Controlling Deer in My Garden

By Joe Lamp’l - Gardening Expert and Host of Growing a Greener World®
April 4, 2020

I live and garden on a five-acre hobby farm in a rural area just north of Atlanta. So, to say that I garden in deer country would be an understatement. They are everywhere - all the time. So in moments when I have been less than vigilant, plenty of my plants and trees fell victim to snacking and rutting deer. 

Yet with increased pressure from urban sprawl and an increasing deer population, anyone who gardens in the middle of any city anywhere in North America has likely experienced some deer damage. As their wildlife habitat disappears, deer are not very shy about browsing in our neighborhoods. 

There are several options to prevent deer from feeding on the plants in our landscape, but success will be impacted by the intensity of deer pressure, budget and your commitment to the cause.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

The only nearly bullet-proof option for keeping out deer is a fence. Deer are prolific jumpers, but they’re more inclined to crawl under than leap over. So, a deer-proof fence needs to be tall (over 8’). If you have a large space to protect (like I do), that can be cost-prohibitive. It’s also not the most attractive solution, which is also why I haven’t fenced in my property.

I opted to try a more attractive, creative and less expensive option to protect my raised bed garden area. I surrounded the area with a 4’ split rail fence, and I affixed wire fencing buried a few Inches into the ground, which is nearly invisible from a distance. It’s been in place for 9 years now, and I have yet to experience any deer browsing in the raised beds

Why? They could easily jump the height of the fence, but deer don’t have good depth perception. They avoid jumping into crowded, confined areas or into places where they can’t perceive a clear landing area. My raised beds are spaced closely together, with little room between them and the fence. So far, my theory that this approach would prevent deer from making my garden their personal buffet is working. 

deer in landscape

Deer Repellent Options

While the split rail fence has protected my vegetable garden, the other plants in my landscape are open for business to the hungry local deer population. I protect those plants using repellent products.

Repellents can be a good option if your landscape is receiving some but not heavy deer damage, but diligent application is key to success. This management approach is only truly effective when applied regularly and to all new growth. It’s best to begin using repellents just as plants are budding out in spring. It protects the fresh new growth deer particularly love, but it can also signal to the deer that your plants don’t taste good and discourage their returning later. 

That said, repellent products need to be applied regularly to remain effective, and you should be prepared to reapply every time it rains too. Application can be time-consuming and expensive, so you might opt to use this approach only if the area is small enough to realistically manage or on just the plants which are most at risk or most valuable to you.

So which deer repellents work? Research has shown that, while odor repellents tend not to work, taste repellents can be very effective. Any product with egg solids, blood, hot pepper, or capsaicin listed as an ingredient is your best choice. Some repellents contain both eggs and hot pepper or capsaicin, and those work particularly well.

Never underestimate how persistent and adaptive deer are. If they are hungry enough, they will acclimate to the taste of the repellent, so it’s a good idea to alternate different products to keep the deer “on their toes.”

Don’t fall for the common deer-management myths. Things like human hair, soap flakes, spinning pie plates, etc. have been proven not to work. If the deer in your area have a lot of other food options, you might find that these are successful for a while, but as other sources start to dwindle, these mild deterrents won’t stop hungry deer.

One anecdotal management option that has worked for me - and for lots of other gardeners - is Milorganite®. This product isn’t intended to be a deer repellent, so there’s nothing on the label proclaiming it has deer-repellent properties. It’s a non-burning, slow-release, organically-derived source of nitrogen fertilizer. I use it for that purpose all around my garden and landscape, including a twice-yearly application to my lawn spaces.

I get great production from my plants and a healthy, drought-resistant lawn; but I’ve noticed a significant reduction in deer damage too - even when I’m lax with traditional repellent application. Gardeners around the country have attributed a reduction in deer browsing on their plants to Milorganite, and even some university studies have noted its effectiveness in reducing deer damage. 

Selective Planting

Another creative approach can keep deer from inflicting much damage in your garden. It’s choosing the right plants and putting them in strategic locations to protect the rest of your property.

Placing deer-resistant plants on the exterior of a garden bed can turn deer off and keep them from discovering the plants they love - like tulip blooms or hosta - in the interior of a bed. Is there a particular path through your landscape that you’ve noticed deer tend to travel? Try using deer resistant plants near their typical point of entry. It can encourage the intruders to move on to more appealing plants elsewhere. 

Just remember that there are lots of deer-resistant plant options, but there is no such thing as a deer-proof plant. When a deer is hungry enough, it will eat just about anything. So, we sometimes have to resolve ourselves to the inevitability that some damage will occur.

Check out my podcast on Deer-Resistant Landscape Design. You may not be able to avoid deer damage entirely, but by using some thoughtful and creative design ideas, you can camouflage any browsing that does occur.