How to stop deer from raiding your property

Deer in garden

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Cottage Life West magazine.

When Patrice Nazareno planted fall bulbs at her B.C. cottage outside of Manning Provincial Park, she expected spring blooms. Instead, she got blitzed by Bambi. “I spent a lot of time researching what would grow in zone 3, digging and creating garden beds, trucking in soil, and planting,” Nazareno says. “I was delighted to see the bulbs coming up, but just when I expected flowers, all the tops were chewed off.”

In most cases, cottage country is also deer country, roamed by whitetails, blacktails, mule deer and, particularly on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, European fallow deer introduced by early settlers. To these hungry herbivores, your cottage flower beds, vegetable plots, trees, and shrubs look like a 24-hour salad bar. And with the average deer eating two to 4.5 kg of vegetation a day, damage can be extensive. “As communities grow and as we build cottages, we often encroach on the deer’s natural habitat,” says Lindsey

Leko, a conservation officer with Saskatchewan’s environment ministry. “That means the deer have to adapt and find new food sources or rely on the plants in our gardens to survive.” What’s a green-thumbed cottager to do? Here are some suggestions.

Take down the B&B sign

Deer are creatures of habit. If they make one successful visit to your garden, you’ll likely end up on their regular dining route. If they find tall grass or weeds in which to bed down, they’ll be harder to uproot than a field of dandelions. The key is to give these insatiable browsers the brush-off quickly and decisively in early spring, before they establish their visitation patterns. Keep your grass cut short or, better, replace lawn areas with ecologically friendly native plant species—especially on waterfront properties. If you have a dog, allow it to roam in your yard and spread its scent. Choosing the best plants If deer are desperate for food, they’ll eat almost anything, including the woody stems of shrubs and trees in winter. But in times of plenty, they generally avoid plants that are bitter, fuzzy, coarse, spiny, or highly aromatic.

The tastes of deer can vary by region, depending on the amount of wild growth available. Check with your neighbours to see what kinds of plants they have succeeded in growing. “In my garden, they don’t touch shasta daisies, calendula, and dusty miller,” says Lois Thomson, whose Sand Dollar log cabin is on B.C.’s Texada Island. “I also let mint grow wild to hold the soil in place, and the deer leave it alone too.”

Photo courtesy of rSnapshotPhotos/Shutterstock.com

Offend their senses

Deer have an acute sense of smell and rely on their noses to alert them to danger. By tapping into their aversion to certain strong odours—and flavours—you can discourage them from snacking on your favourite plants. Vary the products you use throughout the gardening season to enhance their effectiveness. Home remedies Deer generally dislike the scent of onions, chives, and garlic. They’ll also avoid pungent herbs such as sage, thyme, and oregano. Ross Wilson, the mayor of the Resort Village of Lumsden Beach, Sask., drills holes in half bars of Irish Spring and hangs the soap from his evergreens. “It seems the smell is strong and plays a role in keeping deer and porcupines away,” Wilson says. Apparently, human hair spread in the garden can turn deer off too, if replenished regularly; ask your local stylist to bag up clippings for you.

There are many recipes for homemade repellents, with users reporting varying degrees of success. Researchers comparing deer repellents at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station concluded that egg-based repellents work best because the sulfurous odour of putrefied egg smells like rotting meat to deer, suggesting the presence of predators. Including cooking oil reduces the need for reapplication after a light rain.

Cottager Steven Warkentin of Enderby, B.C., gives his plant spray a touch of Greek flavour: “To juiced lemons or one bottle of lemon juice concentrate, I add half a bottle of spicy hot sauce and a couple of cloves of garlic.” He mixes all ingredients in a blender and strains out solids before applying. Other cottagers simply sprinkle chili powder or blood meal around plants they want to protect. Commercial products A deer repellent spray called Scoot, which contains chile-pepper extracts and garlic oil, repels primarily by taste. To assault both the deer’s palate and its nose, look for Deer Away (sold as Deer Off in the U.S.) and Bobbex Deer Repellent. The latter earned high marks from both the Connecticut researchers and a number of the Cottage Life followers we polled on Facebook.

A natural citrus-based cleaner such as Orange TKO can also discourage deer, says Lindsey Leko, who advises mixing the product with water to apply. “It’s important to spray the entire shrub or tree, because once they get a taste, they’ll try another area of the plant to see if it’s also affected,” he says. Be prepared to apply any product multiple times. Tim Morrell, the sales manager for Bobbex, says, “New growth is unprotected, so a good rule of thumb is to reapply every two or three weeks inspring and early summer.”

Professionally collected predator urine (there’s a dirty job) dabbed around the garden can give deer the impression that a coyote or cougar is lurking behind your hydrangeas. “The application generally involves creating a ‘pee-rimeter’ around the area you want to protect by applying urine to scent tags or dispensers and hanging them every 10 to 12 inches,” says Ken Johnson, the marketing manager for PredatorPee. An organic deer repellent called Plantskydd, made with dried animal blood, evokes a similar fear response by emitting an odour that deer associate with predator activity.

Before applying any commercial product in your garden, read the label thoroughly to be sure the ingredients will cause no harm to pets that visit the area. Use only those products approved for human consumption to protect plants in your vegetable garden.

