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Planning a “Deer-Proof” Garden – The Smelly-Fence Method

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Winter is the time for planning. We are currently finishing up the plans for our garden layout, the seedling schedules, our fertilizing schedules, our composting schedule and so much more. The calendar is full and there are charts all over the kitchen counter. The grow-lights are getting dusted and set up next week and there are already seedlings starting on the windowsills. Spring is coming!

One of the most important things for us to do as part of our planning process is to determine how to best protect our garden in the upcoming season. When we lived in the city, this meant putting up “Please do not pick from our private garden!” signs and covering our kale to protect it from those lovely green cabbage worms. In the country, this means covering those leafy greens and fortifying our garden fencing.

Our home is surrounded by a few hundred acres of neighboring woods and horse farms, so we enjoy an abundance of wildlife on our property. Song birds, butterflies, honeybees and dragonflies are our daily companions in the garden. Our dog Lupin is also there, naturally, because wherever we go, she is following no more than five feet behind. In the evenings and early hours, when the songbirds go to nest and the various pollinators find a place to rest, our gardens are visited by our other very friendly neighbors — the white-tailed deer.

Understand Why

They Need Food & You’ve Got It 

Although much of the land surrounding our home is still largely wooded, a lot of the habitat and natural predators of the deer population in our part of New England have been destroyed by urbanization and farming activity. This means that the area for naturally available foods has decreased, and the population has increased. As such, their path to food often leads right into our yards. It is good to keep in mind that the deer are not coming to destroy your gardens because they want to taunt and annoy you, they’re coming because it’s a food source and they need to eat. This means that unless you can find a fool-proof and consistent deterrent, they’re going to eat what they can, and then they’re going to come back for more.

Our local deer herd is large and has a huge and surprisingly indiscriminate appetite. Aside from their more organic diet of native vegetation, barks and mushrooms, there are certain non-native ornamentals that deer will notoriously devour. A wide-variety of “deer-resistant” shrubs and flowers do exist. In our zone, these include hollyhocks, boxwood, rudbeckia and any plants with hairy or spiky leaves and stems like cucumber and pumpkin leaves (note that pumpkins themselves are a favorite of deer though). What the deer eats can all change, depending on how hungry a deer is, the toxicity level of the plant and what the deer has grown used to eating in your area.

For example, capsaicin is a common ingredient in many deer-deterring sprays, but spice does not always repel. I was shocked when all that remained of my super spicy red pepper plant last summer was a chewed up stem and an area of hoof print indentations. Images of Loony Toon-type reactions came to mind and I pictured steam coming out of the deer’s ears and it shouting – “BAWOOGA!” Luckily, capsaicin isn’t the only method for deterring deer from your plants.

Common Ways to Deter Deer From Gardens 

  • Deer Netting
  • Deer Repellent Sprays
  • Spook Methods
  • Fencing 

Netting & Sprays

The Cost Might Outweigh the Benefits 

When we moved into our home, the landscape consisted of a variety of lilies, roses, hostas and hydrangeas. In short, our yard was an all you can eat buffet. The previous owners had covered every flowerbed in deer-netting and warned that we should keep the nearly half acre worth of netting on for the season. They also gave us a box of deer-repelling spray, which they applied on top of the netting once a month. Deer netting and sprays containing ingredients like fox urine, capsaicin and/or garlic oil are just a few of the many common methods used to keep deer from munching on plants. While some people swear by these methods, they were neither effective nor economical enough for us.

Deer-deterring spray can be purchased or made. Either way, we were looking at spending about $20-40 a month, because of the size of our gardens. While this cost may make sense for a lot of people, it didn’t for us. Deer-deterring netting is a bit of an up-front cost, but it is reusable and most deer will steer clear of it, unless they learn to push it aside to get to the yummy buds underneath. We found out quickly that we were dealing with deer who had figured this out, and unless we doused the netting in fox urine, the deer were relentless. While our hydrangeas made it through the season relatively unscathed, the rest of the flower gardens were obliterated. Ultimately, we decided to stop using the netting because we started to find it tangled at the edge of the woods and were getting nervous that the deer would get caught up and become injured.

Spook Methods: Electronic Deer-Repellents, Scarecrows and Wind Chimes

They’re Either Going to Run Away or Ignore It

Deer are classified as “fight or flight” animals. This means that their two basic defenses when they are scared or threatened is to either stick up their pretty beige and white tail and book it in the opposite direction or stand and fight the threat. Although I’ve heard hunters tell stories about how the notoriously docile white-tailed deer can go Carrie in a matter of seconds, the normal reaction to any “spook” method used in the garden is likely going to either be to run away or ignore it.

