Last summer I returned home from vacation to find my vegetable garden devoured by Bambi. My first instinct was to run for the shotgun, but since that wasn’t a legal option in July, alternatives had to be found.
I did some reading on the subject of deer deterrents and found that, like the old saying about opinions, everyone had one.
In many areas of the United States, deer populations are on the rise. According to wildlife biologists with the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department, mild winters and decreased hunting pressure are the major factors for this population boom.
“The deer herd is increasing because we (Fish & Game) let it,” they say. Lobbying by anti-hunting groups produces shortened seasons. That and fewer hunters in the woods results in escalating numbers of deer. An increased development of wild land habitat has brought man in close proximity to deer.
This spells trouble for farmers, gardeners, and orchardists. Apples are a big cash crop here in the northeast, and the growers are hopping mad, demanding answers from Fish & Game biologists. Unfortunately, the one sure-fire method of keeping deer out of your crops—an electric fence— is also the most expensive.
The rise in deer predation of home and commercial gardens has triggered a booming market featuring dozens of products all touted by their manufacturers as fool-proof deterrents. What really works? Well, it depends.
I know, that’s not an informative answer, but that’s the problem. Nothing except a fence works all the time. How well and how long a product works depends upon a couple of factors.
First, how hungry are the deer?
With increased populations, the competition for available food becomes fierce. A starving deer in early spring will eat anything.
There are a few plant materials they have a problem with, and this can be to your advantage. Deer have a hard time swallowing something with fuzzy leaves. They also dislike a plant that smells spicy. This is one reason deer usually leave the strong-smelling herbs alone.
However, a ravenous deer is like Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” eating his old boot. Any plant can be fair game, and in a particularly hard year, they’ll try anything. The trick is to shoo them away from what you want to eat yourself.
The second factor is how finicky are the deer in your particular area?
Nearly all deer repellents work at one time or another on some deer. I’ve had good success with several methods, some of which didn’t work at all for my gardening friends. You have to keep trying and see what works for you.
A final factor is you. Most repellents work for about 4-6 weeks, but a heavy rain can ruin the efficacy of many. Deterrents require frequent application and constant monitoring to be truly useful.
If you’re the plant-it-and-forget-it type of gardener, you need a fence. If you’ve got the time and patience to mess about with repellents, they should work well for you.
Even I have finally resorted to fencing. A fence is the one sure method of keeping deer out of a garden or orchard, but there are a few requirements. A deer can jump anything lower than six-to eight-feet high, depending on the size of the deer.
No matter what material you plan on using, be sure the fence is at least seven-feet high for white tails, taller for mulies, and the bottom needs to be flush with the ground. Deer would rather go under than over, if possible.
An electric fence can be shorter. About four feet is adequate. A three-wire fence will keep the deer from stepping through it, and the bottom wire should be about 18 inches off the ground.
If you want to keep smaller garden raiders out, string a fourth wire closer to the ground. The juice has to be on. This seems obvious, but some orchardists complain that the thousand-dollar fence they bought doesn’t work worth a darn, only to find they’ve never hooked it up to any current.
Some of the cheapest and most effective fencing I’ve found is the nylon mesh that is sold as bird netting. Many companies now market the same thing in larger sizes labeled as deer net. It lasts for several years if taken inside each fall, and a big advantage of the netting is that it’s almost invisible.
This is partly why it works. Deer don’t like getting their faces tangled in it, and even though it’s flimsy, so far they haven’t tried to crash through ours. Deer won’t jump what they can’t see, so don’t top this with anything either. Low shrubbery around the base will keep the deer from being able to get a running start for any fence.
Fencing with net is a much cheaper proposition than electricity. Shop around. Usually, the bigger bolts are cheaper by the square foot than narrower ones. We got 15- foot wide stock and cut it in half.
Lengths of old rebar we had lying around served as fence posts, and we attached the mesh to them with fine wire. Next year we’ll replace the rebar with something more attractive, like poles cut from the woodlot, but for now, it makes a good utilitarian fence that isn’t too much of an eyesore.
