How to - Pests & Diseases

Deer-proof your garden

Laura Langston
Photography by
Mark Raycroft

Keep Bambi at bay--at least for a while

There are only four deer repellents currently registered for use in Canada: Tree Guard, Skoot, Deer-Away and Plantskydd. Gardeners also create their own repellents consisting of everything from rotten eggs or garlic to soap (see “Home Brew” recipe below). Try hanging bags of human hair in strategic areas in the yard (gardeners report mixed results) or bars of soap (the stronger smelling, the better), which seem to be more effective. “Deer were nipping the tops off our one-year-old saplings,” says Sid Dykstra of Dykstra Orchards in Blue Mountains, Ontario. “So we hung pieces of soap on the trees, especially around the perimeter of the orchard. It kept the deer away for two years.” Louise says soap bars hung in nylon stockings around her garden kept the deer away until the weather turned cold in fall; then they got too hungry to mind the soap.

There are a number of high-tech deer-scare devices available utilizing motion-sensitive lights and sprinklers, but most are manufactured in the U.S. When exchange, shipping and duty are factored in, the cost can be prohibitive. Alternatively, you could try scaring them away with a homemade scarecrow or by blasting them with a hose. The latter requires perfect timing and a certain measure of hard-heartedness. Even then, it may only work for a while. Deer adapt quickly to such things, especially if they don't feel threatened.

Pat Garrity knows that from first-hand experience with a homemade noise system. “I tried jingling bells and aluminum cans filled with pebbles on strings,” says Pat, who gardens at her cottage in Kenora, Ontario. “But deer wiped out my tomatoes and even dug up my carrots. I'm leaving a radio on now.”

Sound can be a deterrent, but if it's steady, it may just become white noise for the deer. A dog is the best noisemaker; at the very least it will alert you to a deer's presence. A dog's bark is unpredictable and the dog's lingering scent can act as an area repellent.

The most expensive option to protect your garden is also the most likely to succeed. Fence them out. Electric “bait and shock” fences have been successful for apple growers in both Ontario and B.C. Deer are baited with peanut butter wrapped in foil. When they come to snack, they get a shock and don't return.

If you're a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and have some basic understanding of electric circuits and fence construction, follow the lead of John Wilcox and make your own. “I run two strands of electric fencing about waist-high and attach them to rebar posts around the garden,” says John, who gardens at Duck Creek Farm on Salt Spring Island, B.C. “And I get most of my materials through farm and feed stores or even garden supply outlets.”

An alternative is a tall fence—at least 2.5 metres high. “Anything lower and they'll jump,” warns Robert K. Bruce, problem wildlife technician with the Wildlife and Ecosystem Protection Branch of Manitoba Conservation. Christie agrees, and adds that slats or mesh in the fence should be relatively close together. Any openings larger than 30 centimetres will allow deer to squeeze through.

Both Louise McCann and Carolyn Herriot, owner of the Garden Path Nursery in Victoria, swear by the 2.5-metre-high black mesh fencing from Benner's Gardens in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Mesh fencing is almost invisible and, because it's relatively lightweight, generally easier to install than wood fencing.

A lower fence placed close to large shrubs often acts as a deterrent since deer have to leap and don't want to land in a tangle. Another option is temporary fencing around specific beds or shrubs. “I had to mesh in my Arbutus seedlings to stop deer from eating the new shoots,” says Sheryl McFarlane. “Once the trees were tall enough, I took the mesh away.”

Arbutus, ironically, are supposed to be deer-resistant. Young, tender saplings, however, are a favourite treat. Which just goes to show, nothing is entirely immune from Bambi.

Close the kitchen
Gardeners who deal with deer more often than they'd like say there's no such thing as a deer-proof plant. Rather, there are deer-resistant plants. These are often plants with thorns, fuzzy or leathery leaves, or a strong taste. However, as food sources wane, so do the deer's standards. Plants they might normally avoid get munched. Flowering red twig dogwood, for instance, appears on several deer-resistant lists, but damage to Louise McCann's dogwood was what drove her to fence her property.

As for the plants deer love, there are many. And no self-respecting deer would walk away from roses, tulips, grass or newly planted annuals.

Here are some of the plants deer generally avoid:

  • Allium
  • Mugwort (Artemesia, most species except A. lactiflora)
  • Barberry (Berberis)
  • Bee balm (Monarda)
  • Bleeding heart (Dicentra)
  • Boxwood (Buxus)
  • Columbine (Aquilegia)
  • Daffodils (Narcissus)
  • Daphne
  • Daylilies (Hemerocallis)
  • Ferns (most species)
  • Forsythia
  • Foxglove (Digitalis)
  • Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)
  • Holly (Ilex) and other prickly plants such as some species of cactus
  • Lambs' ears (Stachys byzantina) and other fuzzy-leafed plants such as sage
  • Lady's mantle and sunflowers
  • Lilac (Syringa)
  • Monkshood (Aconitum) and other poisonous plants such as lily-of-the-valley and castor bean plant (Ricinus communis)
  • Pine (Pinus)
  • Spirea (Spiraea)
  • Spruce (Picea) and wisteria.
  • Strongly scented and resinous herbs such as rosemary, oregano, thyme, lavender and sage.

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