In a single night, a herd of deer can undo months of work in a garden area, devouring vegetable plantings, stripping the bark off saplings and snipping off the flowering tips of roses and other shrubs. In places with high deer populations, keeping the garden safe from their browsing is not a simple task and may take a combination of approaches to be successful.
If your garden suffers only minor damage from the occasional deer that wanders in, one of the approaches below -- or a combination of all three -- might be right for you.
Deer Resistant Plants
Deer love eating roses and tulips, but they don't seem to find daffodils or salvias very appealing. Using a deer-resistant plant palette is the simplest way to prevent them from browsing in your garden. As a general rule of thumb, plant the species that are most delectable to deer closest to the house where they are less likely to venture and use the plants that they are less interested in for outlying areas.
Surrounding the garden with an impenetrable hedge of boxwood, arborvitae, bamboo or other plants that grow so thick a deer will perceive them as a barrier is almost as effective as putting up a fence. To dissuade the occasional deer wandering from the woods into your garden it may not be necessary to completely surround the garden with the hedge, as deer are likely to enter only from a certain direction -- if there is a wooded area behind your house, they will almost surely come from that direction, rather than the front yard, and can be deflected away from your property by a well-placed hedge.
However, if the deer regularly frequent your property, completely enclosing it with a hedge and a latched gate is the way to go. This is still not as effective as a fence, however.
Another low-tech tactic is to let your dog spend time in the garden. Canines are natural predators of deer and their scent alone may be enough to keep them away. Letting your dog sleep in a doghouse outside will almost surely keep deer away though it may also keep you up a night from all the barking involved in a proud pet defending their territory against nocturnal intruders.
Upping the ante on deer-proofing the garden means taking overt action in addition to the passive approaches listed above.
Deer are easily spooked, so something as simple as motion-sensing lights around the house can keep them at bay. Even better is a motion-sensing sprinkler, a device that can be installed anywhere that a hose can reach. Situate a series of the sprinklers along the edge of the property where you think the deer are entering and turn on the water supply each night at dusk. When they walk into the area detected by the motion sensor, a powerful blast of water comes on and frightens them away.
Gardeners have been brewing up concoctions to repel deer as long as deer have been invading gardens. Most homemade repellents involve rotten eggs, a substance that deer find just as objectionable as humans do. Some recipes call for adding essential oils, cayenne powder and other strongly scented substances to the mix. The concoction is then put into a spray bottle or backpack sprayer and applied to the plants that are under attack. Rain will wash off the scent, making it necessary to reapply periodically.
There are many chemical deterrents available, well, including some that use variations of the homemade formulas mentioned above. Others use ingredients that are harder to come by, such as mountain lion urine. No deer repellent is entirely effective, and it's best to rotate various repellents over the course of each growing season so the deer don't get accustomed to one or the other.
A simple and often overlooked way to deter deer is to string up fishing line across the areas where they are accessing the garden. This approach exploits their skittishness: when they encounter this 'invisible' object, they are likely to retreat. Stringing up numerous horizontal lines ensures that they will become entangled if they encroach too far, setting off their instinctual reactions to take flight.
If deer are a persistent problem in your area, there may be no choice but to fence the garden.
On flat open ground, adult deer are capable of leaping over any fence that is not at least 8-feet high. Any type of fencing this tall will do, including wood, metal or chain-link styles. One way to get around the need to have such an enormous fence is to plant a hedge along it -- if deer have to leap up and over something, a much lower barrier will deter them.
If you're not prepared to plunk down the thousands of dollars to securely fence your entire yard with something that is both functional and attractive, lightweight mesh fencing may be the best short term option. This is also an excellent choice if you just want to fence a small portion of the garden on a temporary basis, such as a vulnerable vegetable patch in spring or a new planting of ornamentals that would be decimated by even a little nibbling. Temporary fencing must also be 7-feet tall unless there are other barriers involved, and it's necessary to stake the bottom of the fence to the ground so they don't try to squeeze under.
Another way to get around the height requirements for fences is to run a strand an electric wire across the outside of it about 3 feet off the ground. A multi-strand electric fence can also be effective at excluding deer all on its own. Electric fences are much les expensive than other types of fence, but they are very high maintenance. The lines are easily snapped when a deer does run into them and any bit of vegetation touching the fence will cause a short, meaning there will be no electric shock when an animals touches into it. Electric fences use a type of current that does not cause physical harm to either people or animals, but the shock is extremely unpleasant and they are mot recommended for areas where children or pets play.
The only way to emerge victorious in the battle with deer over your garden is to install a very tall fence and make sure the gates are closed every night. Most areas do not have such high deer populations that this is necessary, making it possible to coexist with deer by adopting a few different tactics and seeing what works best for you.