The “sweet, little deer” must be watching my garden bloom, because they’ve decided it’s time to see what I have to offer. The battle begins! What they don’t know is that I am more ready this time. I’ve learned a few hard lessons after living here for over three years. I had to bite the bullet and give away plants they constantly devoured (even between sprays of deer repellent). I changed my design and interspersed plants that deer almost always reject, like lavender, rosemary, daffodils and some herbs. I still grow plants deer love, like pansies, but in a limited amount so I can frequently use repellent.
FENCING: Proper fencing is the most effective method of defense against deer. A seven-to-eight-foot fence is the best, although six feet is often high enough. The fence should be made from materials that even fawns cannot get through. But many of us have yards that don’t make fencing feasible in some areas. In that case, you can use fencing only for the areas where they tend to feast and where using deterrent sprays is not practical or safe. Vegetable and fruit gardens (and even large rose plantings) should be fenced.
INDIVIDUAL PLANT PROTECTORS: You can also defend some plants from damage individually, which is more economical than perimeter fencing. Cages can be made of poultry wire, heavily woven wire or strong plastic netting. Use strong materials – don’t underestimate the strength or persistence of our deer! These individual protectors should be tall – at least five feet high (seven feet is a safer bet). Surround the plant or tree with strong stakes and form a circle around it, leaving enough room for growth. Some wire protectors can be removed once the plant is tall enough for the foliage to be out of reach.
DEER RESISTANT PLANTS: Deer are browsers and eat a wide variety of vegetation. They will eat some plants consistently, some only occasionally and some almost never. Deer may browse through our yards, nibbling on new plantings, determining if they are palatable. It depends how desperate and hungry they are.
There are many published lists of deer resistant plants. Plant characteristics that deer may reject are bitterness, spiciness, toxicity (like oleander) or rough leaves and stems (although they love roses!). Junipers, cedars, spruce, pines, oaks and redwoods are safe bets, as are many ornamental grasses and ferns. Also consider shrubs such as manzanita, oleander, spirea, holly, viburnum, toyon and barberry. Perennials like lavender, catmint, coreopsis, artemisia, foxglove, gaillardia, peony and Shasta daisy also work well. Bulbs include iris and daffodils, along with some herbs such as basil, thyme, rosemary and sages (salvias). Please note: a hungry deer will eat anything, many “deer-resistant” plants are browsed when they are small and tender, and fawns will try everything while learning.
REPELLENTS: Some chemical repellents work better than others. Many don’t last long, especially during rain and overhead irrigation, and must be re-applied. They deter deer via strong tastes and smells. I learned the hard way to not spray with the wind in my direction – the smell stays with you!
Trying to frighten deer with noise making devices or motion activated lights is ineffective. They get smart all too quickly and adjust to them.
My latest method is shaking blood meal over the plants they want to browse. Taken from slaughterhouses, whole blood is purified and spray dried. The resulting product is blood meal, used as an organic fertilizer. Since it is a high-nitrogen fertilizer, don’t overdo. Nitrogen stimulates lush, green growth. A couple of my plants-Canterbury Bells and penstemon-grew too tall on the excess nitrogen and got floppy. Deer love all the lush new growth created by the repellant I used to discourage them in the first place! (Excess nitrogen also moves easily through soil and-with our recent, generous rainfall or irrigation-will contaminate wells, storm run-off and surface streams and lakes.)
Don’t give up on creating a garden that is relatively impervious to damage from our sometimes ravenous deer. I have found that a combination of all four techniques suggested above can be effective. When the deer become accustomed to one form of resistance, change it up. Be prepared to accept some deer-damage. When I lose the battle of the deer, I just sigh and admire their splendor and grace. Peace comes when I accept that they are part of what makes the Sierra Foothills beautiful and exciting!
Kathy Nunes, previously a Bay Area Master Gardener, transferred to the UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener program in 2009. She has gotten into great shape by chasing the deer from her garden and replacing plants they keep ripping up and eating.