Deer in garden
Photo courtesy of Ms. K/Shutterstock.com

Spook ’em

Deer can be startled away from their browsing by unexpected movements and noises, sudden blasts of light or squirts of water—for a time. As adaptable as they are wary, deer soon learn to differentiate between real danger and harmless scare tactics. As with plant sprays, vary your deterring techniques over the gardening season for best results. Home remedies A large dog can be an effective deterrent. Enderby cottager Steven Warkentin has trained his dog to chase deer from his garden, and Patrice Nazareno’s golden Lab just has to bark to send deer fleeing from her cabin near Manning Park. Playing a radio may deter deer for a while, until it becomes background noise to them.

“Shooting off a scare cartridge is effective,” says Jeff Marley, who sells a range of wildlife control products through Margo Supplies, his company in High River, Alta. “But even running out on your deck with a pot and a wooden spoon every time you see them can help.” Homemade scarecrows may spook deer, particularly if they flutter in the wind and you reposition them in your yard periodically. Some cottagers suspend aluminum pie plates or something similar. “I’ve used computer disks hanging from cedar trees to stop them eating my hostas,” says Margo Townsend, who has a cottage in Anglemont, B.C. “A slight breeze twirls the discs and scares away the deer.”

Commercial products The Deer Shield Pro device uses recordings of actual deer distress calls and their rutting and territorial sounds to create a barrier that other deer are reluctant to cross. “It’s motion activated, works in all kinds of weather, and our residential version has a 75-foot by 75-foot range,” says Deer Shield marketing manager Rick Willis. The Nite Guard Solar comes on automatically at dusk to emit a flashing red light. “Animal behaviour experts, through scientific research, have concluded that [animals] feel threatened because they believe the flash to be the eye of a human or an animal,” says Katie Berning, the president of Nite Guard. The Critter Gitter from Margo Supplies produces a high-pitched sound and flashes small red lights when it detects an animal’s approach. After the deer scatter, the device automatically resets itself to use a different sound and light pattern to ward off the next intruder. Another motion-activated device, the ScareCrow, shoots a spray of water when it’s tripped. Relocating the sprayer occasionally will prevent deer from becoming accustomed to the free showers.

Secure the perimeter 

The most effective deer deterrent, says Lindsey Leko, is a fence at least two metres high. Any openings in the fence should be less than 30 cm wide, and the fence must be snug against the ground—something Lois Thomson learned the hard way. “My Texada Island cottage is on an irregular hill, and small deer managed to wiggle under the wire fence the previous owner had erected,” she says. “Eventually, that created an opening for bigger deer.”

Wire cages or netting placed around small plants will protect them from deer. Cottagers at Lumsden Beach drape a lightweight, porous mesh over stakes in their community garden and anchor the netting with small stones. The method keeps deer from chewing off the tops of vegetables and flowers, says cottager Ross Wilson. He fences off his own cedars from November to April to prevent deer damage. Wrapping your trees or tender shrubs in burlap to insulate them from the winter cold can have the added bonus of protecting them from deer. Deer Fence Canada and Lee Valley sell a high-density, UV-resistant, black polyethylene mesh fence that withstands sun and cold and is relatively inexpensive and easy to install. Interestingly, deer have difficulty discerning the colour black from a distance, so they won’t see the black mesh until they’re quite near to it. If the fence is at least two metres tall, the deer will have difficulty gauging the height, which will discourage them from trying to jump it.

Another option: string a line or two of electric fencing wire on top of an existing fence, as Jeff Marley did at his daughter’s garden in High River. “The deer were decimating her vegetables, and I had four-foot mesh on hand. So I put that up and added Baygard portable electric fence wire on top to extend the fence to six feet,” Marley says. “It was enough of a shock to drive them off.” An alternative is the Wireless Deer Fence, which lures deer to enticingly scented, electrically charged posts stationed around the garden. While it may seem a little mean, a quick zap or two to a deer’s sensitive nose will encourage the animal to browse elsewhere.

If you can’t beat ’em…

Work with them. While many cottage gardeners consider deer a nuisance, others find creative ways to live in harmony with their wild visitors. Some plant their garden perimeters with sacrificial offerings of calendula, kale, or clover, hoping that the deer will graze on these and move along. Others make use of deer as natural lawn mowers. “I let the deer come in and keep the grass trimmed, so there’s way less cutting for me,” says Randy MacKenzie, who cottages near Manning Park. For Texada Island cottager Lois Thomson, the local deer are a working partner in her garden. “I have a white climbing rose that grows very high because the deer keep it trimmed at the bottom,” she says. “I have a grape arbour with a swing to relax in, and the deer keep the grape leaves trimmed on the lower stalks. I also have a couple of curly willows and cherry trees that provide shade and lovely greenery, and the deer do a great job of keeping them trimmed at an even level.”

Whatever method you choose, Jeff Marley of Margo Supplies says that your success in discouraging deer will be proportionate to the effort you put in. His bottom-line recommendation: always take a multi-pronged approach. “The more deterrents you use,” he says, “the better your results will be.”

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