Most people have a weak spot for deer. They are lovely creatures after all, and a welcome wildlife sight for people used to an urban environment.
But if you plant a garden-not just way out in or near the woods, but even in many ordinary suburban environments-you may come to regard them as a real nuisance. Deer can do major damage to a garden, eating vegetables before you can, but also munching away on flowers, shrubbery, trees, and just about anything you plant.
Deer not only do damage by eating plants, but just by traipsing through your garden. They walk on plants, rub their antlers on trees and shrubs, mark their territory, etc.
So how to defend yourself against these marauding intruders? It would be nice if there were a method of deer-proofing a garden that was always effective and lacked drawbacks, but unfortunately there is not. Still there are several things you can try, singly or in combination, that have at least some significant chance of solving your deer problem.
The higher the fence, the more of a deterrent it will be to deer. You'll probably need to get it up over 8 feet to really do the job, but even a lower 5, 6, or 7 foot high fence may serve as enough of an impediment to keep the deer out, if they have other food sources that are easier for them to get at.
There are other factors that can make a fence more effective. Deer are less likely to jump a fence if they see things that concern them where they will need to land. So wooden stakes sticking out of the ground inside the fence, for instance, may dissuade them. Also, if it's a wood fence or something they can't see through to know what's on the other side, they are less likely to risk jumping over it, compared to a wire or chain link fence.
Note that the fence will have to totally enclose the garden. If you only block off the deer's usual route into your garden, they're not stupid-they'll simply walk around the fence.
One of the main drawbacks of a fence, of course, is that you might not want to block your garden from view like that. You're not exactly beautifying the neighborhood if all your successful gardening is hidden from view behind a high fence.
Scaring or Startling
As most people know if they've been around deer, deer typically are skittish animals. They're prey animals, and naturally they've evolved a "safety first" strategy of high tailing it away from anything they perceive as a possible threat. Walk up to a deer to give it a friendly hello and see how close you can get. (Chances are, not very.)
So loud noises, sudden motions, etc. can startle a deer and send it sprinting away to a safe distance.
The problem is, it doesn't take long for the effect to wear off as they come to realize that there's no real threat present. Eventually they figure out that the loud noise or the moving object is just an ordinary part of the environment and not something that will attack them, so cautiously they make their way back to your garden.
You can increase the effectiveness of noisemakers or other such devices by using those that go off randomly or when set off by the motion of the deer, rather than just going off continuously, predictably. But usually this just buys you a little more time. It takes a bit longer, but most deer figure out that the device is all bark and no bite.
But speaking of barking and biting, another option that can be quite effective is a loud, large dog. Not one that's chained or fenced off away from the garden and can only bark in that direction, but one that has the run of the garden and can charge aggressively at incoming intruders. Not that the dog is going to "win" a fight against a deer, but most of the time a deer will head for the hills if an angry doberman is barking frantically and charging at it.
Of course not everyone has-or wants-a big guard dog to protect their garden. For one thing, a dog can dig around in the garden and do damage of its own.
There are plenty of substances that people have used on and around their plants in an effort to keep deer away, including coyote and other predator urine, eggs, sulfur, hot pepper, human hair, moth balls, soap, and various commercial deer repellents. But there are many limitations and drawbacks to this method of repelling deer:
* The effectiveness is generally far from total, and reduces rather than eliminates the desirability of your plants to deer.
* What effectiveness there is tends to vary a great deal in different areas with different species of deer. Something that's highly touted as a deer repellent in one place might have little or no effect on the deer in your backyard.
* It's not a one time thing. You have to apply and re-apply the substance constantly. Especially if you have a big yard full of plants rather than a little garden, this can be quite a hassle.
* Most of what's unpleasant to deer will be unpleasant to you as well. Do you really want a garden doused in coyote urine?
Another strategy is to fill your garden with plants that deer have no interest in eating.
Would that it were so easy. Unfortunately there's not much if anything that you can plant and be sure deer will never want to eat it.
If you check the sources below, you'll find multiple lists of dozens if not hundreds of plants that have some degree of reputation as being deer-proof, including flowers like marigolds, herbs like oregano, shrubs like English hawthorn, trees like red pine, and grasses like pampas grass. But all this really means is that-probably, maybe-these plants aren't deer's first choice of meal. They'll still eat them if they're hungry enough.
And really that's the limitation on all these deer repelling strategies. Unless you have a fence or other barrier that makes it physically impossible for the deer to reach your plants, your garden is still vulnerable. What these other strategies do is make your garden a less desirable deer target to some degree, meaning the deer will stay away unless they're that much more hungry, that much more desperate.
A moth ball or a golden retriever won't keep a deer away from your petunias if its only other option is to starve.