient outdoor space.

Animals are part of the whole picture and if you have an issue with deer you can consider what and how and where you plant to direct the deer around your yard. A deer-deterring hedgerow can be done in a number of ways. One way is to plant sacrificial plants on the outside of the hedge. The deer will eat these and be on their way. Plant thickly so they can’t walk through the hedge. Plant your desired plants on the inside of the hedge. You can also plant thorny plants, such as raspberries or native plums, on the outside of the hedge. The deer may or may not eat them and, when planted closely, will not push through them. You can, if you want, also install a fence as an additional barrier between these two plants’ lines. It only needs to be 4 or 5 feet tall. Deer are prey animals and rely on their senses of sight and smell to keep them safe. If they can’t see through the area, they are unlikely to push through it–there could be a wolf, coyote, or other predator in there!

Of course, you can always plant plants’ the deer don’t eat–but if they are hungry enough they will graze on just about anything. By using what you know about the deer and their habits, you can gently redirect them away from your yard.

Another option is to create a hammock of bird netting or deer fencing that is just above the hostas, or other targeted plants, as they grow. As the deer lower their heads to snack on your plants, their noses hit the fencing instead and they don’t get to the plants. If you leave this netting up during autumn when the leaves fall, they may fall in the netting, making it easier to toss them into the compost or grass to be cut with your mulching mower rather than raking the hosta beds.

If you are not certain the damage is from deer, here are some signs:

  • Deer usually pull plants out of the ground while eating them. This is common in newly planted plants.
  • On shrubs and trees, the damage will have a shredded look to the cuts/ bites. It will also be at deer height, rather than lower and clipped neatly as it would be with rabbit damage.
  • You may also find deer droppings or evidence of them bedding down for the night or day.

You can use the deer’s sense of smell against them by using repellents that feature strong-smelling ingredients. Deer learn to live in an urban environment and get used to human smells, so change it up. Use garlic for a while, then rotten eggs, then switch to a more chemical smell or fragrant bar soap. Urine from wolves and coyotes may work. Even the family dog may help in this battle simply by leaving its smell in your yard. The deer may not know the dog they sense is a tiny toy poodle, not a large guard dog.

Hiding your plants in plain sight works too. Plant susceptible, tasty plants near the house or in containers on the deck or balcony. Those planted farther away can be hidden by fragrant herbs planted around them, or by ornamental grasses. Deer don’t seem to like to forage amongst the ornamental grasses for their food. Plant the grasses thickly near and around the plants you are protecting. It can be a beautiful addition to your landscape.

During spring and summer, deer browse mostly on tender plants and vegetables. In fall, they look for food with a higher fat or carbohydrate content to build their fat stores for winter. They prefer acorns, nuts, fruits, and other higher-calorie foods. Yes, they also enjoy the seeds from the bird feeder. So, clean up the acorns, pull the feeders at night, and pick up fallen fruit.

Deer also hear well and don’t like loud noises or unexpected events. A radio left on a talk station may work. Change it up and let them listen to various stations to see which works best. A line of cans can cause a ruckus when bumped–hang them near where the deer walk. As mentioned previously, you may also want to invest in a motion-activated sprinkler (just remember to turn it off during the day or you will get blasted too).

As prey animals, deer have a limited sense of sight, which you can use this against them. Hang 6- to 8-inch-long pieces of white cloth from fences or bushes about deer tail high to mimic the white flag of alarm that does use to warn others of danger. The white works well at dusk and in early dawn lighting.

During fall, the male deer begin the rut season, where they rub the velvet from their antlers and spar with other males for the right to mate or hold territory. This rubbing can damage tree bark, especially the tender bark of fruit trees or newly planted trees. Protect the trunks of these trees with a cylinder of hardware cloth around the trunk and up to the first branch. Using hardware cloth instead of paper tape or chicken wire will protect the tree from rabbit, vole, and mouse damage also.

During winter, the deer will still be actively browsing and eating in their territory. Now the food they will eat will be the bark of trees and shrubs, lichens, and the twigs and branches of trees they can reach. A favorite winter food will be your arborvitae (evergreen). Protect these plants with deer fencing over the shrubs, tall fencing to exclude the deer, or more repellents that focus on smell. You will need to reapply the repellents due to weather or time according to label directions. Granular products may last longer in cold temperatures.

Deer also love fruit tree twigs and branches during winter. Protect the trees with fencing–a ring of two or three fences they can’t easily figure out how to jump over may work. Hanging repellents from tree branches may help as well as spraying with hot pepper spray. Remember, reapply these sprays frequently during winter.

Deer are ruminants–animals with a four-part stomach–so they can ingest and get nourishment from a wide variety of plant sources, many of which are harder to digest like bark and twigs and lichens. You may even want to give in and, if legal and it makes sense to you, provide corn or other food in a far-off location for the deer in your yard.

Motion-activated bright lights may deter them or make it uncomfortable for them to bed down in your yard. The resulting damage to your gardens and the feces they leave are reasons enough to encourage them to move on.

Be aware: You must know the legal ramifications of any action you take to hunt or physically remove deer from your property.

More from: The Guide to Humane Critter Control

Protect Your Turf: The Benefits of White Clover

Reprinted with permission from The Human Guide to Critter Control by Theresa Rooney and published by Cool Springs Press, 2017.