Keeping Deer out of the Garden

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One of the farm’s Facebook friends recently asked about keeping deer out of the garden. I don’t know what kinds of pests you deal with in your neck of the woods, but in Southwest Michigan this is a very poignant question! There are lots of supposedly repellent chemicals and plants you can purchase to protect your plot of veggies from deer. However, most gardeners I’ve spoken with find these don’t do an adequate job of keeping deer at bay. I’ve never personally tried chemical repellents, but have yet to hear a favorable review and am frankly not interested in using them for residual reasons. The problem with deer-resistant plants (such as marigolds) is that a deer’s diet is a fickle thing. There are several plants that deer tend to avoid, but if Bambi’s hungry enough, nearly anything is fair game. Shorter repellant plants such as marigolds and onions might not be eaten but can be easily stepped over to get to the good stuff!

In my personal experience, and that of many other gardeners, the most effective way to keep deer out of the garden is with a barrier. The kind of barrier you used depends on many factors, including space and budget. Here are some chemical-free ideas that should help you out.

A Tall Fence

You can keep deer out of the garden with a fence. That being said, most deer can jump up to 8 feet of fence and some of the larger ones can sometimes clear 10 feet. Our particular fence is only 6 feet tall and, to date, we haven’t had any issues with deer jumping over. And believe me, there are plenty of them that pass by and have the opportunity! Our fence is made from chicken wire on a wooden frame because I didn’t want block sunlight from reaching the garden.

The Garden Gate

A Double Fence

Another way to keep deer out is to erect a double fence. Deer have poor depth perception so if they don’t perceive that there’s a safe place to land on the other side of the fence, they won’t jump. That means you could put a four-foot fence around the perimeter of your garden with a subsequent four-foot fence about 3-4 feet outside the first and you shouldn’t have any deer issues. Some people use the space between the fences for planting. Others simply lay down mulch or gravel to serve as a path. Still others use this space as a chicken moat. In a chicken moat, chickens are allowed to forage around the perimeter of the garden, reducing bug populations but keeping the flock from eating  your crops.

double deer fence

{Image Credit}
Perforum.info

double deer fence

{Image Credit}
Martha Stewart

chicken moat double deer fence

This design allows for a chicken moat accessed by a coop, a protected internal garden, and a double-fence to keep deer out.

A Slanted Fence

These barriers use a premise similar to the double fence – deer are not able to clear them because of the distance from the slanted portion to the erect fence. I’m considering using a similar approach around our newly planted fruit trees. Sometimes the fence wires are electrified, especially when expensive crops or large areas are being protected by a slanted fence.

slanted deer fence

{Image Credit}
Sleepy G Farm

simple slanted deer fence

{Image Credit}
Affluent Peasant

Linear Wire Fencing

The idea behind these fences is that you place a sturdy cable, heavy-duty wire or even wooden planks between posts at 1 foot increments, a deer will see that they cannot get through. To further develop the fence you could use the fence as a trellis for climbing plants. I know a market gardener who uses this technique very effectively. His fence is made with cable wires between posts and he is working with espaliered trees on the northern side.

wire deer fence

{Image Credit}
Elkhound Hatfield

Fishing Line

I’ve heard mixed reviews about fishing line fences. The premise is similar to linear wire fences with the added facet that the deer cannot see the barrier. Because the fence is invisible to the deer, it is spooked by being touched by something it cannot see and backs away. For those who find fences aesthetically limiting, a fishing line barrier has the added benefit of also being invisible to humans. If you don’t like the idea of seemingly random posts jutting out here and there around your garden, consider using something more decorative or using your posts as a trellis for climbing plants. But beware – humans who visit your yard could walk right into your “fence!”

I tried this approach to keep our dogs out of the Fenceline Garden and found that it did not work with them. They just blew right through the fishing line and I was constantly repairing it. However, there is a family down the street from us with a beautiful garden who has been using the technique for years. Also my barrier may have worked better if I had used heavier gauge fishing line.

fishing line deer fence

{Image Credit}
Grow It Eat It

Deer Netting

Speaking of barely-visible, another option is deer netting. This heavy-duty plastic (PVC) fabric is strong enough to keep deer out if they try to physically push through it but is also very easy to work with. As a bonus, the thread on the fence is so fine that at most angles you can barely tell it’s there. I use deer netting (double-folded because I only need a four-foot height) to keep our dogs and chickens out of the Fenceline Garden in the backyard. Just as its name suggests, the Fenceline Garden runs along a chain link fence (100 feet long). With existing fencing on three sides, all I have to do is add the netting to the front face of the bed. I do this by putting 4’ garden stakes into the bed at 10’ increments, probably buried about 6″. I use zip ties to secure the netting to the existing fence at each end and then, pulling it taught, I use a staple gun to secure it to the posts.

