If you’re gardening anywhere outside of the center of a city, you deal with deer, right?
And if there’s anything those little buggers like even more than wreaking havoc on the highway by leaping out right in front of your vehicle, it’s wreaking havoc on your edible and ornamental plants.
Having previously lived in the center of a city for 35 years, I’m still rather new to this conflict and am still creatively inventing what works here (and what doesn’t). Much of what I know I’ve just read, but I’m getting a little more first-hand experience every year.
I used to assume they’d steer clear of a yard with obnoxiously barking dogs, but no: these guys just walk in slow motion, like a cat, while my dogs give themselves coronaries freaking out about the oversized intruders to their territory. It’s sort of hilarious, really. What’s not hilarious, though, is the damage they can do.
Planting pest-resistant and repellent plants has always been appealing to me as a way deal with nuisances. No plant is 100% deer-proof, as they’ll sample pretty much anything that looks interesting, then decide whether to come back later for more. Deer in different areas have different “tastes” (dietary needs depending on what else is available) but there are some things they all seem to dislike: mainly super-aromatic plants. This includes most herbs: sage, thyme, rosemary, lavender, oregano, catmint, bee-balm, yarrow. All the stuff I love to smell, so that’s a win-win.
They also will avoid plants with fuzzy or hairy foliage like lamb’s ear, yarrow, even cucumbers and squash are usually a little too prickly for them. Other plants with toxic compounds that cause stomach upset are poppies, bleeding hearts, euphorbia, daffodils, and ferns. They don’t like grasses and are offended by the onion family. However, they are delicate nibblers and will gently browse the good stuff from in-between the bad. I watched a deer in my yard gently strip all the tiny leaves off an entire snowberry bush while avoiding every single (toxic) berry.
This of course isn’t a complete list, but it gives you a good idea where to start if you’d like to plant a deer-resistant garden.
My own pest-repellent garden is coming along slowly but surely.
Here, the main vegetable garden is fenced and kind of a dense/busy area with all the raised beds and structures. I know if a deer really wanted to, they could easily clear the 6′ wire fence, but so far they haven’t bothered – I’d like to think it just looks like too much trouble to risk entering that small of a space (only time will tell).
But in one of the outer areas of the yard, there’s an adorably short (as in, perfect deer-browsing height) little crab apple tree with the sweetest, most perfumey little apples I’ve ever tasted. Every spring it’s loaded with blossoms, but so far we’ve only gotten a few apples come September.
Years ago, long before I lived anywhere near a deer, I read a letter to the editor in Organic Gardening magazine saying they’d had great luck hanging Irish Spring soap in their tree branches to deter deer. I would enthusiastically share this tip with friends from the suburbs and country every time they’d lament about deer, but was usually answered with “no, NOTHING will deter these beasts” and I’m pretty sure none of them ever tried it.
The first summer here, I talked about that a lot, but didn’t get around to buying the soap until late in the season. It seemed like I may have saved a couple apples this way, and a couple apples was all we got. Last summer I was a little more on-the-ball and hung a bunch of bars mid-summer. Deer still ate several apples, but the ones closest to the bars of soap were left untouched.
This tree is small and as the apples grow, they weigh the branches down nearly to the ground if we don’t prop them up with stakes. I had been hanging whole and half bars, which weighed them down even more. It took me a couple seasons to realize on this particular tree, I should have been hanging more and smaller pieces closer to the apples rather than just the few big heavy ones.
Just a couple weeks ago we noticed that although the apples are still tiny (and must be crazy-sour!) our deer had wandered through and sampled several clusters of apples and tender leaves.
So I went out and bought a big package of my trusty Irish Spring: this time cutting each bar into 4 or 6 smaller chunks that I could hang closer to each apple cluster and farther out on the ends of the branches without additional staking.
I cut several pieces of garden twine about 12″ long each to tightly wrap each soap chunk like a little present. Tying it tightly pulls the twine into the soft soap a bit, securing it – but be careful not to pull it too tightly or you’ll cut right through the soap.
There’s enough string to tie around the branches; some are secured tightly to the branch, others dangle a bit just below the clusters of apples, depending on its location in the tree. I had good luck last summer using the smaller chunks like this in a beloved rose bush, although the aesthetic quality of brightly colored, highly-scented soap chunks in an ornamental shrub may not appeal to most folks.
I realize these smaller pieces may need to be replaced during the growing season from rain and weather, but you can smell the soap just walking past so I’m hopeful they choose to leave it alone. JD picked up a few more big packages of Irish Spring the other day, so we won’t run out before the apples ripen.
I think creativity is key here: keep trying different methods to confuse and annoy them. A few days after hanging the soap pieces, I wrapped some of the branches with old Christmas tinsel that will move a little in the breeze. Next week I’ll hang some metallic curling ribbon from the branch tips as well (I had the ribbon out already to try to keep the birds out of my strawberries, but that’s another subject for another day!). By the time the apples are ready to eat, this poor little tree will look even more ridiculous, but at least we’ll get to enjoy those amazing little treats.
And finally, I originally tried Irish Spring because that’s what had been recommended by the other OG reader in their letter to the editor so many years before. I also tried a pack of Old Spice because it seemed pretty highly-perfumed also – but the Old Spice not only didn’t deter my deer, but was also apparently a delicious treat for the local rats.
Do you have any tried-and-true methods to keep deer out of your favorite plants? I’d love to hear them.