You look out your kitchen window at the Knock Out roses (Rosa radrazza) you planted last season. Three deer, a momma and two fawns, are eating away on your pride and joy. You yell and knock on the window and all they do is stop momentarily, look your direction, and go back to eating their breakfast. You run out the door and chase them away, all the while knowing they will be back tomorrow or the next day.
It’s enough to make a vegetarian want to hunt. It’s war! Now what do you do?
This scenario plays out daily around the country, wherever there are deer and gardens. There are some things we can do but start with knowing your enemy. Remember this is war.
Understanding deer prey behavior, keen senses, habits, curiosity, communication and adaptability, will give you the upper hand.
Deer only have two things on their minds, survival and reproduction. This means they have a healthy appetite, and your garden is a smorgasbord of delectable offerings waiting for them to devour. Deer are sneaky, often munching away on your hostas (Plantain lilies) at night.
Deer are curious about their surroundings, communicate with one another, and are creatures of habit. They observe their surroundings, learn what is normal and have excellent noses. Their eyes are located on the sides of their heads giving them 310 degree vision that enables them to detect even the slightest movement.
Deer are also very fast and agile. They can reach speeds of 35 mph and jump nine feet.
Now that we know a bit about our nemeses, how does that help? To start we can evaluate our gardens to determine what it is they are eating. My neighbor’s roses are a constant target but mine are left alone. Why? Maybe it’s because hers are drift roses (Rosa hybrida ‘Drift’) or maybe it’s because they stand alone, whereas my Knock Out roses (Rosa radazza) are surrounded by rosemary and lavender, both plants that the deer do not seem to like.
You have options once you determine what the deer are going after. You can tear them out and replace them with plants the deer do not general like. You could also surround them with deer resistant plants, or you could put up physical barriers or even add smelly deterrents, just to name a few choices.
Let’s start with removing those deer delectable like hostas (Plantain lilies), daylilies (Hemerocallis Spp.), pansies (Viola Spp.), tulips (Tulipa Spp.), roses (Rosa Spp.) and hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylia) and replace them with plants the deer do not like to eat. That may be a hard thing to do after all the work you already have put into your garden.
Maybe just inter-planting those deer resist plants would work better for you. Add daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) to your tulip bed and edge it with boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) two plants deer generally avoid. To save your hostas, try bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) and columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), interspersed among them. Mixing butterfly bush, (Buddleja davidii) or forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) with your roses may deter the ravenous deer.
Sometimes just surrounding the fringes of your garden with unpalatable plants like chives (Allium schoenoprasum), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), or rosemary (Salvia Rosmarinus), is enough to throw them off the scent of your taster foliage. It is all trial and error.
Remember, deer are adaptable so you have to be prepared for a protracted battle.
If the deer resistant plants did not work well, what else can you try? Of course you could always surround your garden with a nine-foot-high fence, but if the deer see an open spot, they may still hop over for a nibble. And do you really want your front yard to look like a fortress?
Some people have had success with fishing line strung around their garden at the height of three feet. The deer cannot see the line and when they brush up against it, they are startled and flee. This may work for a while until the deer realize that the poles they see around your garden hide the line and they just jump over to feast.
That leaves us with the smelly deterrents. There are two strategies: to jam the senses or send the red alert to their senses. Jamming the deer’s sense of smell does not necessarily mean offending our sense of smell. Some strong odors are not offensive, just intense while others are, admittedly downright putrid. The smell of lavender is pleasant while the smell of rotten eggs and garlic is foul. Either makes it hard for the deer to scent the wind for dangers which makes them uncomfortable. An uncomfortable deer is a deer on constant alert and the slightest sign of danger will send them running.
A more direct approach is the scent of a predator. These scents are often more effective than jamming as they set off the flight response. The problem with all scent deterrents is that they must be reapplied after a rain or a few weeks as they lose their potency.
By now you have most likely realized that winning the war against the insatiable deer is going to be a constant battle. You may have to employ more than one strategy to deter them and that deterrence may be short lived. Short of pulling out your garden and letting everything go back to nature so you can enjoy watching the deer nibble away, you will have to use trial and error to determine what works today and be ready to adapt and change your strategy for tomorrow.
Or as my husband suggests, place a deer stand in your garden. That way the deer will know you are serious about winning the war.
(Curtis, Paul D. (2018) Reducing deer damage to ornamental and garden plants. Cornell Cooperative Extension. https://monroe.coe.cornell.edu.
DeNicola, Anthony J., VerCauteren, Kurt C., Curtis, Paul D. and Hygnstrom, Scott E. (2000). Managing white-tailed deer in suburban environments. Cornell Cooperative Extension. https://ecommons.cornell.edu.)