Deer Control

Garden expert Sally Cunningham offers some tips and tricks that may save your garden


This article from 2010 addresses a universal problem for suburban and rural homeowners that seems to get worse every year. Spree gardening correspondent Sally Cunningham has some common sense solutions and a philosophical attitude in her piece, “Coping with Deer:”


Deer are living among us, from Amherst to Orchard Park, Grand Island to Eden. It isn’t their choice; it isn’t a problem they created. They need acres to roam, woods for shelter, and lots of plants to stay alive. Humans have encroached, as humans tend to do, and left the animals with insufficient habitat. In addition, we have killed or driven away their natural predators. The rural hunting culture is also less popular now, and largely unsuitable in the suburban neighborhood. So deer reproduce and try to live. What else are they to do?And how do they survive? They eat your shrubs. Home landscapes provide perfect deer fodder, in the form of well-nourished, succulent plants, grouped conveniently together. (Deer don’t need concentrated high-protein food as much as a quantity of stems, twigs, and buds—specifically called “browse material.”) Especially late in winter, the tips of our shrubs may provide the only nutrients they can find.


For many homeowners locally, the deer pressure (the number per acre) has become so severe they have given up gardening. But we do have options to minimize deer damage and achieve comfortable coexistence. It isn’t easy; it is a trial-and-error process. But for those who refuse to give up their gardens, it’s worth the effort.


Know your (four-legged) neighbor

We should understand the animals we live among, especially if we want to outsmart them. Two deer characteristics may help you keep a garden:


1. Deer are xenophobic—fearful of anything foreign or strange. That is why most deer-scaring tricks (lights, radios, barking dogs) work for a while, until they get used to them. Still, you can do a lot to make the environment around the garden seem weird to them, and keep them away for awhile (see below). When deer are migrating, your set-up will deter lots of them. But the resident animals eventually figure out your tricks unless you keep changing the game. 


2. Deer are creatures of habit. They usually repeat their travel routes and take to certain eateries just as we do. So, it’s extremely important you get deer repellants, blocks, and scare devices in place early every season. Once Mama has introduced the kids to your salad bar, you’re probably in for the duration, and they can leap—or tear apart—many a barrier.


Deer-deterring tricks

(Remember—our xenophobes learn quickly, so keep it moving)


Foreign smells: Scented dryer strips, fragrant soap bars, Liquid Fence, and other products containing Thiram—all are weird in deer-world.


Odd flooring: Old carpets, shower curtains or tarps, or chicken wire laid on the ground around a garden often keep deer from walking there until the snow is deep.


Horse manure: Manure, spread around a planting, repels. (Avoid fresh manure touching plants.) 


Fencing: While some deer can leap ten-foot fences, they need an open area and running start to do so. (They can’t leap up straight from a close position.) So seven-foot fences can help. In many areas, gardeners succeed with a simple post and single-wire fence at five feet, strewn intermittently with repellant-soaked white cloth strips. 


Smell of the enemy: Coyote or fox urine has tested well as a natural repellant that deer do not get used to—because they smell a real enemy. Human hair in bags, dog urine (and yes, even human urine along the garden edge; don’t ask the particulars) may all deter deer. 


Plant covering: Products such as the Shrub-Coat product line save the rhododendrons. Deer netting and burlap may work, or may be torn. 


No guarantees

Gardening among the deer is challenging. Conditions change year by year. Newcomers or babies try plants the parents never ate. Habitat disappears a mile away, and your yard is now the hottest place in town. Expect them. Know you will have to keep changing your strategies, and use several at once. 


It may also help to keep perspective. These are beautiful creatures. Many of us still feel privileged to see them. They did not ask for our over-crowded world, and—while we cope—we might try to muster some compassion and a little awe.


Sally Cunningham gardens and landscapes in East Aurora, New York, among the deer. She is a garden author, lecturer, TV garden advisor, and consultant at Lockwood’s Greenhouses. 


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