Coexisting with Deer on Rural Properties

Deer and other wildlife can wreak havoc in gardens and lawns—unless managed for coexistence by using deer fencing properly and more.

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by Lois Hoffman
Two fawns peek out from the tall grass in the early spring.

I overheard them talking the other day. Well, maybe it was more like snickering. The deer were at the edge of my yard–again, bringing up this annual question for how I can keep coexisting with deer on my rural property. One whispered to the other, “Well, you know, Junior, it’s almost spring and you know what that means.” With a whimsical look, Junior looked up at Mom and asked, “What?”

With a twinkle in her eye, she answered, “It means the human will be putting out her huge garden again, full of appetizers and dessert for us after we eat the farmer’s beans and young corn shoots.”

“Hey, save some for me, you know I like the young leafy vegetables,” the woodchuck chimed in.

“Oh, there will be plenty for all of us, especially with all the sweet hostas and other plants she puts out,” Mama replied.

Battling Deer as Garden Pests

Well, surprise, surprise this year. I have decided that the garden is off limits for wildlife and I have a few tactics up my sleeve to make sure of that. Truth be told, as annoying and destructive as they are, it’s not all the fault of the wildlife. People are leaving the cities and suburbia and headed for the country. They think it is so nice to build right up near the woods so they can see the wildlife. What they don’t realize, is that they are taking over wildlife habitats and feeding grounds. Critters are being driven out, which is why they encroach on us. In a weird twist of fate, deer and other wildlife are even finding their way into our suburbs and cities in search of food and living space.

Even so, I will not put all my time and money into a garden only to let deer and other creatures wreak havoc there. There has to be some peace. There used to be a herd of five or six deer that stayed in my swamp and would venture out to eat some crops in the field behind my place and across the road from me. So, naturally, my garden was a nice stopping place for a few choice bites.

Largely because of strict and restrictive hunting laws, the herds have become over-populated. This is even unfortunate for the deer, because more and more are being killed along the roadside and others are succumbing to disease. Until the states make changes to control deer populations, we homeowners have to learn to co-exist and also to protect our gardens and lawns. Have heart, there are some ways to do that.

Photo by Lois Hoffman

Coexisting with Deer on Rural Properties

Be Mindful Where Garbage and Compost Go

Do-it-yourself compost for the garden is a good thing. What better place to throw your grass clippings, leaves and table scraps than on a pile at the edge of the garden? After all, it will be close by and easy to spread. Well, hello, this is just a big invite for wildlife to come and dine. Last year, I started a pile out by the barn, at the opposite end of my 3-acre yard from the garden. I take a little walk each night with my table scraps to throw on the pile and when it is “cooked”, I take it up to the garden with the tractor and bucket.

Also, be mindful of where you throw your garbage. We country folks are lucky that we can toss ours at the edge of the field. It decomposes and adds nutrients to the land. However, I have to remember not to throw it directly behind the house because that too draws critters.

Use Deer Fencing Properly

Stringing 30-weight fish line around the perimeter of the garden works pretty well. The deer can’t see it so it scares them when they run into it and they retreat. However, if you don’t string it close enough, the smaller deer step through it and lower strings get tangled up in rototillers and other equipment.

Also, it is not enough to keep groundhogs and other smaller critters out. Last year, I lost three rows of small greens overnight to a family of groundhogs. So, this year, I will be going with black mesh deer netting fastened to metal T-bar garden posts. This can be rolled up at the end of the season and used year after year. It can also be placed close enough to the ground to keep small animals as well as deer out. I did not want a permanent fence because there would be no way to get the tractor and plow in every other year to turn the soil.

Deer can jump high but not both high and long distance at the same time. So, a single fence needs to be at least 8 feet high. Lower fences of 4 to 6 feet can be used if you use a double row with enough distance between them that they can’t jump across the expanse. I am not fond of this idea, because the space in between is wasted space and is an ideal spot for weeds to grow.

Electric fences work well but are more labor-intensive to install and maintain. You have to be vigilant that no weeds grow up and short them out.

Large rocks around the perimeter of the garden are also a deterrent as deer don’t like to walk on rocky, unstable areas. However, they have to also be wide enough that they can’t be jumped.

Deer-Resistant Plants

As much as they like to peruse the garden, deer are picky eaters. They don’t like fuzz or heavy foliage against their tongues. This makes plants like lambs ear, tuberous begonias and yarrow good choices. They will eat between the thorns on roses and raspberries to get the tender leaves, so prickly foliage with spines on the leaves also are a deterrent.

Heavily fragranced plants will also deter them, because they confuse the olfactory systems. Plant sage, bee balm, and lantana. All ferns, daffodils, bleeding hearts, poppies, and many other plants are toxic to deer and they inherently leave them alone. Also good choices are plants with leaves that are hard for them to digest like irises, wax begonias, peonies and viburnums.

Although they consume grasses, they cannot live solely on them and they prefer plants with woody stalks. Thus, ornamental grasses are good barriers. Using these deer-resistant plants add versatility and beauty to the garden while also keeping deer at bay.

Photo by Lois Hoffman

Deer-Repellant Sprays

There are many varieties of these on the market. Many use essential oils, garlic, chili peppers, eggs and other putrid smells. The key to them working is being consistent. This is not a spray once and forget thing. It’s more like a weekly ritual to be effective.

Other strategies include motion activated sprinklers that will scare deer away. However, you need either more than one or to keep moving one around the garden to keep the element of surprise. There are also ultrasonic deer repellers, although they can be a bit pricey.

As for hostas, hydrangeas and other plants that are desserts for deer outside of the garden, dusting them with cayenne pepper or hot pepper flakes is very effective…apparently they don’t like hot spice on their tongues! Of course, you have to be diligent and apply after rains, dew, etc.

I plan on using a little bit of all these strategies this year. After all, I am selfish when it comes to the garden, it is for us. So, all you deer and other critters, bring it on — I have a surprise for you this year!

Lois Hoffman is a freelance writer and photographer covering rural living with more than 20 years of experience, contributing to Successful Farming, Country, and Farm & Ranch Living. She lives on a 37-acre hobby farm in Michigan.

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