Wild Grit: Deerproof Your Garden

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A scent cap with a few drops of apple scent will get deer close enough to feel the fence.
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Hot tape (temporary electric fence) offers both a visual and a pain barrier for deer.
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Deer were so plentiful in the truckpatch one season that they lined up along the road at sunset like hungry diners patiently eyeing an enticing restaurant menu. A neighbor swore he saw them wearing little bibs.

After dark, the farmer started hearing a voice in the lettuce patch, “Bambi, your table for four is ready…”

If that sounds all too familiar, take heart. You’re not alone. Deer populations throughout the country are said to be at their highest levels in 100 years. There are nearly 2 million deer in Alabama alone.

Don’t despair, you are not defenseless against marauding deer. Deer may be smart, determined and downright sneaky, but gardeners whose prize plants have been gnawed to pieces by what some of us call long-legged rats are even craftier.

Know your enemy

Rather than camping out on the back porch with the .30-30, resourceful gardeners use a wide variety of simple tricks and tools to keep deer at bay by targeting their keen senses of smell, hearing and sight. Home-brewed repellents, high-tech booby traps, invisible or electric fencing and even motion detectors target deer’s strengths – and turn the tables against them.

Smell – Unpleasant odors that are barely noticeable to humans can turn a deer’s stomach – and its tracks away from your potatoes or prize petunias.

That’s because their black, wet noses can sniff out dinner – or danger – from half a mile away. Bucks have the sharpest sense of smell with some 500 million olfactory sensors in their noses. Deer also have seven glands that are primarily used to communicate (and ultimately mate) through scents.

Disgusting though it might sound, you can both repel and attract deer with the right smell. Things like highly scented deodorant soap, rotten eggs, ammonia, wettable sulfur, garlic, clumps of human hair and even cheap perfume or aftershave tend to turn deer away. Soap, hair and other solid stinky stuff can be hung from posts, stakes or branches in mesh bags, panty hose legs or pieces of cheese cloth. (We didn’t promise this would be pleasant. But you want to get rid of the deer, right?) One limitation of all scent barriers is that rain eventually washes their potency away. They must be replenished regularly.

Peanut butter or apple juice, on the other hand, bring deer running. Why would you want to attract deer? To make sure that their wet noses make contact with your electric fence.

You can “bait” an electric fence cheaply and easily with strips of aluminum foil smeared with peanut butter. Premier Fence in Washington, Iowa, sells “scent caps” that attach to their 3-D anti-deer fence. They are made of twist-off metal pop bottle caps stuffed with cotton balls. A strand of soft wire attaches them to the fence. Add a few drops of apple juice concentrate to the cotton, a few zaps and deer will soon get the message to stay away. The caps cost $1.30 each. Four ounces of apple scent is $6 (www.Premier1Supplies.com).

Many commercial deer repellents – Liquid Fence, Deer Off, Tree Guard, Garlic Barrier AG+, Plantskydd, Shake Away, Plot Saver and Deer Stopper – target a deer’s sense of smell.

Liquid Fence (www.LiquidFence.com) triggers instinctive deer fear because its formula, a mixture of “putrescent egg solids, garlic, sodium lauryl sulfate, potassium sorbate and water,” is designed to smell like rotting flesh. One quart of ready-to-use Liquid-Fence spray protects 500 square feet at a cost of $12.99. Shake Away repellents achieve a similar result in a different way. Their formula for deer and other large animals is granulated coyote urine. It works by taking advantage of “the strongest force in the animal kingdom … inborn, instinctive fear,” according to the company Web site (www.Critter-Repellent.com). Formulas for other pests use fox or bobcat urine or a blend of predator pee. A 20-ounce canister of deer repellent treats up to 600 linear feet at a cost of $15.95.

Truly frugal gardeners have been known to save their own urine and sprinkle it around gardens and prize plantings to ward off deer and other pests. Some truly enterprising gardeners lace their gardens with tiger or lion manure from nearby zoos.

Sound – Those long, pointy ears that rotate like NASA tracking antennae pick up the smallest sounds. A radio or boombox left on near the garden alerts deer that something is not quite right here.