Scarecrows are an old tool used more for decoration now than for pest-control in gardens. On bigger farms, you might see the more modern version of the scarecrow set up in corn fields — dancing balloon men that you’d find at car sales lots. When I was growing up, we used old farm clothes stuffed with hay to keep crows and other birds away from our seedlings. Even when we have rotated the position of our current lady-scarecrow in our garden though, the deer haven’t seem to mind the creepy company. I did try spraying her with Chanel to see if that might make a difference — I read that “human smells” can deter deer. It seemed like it actually helped for a week or so, but the restock price for the perfume was just not cost-effective enough to continue the experiment.

Another traditional deterrent is to use wind chimes or hang aluminum pie plates to make noise. Similar to the old-fashioned scarecrow, though, we’ve found that the deer might be a little wary at first, but they get used to them pretty quickly. When it comes to consistently spooking deer, you will need something that they won’t easily get used to.

There are electronic and motion activated sensor systems available that scare deer away using sprays and sounds. These are intriguing, but for us, the upfront cost and maintenance isn’t appealing. There is also the chance that the systems will break or malfunction and allow for the curious deer who always linger around the area to get into our crops. For us, that’s not a risk we are willing to take. That’s not to say that these might not be a God-send to others though.

Stinky Fences: The Only “Deer-Proofing” Method For Us

All You Need is a Tall, Stinky Fence! 

Whether you try and love any of the above deterring methods or not, we have found that there is only one true way to consistently “deer-proof” a garden — a tall fence with a smelly border. It is well-known that deer can jump pretty high. In fact, a deer can jump a height of up to eight feet. They can’t jump high and over a long distance, however, and they do not like to jump into a space where they might not be able to easily jump back out. This information along with the fact that a deer will avoid walking through anything “smelly” has been most useful in our fence-building endeavor.

My parents’ vegetable gardens are surrounded by tall fencing, barbed wire and electric ribbon tape powered by a car battery and backed up with a solar charger. There are tall grasses and herbs around the outside of the fencing and a scarecrow in the middle. This is a toned down version of the methods we heard about as children, which included the old Yankee modus operandi —  hanging up dead crows around the garden fencing every few weeks to deter birds and scare of deer with the scent of rotting meat. While I don’t suggest using the slightly more hard-core methods of our forefathers, especially because you don’t know what else you’ll attract with the rotting meat, scattering what the deer consider to be noxious scent around the fence does seem to add an extra level of deterrent.

Our variation of the olde smelly-fence method is one that we are confident with, and it doesn’t involve hanging up dead birds. Accordingly, for optimal fencing success, I suggest the following:

  1. The Larger the Garden, the Taller the Fence

Garden Smaller Than 7 Foot x 7 Foot

You should have fencing that is at least 5 feet tall. In our experience, deer have not tried to get into this garden because it’s not a comfortable space to jump into and out of. Additionally, a five-foot tall fence is big enough to discourage the deer from bending its neck and reaching in to nibble on your garden. This obviously is not the case if you have decided to back your peas against fencing, so plan accordingly.

Garden Larger Than 7 Foot x 7 Foot 

You should have fencing that is at least 7 feet tall. This is not to say that a deer may not still try to jump it. This is why it is important to take additional precautions and I suggest planting a smelly-flower barrier fence around the fence.

   2.  Smelly Can Be Beautiful! 

Daffodils, Lavender, Marigold and Rosemary

While some people swear by sprinkling bone-meal or dog hair around the vegetable garden, we prefer smelly herbs and flowers. In addition to making your garden fence look beautiful and attracting important pollinators and beneficial insects to your garden, smelly flowers are a natural deer-deterrent. I have found that planting daffodils, lavender, marigold and rosemary in and around the garden fence is the best way to achieve the “backup” protection we seek for our gardens.

Daffodils, lavender and rosemary are perennials in many zones and hardy varieties are often available. I live in zone 6 and I have had success with overwintering hardy rosemary and hardy english lavender by mulching the roots in the fall and covering with hemlock branches in the winter. Marigold is an annual, but it is a really wonderful, smelly addition to the garden and we have not found it to be too difficult to start from seed. We try to start as many flowers and vegetables from seed as we can because it is much more economical for us than buying seedlings every year.

We hope that this information is helpful to others looking to protect their gardens from deer. Our version of the smelly-fence method is the most holistic and effective method we have found yet. Also, it’s pleasant to look at.

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