Deer Wear Out Welcome in Any Garden
Repellents as Varied and Reliable as Any Other Opinions
This article was published on Wednesday, February 14, 2007 5:28 PM CST in Your Home
By Gerald Klingaman
The Morning News
Out at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, we're
approaching spring planting season and beginning to feel a bit
apprehensive about all the deer tracks. A few weeks ago I
solicited suggestions for effective deer repellent solutions
from readers, partly because of our upcoming deer plague at the
Botanical Garden and partly because it is a common topic of
inquiry from readers. So let's consider keeping Bambi at bay.
There are four basic ways to keep deer away from your garden: 1) fencing, 2) repellents, 3) scaring them away or 4) planting things they don't want to eat. The usefulness of these techniques depends on lots of factors and changes throughout the growing season as deer move about or other food sources occur. Sometimes we (or a renegade neighbor) send deer mixed signals; feeding corn so we can watch them from the comfort of our sofa and then complaining when they snap off the tops of all the tulips.
Of the control measures, only fencing seems to be completely effective. Deer fence needs to be substantial, reminiscent of the Great Wall of Arkansas. Eight-foot-high woven wire is the usual recommendation, but shorter woven fences are useful deterrents, provided there are neighbors in the area with unfenced yards. Fencing is not an especially expensive proposition for a vegetable garden or a small back yard, but if acreage is involved, the price mounts. This worked at the Blue Springs site near Eureka Springs, provided the fence was kept repaired and the gates closed. I've been told deer won't jump into areas they can't see into, so a 6-foot-tall privacy fence should also work.
Electric fencing can also be used for larger parcels. A friend runs a nursery out in Madison County surrounded on all sides by National Forest land. One of her major crops is hosta, an all-time favorite deer food. She uses electric fencing but with a diabolical twist. When the fence first went up, they hung pieces of aluminum foil slathered with a thick coating of peanut butter about 20 feet apart down the length of the fence. Electrical shock applied directly to the tongue proves to be an excellent example of Pavlovian conditioning. She said deer would stand outside the fence and watch them work in the hostas but would not cross the fence.
Lightweight plastic net fencing is another solution many gardeners have found effective. It is available from various suppliers as either a threadlike filament barrier similar to bird netting or more visible kinds reminiscent of the plastic construction barriers you see, but in black or green, not orange. Usually it comes in 7- or 8-feet-tall rolls that are 100 feet long. Some come with specially designed posts to hold the fencing aloft while others suggest you devise your own supports. A friend uses this to surround his vegetable garden here in Fayetteville and has had good luck growing corn and beans, favorite deer browse. I found one report from a university study questioning the effectiveness of the see-through types, but others swear by them.
Fencing is great, but why spend all that money on a fence when you can just get out the sprayer? Deer repellents and natural cures for erectile dysfunction seem to be the patent medicine darlings of the Internet. Most deer repellents work on the somewhat dubious notion that deer are like people and avoid stinky places. They usually combine concoctions of rotten eggs (or sulfur), urine (or ammonia), sometimes various fatty acids used in soaps, and as a treat for the taste buds, various kinds of hot peppers.
These products require repeated applications --
especially as new flowers appear and after every rainfall. And
even if it doesn't rain and the plants aren't growing, stinky
stuff always becomes less stinky over time, so more will be
needed. Brands such as Deer-Off, Liquid Fence, Deer Out and the
judge's choice in the product naming category, Not Tonight Deer,
are available at local nurseries or from Internet sources.
Carolyn Boudreaux, the grounds manager of the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, uses Deer Off (a mixture of rotten eggs and cyan pepper) and blood meal every two weeks on a rotation. She says Deer Off often clogs the sprayer and leaves a residue. This combo treatment keeps deer away pretty well, and her hostas have been left alone, but she does lose a flower here or there.
Other stinky ideas -- coyote urine, mountain lion urine (and musk) and feces of various large predators -- all have their advocates. The visual imagery of coyote or mountain lion urine collection has its own levity regardless of the effectiveness of the products. Just how do they do that? Is it piecework where the urine is wild-collected by gangs of rugged and slightly odd mountain men? Or are there coyote factories like the pregnant mare farms in Canada where farmers smelling of horse urine eat lunch at the caf during the winter?
Another variation of the stinky idea is to hang bars of Irish Spring soap or bundles of human hair bound in old nylons from the branches of trees like odd looking garden ornaments. One reader reported Irish Spring works effectively in her garden, but the bars lost effectiveness after a month or so and had to be replaced. I found one research report saying Irish Spring does deter feeding, but later in the report the researcher make a disclaimer that the effectiveness of a given treatment depends on the location of the plot. Because deer are creatures of habit, treatments close to the deer trails were uniformly less effective than treatments away from the trail.
Scaring them off is another possibility. Large, noisy dogs work best, although the dog solution does have some drawbacks. Said dogs can be an annoyance to the neighbors should their yapping be nonstop or their patrolling extend beyond their rightful property boundaries. And for the gardener, guard dogs can be a challenge. Ideally, a good deer dog would always be on patrol and not digging in the flower beds, but sometimes they get distracted on a warm spring day when the sun is shining just so.
Tom Dillard, who gardens in Farmington, says the best deer dog is a Great Pyrenees. It goes without saying that any deer dog worth his or her dog chow must spend the night on patrol, not sprawled across the couch in the den.
Other scare-off tactics such as motion detectors that turn on a water sprinkler or air horn, sparkling bobbles suspended from trees and fences and the ever-popular high frequency deer blasters all have their proponents. My dad swore by the glue-on deer whistles he attached to the front fenders of his car. He never hit a deer, thus proving they worked. The fact his night vision was a bit suspect and he almost never drove after dark was not part of the equation.
Ultimately, that's the problem with assessing the effectiveness of any deer control strategy. All the evidence is anecdotal, and deer have the annoying habit of moving about freely, learning things, and if times are hard, eating about anything. They can even learn to enjoy a bit of hot sauce seasoning. To complicate matters, lists of deer-resistant plants are long and detailed but often contradictory.
So ultimately, dealing with a deer problem may be a Zen thing. We should manage our gardens to minimize deer damage but, when it occurs -- as it almost assuredly will -- learn to appreciate it as a bit of wildness intruding into our otherwise staid existence.