deer netting fence

No netting in this image but you can see the posts I use to secure it.

deer netting

{Image Credit}
Collections Etc

Buildings

Clearly this option won’t work for everyone, but if you have an area near existing structures that receives ample sun than you can use buildings to keep deer out. For example, here is a picture of the community garden at our church. The garden is tucked into an alcove surrounded by buildings on three sides. The southern side of the garden is open (which allows plenty of sunlight) and a wire fence (with beautiful wooden gates) was erected to keep pests out. (For more details about the KFirst Community Garden and pictures of it in bloom, click here.)

using buildings to keep deer out

{Image Credit}
Donna Zacker and KFirst Community Garden

Natural Barriers

Not all barriers have to be man-made. Dense shrubs could also be used to keep deer out of your garden. If deer are unable to see into your space, they’re less likely to be tempted by your garden goodies. Even if they can smell what’s on the other side, they won’t know if danger is lurking within and will be hesitant to make the jump. One of the downsides to this approach is the time it takes for a shrub to grow large enough to be effective. If you decided to plant shrubs as a deer barrier, you’ll likely need to use them in conjunction with one of the other options until your bushes are mature.

Traditional boxwood shrubs are evergreen and dense so they would work well as a deer barrier. However, there are lots of other options that can serve multiple purposes. What about thorny bushes? Options such as Rosa Rugosa will provide thorns, density, height, beautiful flowers and eventually rose hips which can be harvested and used in herbal teas. You could also consider shrubs that provide edible fruit such as blueberries, American cranberries, gooseberries, rosemary and blackberry/raspberry canes (with support). Concerned that a fruit-bearing hedge would actually attract deer? Well, you’re right. But our next point can address that concern.

Edible Distractions

Ok, so this isn’t really a barrier. But all the same, you can help to protect your garden by giving the deer in your neighborhood a more appealing, alternative food source. In the shrub example above, deer with free access to easy-to-reach berries on the outside of your garden don’t really have a reason to go into your garden. Meanwhile, you can harvest all the berries on the inside for yourself! Here’s an example of this technique on our farm: Our neighbor has an apple tree. It’s very close to our garden (maybe 100 feet away) and the neighbor does not harvest the apples. That means that the deer can go through the hassle of jumping our six-foot fence to nibble on our kale, or they can freely eat form an abundance of apples with no jumping required. Nature is opportunistic, for sure!

You might not have a neighbor with apple trees, but are there things you could plant (or give up) to keep the deer distracted from your most prized produce?

deer eating apples from tree

{Image Credit}
Savvy Housekeeping

Smelly Barrier

Now we arrive at what many people think of when it comes to deer proofing – planting things that deer don’t like so they’ll pass on further exploration. This approach works on a hit-or-miss basis with so many variable factors: How hungry is the deer? How smart is the deer? How much exploration has the deer done in your space? How big is the deer?

With these (and other) variables in mind, I personally would not rely solely on pungent/strong scent to keep deer away from my garden. However, adding some other elements could make the approach more effective. For example, using plants that are both strong-smelling and tall might be more effective than simply planting a border of marigolds (which are easily stepped over). Taller options include perennials such as sage, lavender and yarrow. Shorter plants which are known to be a turn-off to a deer’s sensitive sense of smell are chives, onions, mint and thyme. Be careful though – some of these plants can be invasive! Consider planting them in containers near the entrances to your garden.

russian sage

{Image Credit}
Better Homes & GardensRussian sage is beautiful, aromatic
and can grow up to five feet tall. 

Other Options

Barriers aren’t the only way to keep deer out. Here are a few more chemical-free ideas.

Scare Them. Ever considered one of these Scare Crow sprinklers? They are battery-operated and motion-sensitive, so if a deer comes close they’ll get sprayed with a harmless (but frightening) blast of water. Other options are flags or streamers that move in the wind. Consider using white as it is the whitetail deer’s universal sign for “danger”!

scare crow sprinkler

{Image Credit}
Gardener’s Edge

Enlist Fido. Just the scent of dogs can be a deterrent to deer. We see evidence of this in our backyard. Even though the deer in our neighborhood could easily jump our four-foot fence (I’ve seen them jump a neighbor’s fence several times) we’ve yet to find evidence of them in our fenced backyard. That’s surprising since our Fenceline garden has been full of tasty cucumbers, tomatoes and greens free for the taking at night. However, the dogs spend considerable time in the backyard during our growing season and I believe their scent sends the deer off to find a safer salad bar.

Marley looking for a place to dig

Additional Resources

Here are some great sites for additional details on why these approaches work and how to implement them.

U of M Controlling Deer Damage in Missouri

Choosing Deer-Resistant Landscape Plants

In The Garden Pinterest Board

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