Fencing isn’t always practical for some areas. They are either too small to bother with, too large for your budget to cope with, or too irregular shape to make sense of. For these areas, you have to resort to repellents.
During the first summer of our deer wars, we tested several repellent methods. We felt we couldn’t afford fencing and tried a few alternatives before purchasing enough fencing to protect two sides of the big vegetable garden. Our best deterrent performers protected the other two sides. We will use these methods in the orchard, the rose garden, and the smaller salad garden.
One of the first repellents we tried was coyote urine. Don’t ask me how it’s collected; I don’t want to know. But it was effective for nearly all the growing season.
We put rebar every six feet along the back of the garden and drizzled the urine down the entire length of each pole. Six weeks later we repeated the application.
There is some scientific evidence that herbivores are nervous about feeding in areas where predators are common. Though this may not work in all parts of the country, deer here seem to be shy of the smell of critters.
Another inexpensive repellent is blood meal. Deer won’t eat a plant if it doesn’t smell like a plant. Sprinkle the blood meal over the target vegetable. This works well on plants that head up like broccoli and cauliflower. The major drawbacks to this method are a good rain can wash it off, and too much will over-fertilize the plants, since blood meal is a good source of nitrogen.
One of the very best deterrents used by many orchardists in our area is also one of the cheapest—bars of soap. Hang the bars, still in the packaging, from the limbs of the orchard fruits and deer will steer clear. I like to use sample-sized bars filched from hotels I’ve stayed in.
Many orchardists claim one brand to be better than another; but recent studies at the University of New Hampshire suggest that varying the brands is more effective. This doesn’t give the deer a chance to get accustomed to any one smell. I leave the soaps on all winter and renew them in early spring when the feeding pressure cranks up.
One word of caution with soap: I attached several bars to stakes using rubber bands and scattered them among my roses, but eventually they all disappeared, paper and all. It was a long time before I found out where they went.
For some reason, crows love soap. Tie the bars securely to whatever you want to protect. I use knitting yarn and tie the bars up like a Christmas gift, wrapped on all four sides.
My husband’s aunt tipped me off to the one repellent that works the best for me. Though she lives in a suburb of Utica, NY, she was plagued with deer eating everything in sight in her yard. There’s an added bonus to this method. It’s free, and if you have the right connections you can get plenty of it.
You need to know a barber or hairdresser who’s willing to collect the clippings for you. Human hair, or rather the oil on it, makes an excellent deer deterrent. Fill mesh bags like those that oranges and onions come in with several hands-full of hair and hang them from poles near the plants you want to protect. I even throw in shed dog hair.
Two bags, one on either end of a 15-foot row of raspberries, kept the deer out of the canes all winter. The only problem I have with this method is the birds like to thieve the hair to line their nests in early spring. I’ve used the same batch of hair for two seasons now without renewing it, and it still seems to work.
There are several commercial deterrents on the market. If you choose to employ any of them, check to make sure they can be used on crops before applying them to fruits or vegetables.
Many aren’t recommended for human consumption, and most are costly. I’ve not used any of them because the cheaper methods work just fine.
Repellents should be placed about every six feet. However, you need to shorten the gap if this isn’t effective. Once again, it depends upon the deer and how voracious or finicky they are. Make sure the smell is at nose height for a deer, around three or four feet off the ground.
Whatever methods you use, be vigilant. As soon as you see any new damage from deer, either renew the repellent or change it to something else. This is the real secret of successfully keeping these cute but aggravating animals out of your garden.
If the neighbors laugh at gift-wrapped soaps in the fruit trees and bags of hair in the beans, let them. When Bambi pays them a visit and leaves your place alone, they’ll want to know what’s in those funny little packages.
The bottom line in the deer wars saving your crops for yourself. Try different methods and choose the ones that work best for you. Everything else is just a deer’s dinner.
This article was submitted by Amanda Scotts.
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