Vary the programming. Try talk radio one night, heavy metal the next. A motion sensor called the DeerChaser turns on the radio and a small spotlight when a deer wanders within its 25-foot range. It retails at $79.95, plus shipping and handling (PestControl.netfirms.com).

The electronic YardGard is a weather-resistant motion sensor that emits powerful and annoying signals when pests approach. Its frequency can be adjusted to target not just deer, but also raccoons, skunks, dogs, cats and even rodents. It protects up to 4,000 square feet. The device runs on household current or four C batteries (not included) and sells for $74.95. (Visit www.Gemplers.com for this and a variety of other repellents.)

Aluminum pie pans tied to stakes in the garden flop around in the wind, making a noise and motion that spook deer.

Sight – Deer are color blind, which is why a hunter’s “blaze orange” outfit does not send them running for the hills, but they actually have excellent eyesight. A deer’s bushy white tail is a natural danger flag, so anything white that waves side to side puts deer on guard.

The half-inch wide “hot tape” temporary electric fencing we use around our larger vegetable and flower plantings is white with a black stripe up the middle to catch Bambi’s eye. The tape bounces like a white tail in  the wind, warning deer to be wary. It also hums in a breeze and howls in a gale.

Our plantings are also small enough that deer can see all sides of the fence. Deer are smart enough to recognize it as an enclosure and sense that if they get in they might not be able to get out, say the deer experts at Premier Fence.

The fence stands only 4 feet high, so it’s not a physical barrier, but a psychological barrier. With up to 9,000 volts pulsing through it, the hot tape packs enough punch to hurt but not incapacitate the animal.

Vary the tactics

Deer are also creatures of habit. They don’t like changes or surprises. Deer use the same trails day after day. So, if you notice a footpath becoming well-worn by pointy hooves, block it. Leave a wheelbarrow here, the riding mower there. Rotate the size and location of the obstacles. Keep the garden raiders off balance.

Dampen deer’s appetite with a surprise cold shower. The Scarecrow is a battery-operated motion sensor that attaches to a garden hose. When an animal gets too close, the Scarecrow will spray an area 35 feet deep and 45 feet wide for $89, plus $15 for mounting bracket. (Visit www.Contech-Inc.com/products for more information.)

Eight-foot-tall black plastic netting similar to that used to keep birds out of berry bushes and fruit trees can be used as perimeter fence to keep deer out of the garden. Benner’s Gardens’ “virtually invisible deer fencing” is a leading brand (www.BennersGardens.com).

Just stringing multiple strands of monofilament fishing line around your garden befuddles deer. Walking into the unseen line is unpleasant, confusing and even scary, like getting tangled in thick cobwebs in your attic or basement.

Chicken wire makes a great deer deterrent, too. Instead of standing it upright on posts, though, lay it flat on the ground, hidden in the grass. When deer feel their hooves getting tangled in the wire, they’ll look for easier pickings elsewhere.

Modify the menu

Last, but not least, change the menu to help deerproof the patch. Deer don’t particularly care for many plants, and others actually help repel deer. Instead of setting out a free salad bar, at least ring it with plants said to repel the midnight marauders (www.PreferredConsumer.com).

Then, you won’t have to worry as much when that little voice calls out, “Bambi, your table is ready.” Instead of a regular diner, Bambi may turn into a no-show.

When it comes to deer, vegetable grower George DeVault believes that good fences do make good neighbors – as long as you never turn the fence charger off.

Deer Facts

  • Deer eat 4 to 6 pounds of forage every day for each 100 pounds of body weight. For an average-size deer, that translates into more than one ton of forage each year. 
  • They’re dangerous. Besides hosting deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, deer are involved in more than 500,000 automobile accidents nationwide every year. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio lead the country in collisions with deer. Damage averages $2,800 per wreck for a total of about $1.4 billion a year, and about 100 people die in deer-related accidents annually. 
  • Deer can run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, swim at 13 mph and jump a 9-foot-tall fence with a leap up to 25 feet long. 
  • They breed like rabbits. Does as young as six months can breed, and after their first fawn, nearly 80 percent of them drop twins – or triplets.

Additional Information

For even more deer-repelling ideas, read Deer Proofing Your Yard & Garden by Rhonda Massingham Hart (Storey Publishing, 1997).