While aphids and whiteflies will cause trouble in your garden, they can’t do half as much damage in a season as a single deer can do in an afternoon.
As the largest pests that may assail your garden, deer can be extremely destructive, flattening whole corn patches or decimating your lettuce bed in less than an hour. With their big brown eyes and adorable faces, it’s hard to say ‘no’ to deer, but when your organic garden is at risk, you will have to act.
Luckily, there are plenty of easy, deer-friendly ways to ensure your garden can grow in peace, producing you a bountiful harvest, even if you live in an area where deer are abundant.
How do I recognize damage from deer?
Deer are crepuscular animals, meaning they are most active at twilight, either in early morning or in the evening when the sun sets. Because they come out when humans usually go inside, you may not actually catch them in the act in your garden, but there are some obvious signs that deer have been at work to look for. Such signs include:
- Pelleted droppings. Although you may not actually see any deer in your yard, you may find their calling card. Deer frequently leave behind piles of droppings that look like round, brown pellets. Although difficult to differentiate from rabbit droppings, they are one of the clearest indications that deer have visited your space.
- Significant plant damage. While smaller pests may destroy a single plant leaf in an evening, deer can devour whole plants or crop varieties overnight. If you find plants chewed down to nubs or stripped of all leaves and fruit, you may have a deer problem.
- Flattened crops. Deer’s large size doesn’t exactly translate into them being nimble-footed in small garden spaces. If your corn patch looks decidedly trampled on, you’re likely dealing with deer.
- Fruit tree damage. Not all pests will target fruit trees, but deer will. Signs of deer damage on your trees include broken branches, snapped trunks on smaller saplings or stripped bark.
In the garden, deer are not picky eaters. Although they generally prefer leafy greens, like kale and lettuce, and sweet fruit, like apples and strawberries, they will go after brassicas, corn, melons and members of the nightshade family, including tomatoes and peppers. Beyond these plants, other species that are commonly targeted by deer include:
- English ivy
- Various berries
Keeping deer out of your organic garden
The best way to keep deer out of your garden is to design a multi-faceted defense strategy. That strategy can include elements, such as appropriate plant selection, barriers and natural sprays, to keep deer at bay and protect your plants in the process.
Choose deer-resistant plants
One of the best ways to prevent deer from invading your garden is to make your garden undesirable to them from the outset. That means choosing the right plants that deer will naturally avoid. Some plant characteristics to look for include:
- Fuzzy or hairy leaves. Deer like tender leaves and fleshy fruit. What they don’t like is anything that gives their sensitive mouths any unpleasant feeling, such as hairy plant leaves. Some great ornamental choices are:
- Lamb’s ear
- Lady’s mantle
- Flowering tobacco
- Prickly leaves and stems. Just as deer don’t like hairy plants, they don’t like prickly ones either. Although some deer have learned to work around the thorny stems of raspberries and roses to get their evening meal, many other thorny plants can grow quite safely in your garden. Some good options include:
- Globe thistle
- Sea hollies
- Many melon, squash and zucchini varieties with prickly stems.
- Tough plants that are difficult to digest. Deer, like the rest of us, don’t want to struggle for their meals, so if a plant is quite tough or unpleasant to munch on, they’ll likely leave it alone. Some plants that fall into this category include:
Deer also tend to be less interested in grasses than foliage plants, in part because grass doesn’t contain enough nutrients to keep deer healthy and thriving. For this reason, ornamental grasses are often a great option for areas frequented by deer.
- Plants with strong fragrances. Most herbs have very strong fragrances, making them great choices for deer-resistant gardens. For some herb good choices, look for:
- Bee Balm
- Dead Nettle
- Toxic plants. Deer are smart and they won’t willingly ingest foliage they know to be toxic. If you have a particularly large deer population in your area, you may need to limit yourself to ornamentals that have some natural ability to protect themselves. Just keep in mind that, if these plants are toxic to deer, they are also likely toxic for you and any roaming pets in your yard too. Some deer-proof plants include:
- Bleeding hearts
- False indigo
While all these plants will give you some measure of protection against deer damage, you may not want to limit your garden to these plants only, especially if you want to grow vegetables. In this case, consider using the above plants as perimeter plants and planting more desirable crops towards the center of your garden. This might not ward off deer attack entirely, but it should help prevent some damage.
Although choosing plants that deer aren’t interested in is a great way to ensure your garden remains pest free, it is not always feasible, particularly if your goal is to grow vegetables and fruit trees. In this instance, since you’ll be growing plants that deer are naturally drawn to, you’ll want to be a bit more proactive with your approach. When dealing with deer, this often means installling fencing.
If there’s one thing you need to keep in mind about deer, it’s that they are amazing jumpers. For this reason, if you’re going to install a traditional fence, make sure your fence is at least 8 to 10’ tall to guarantee it’s high enough to keep deer out.
Because deer are more likely to jump fences they can see through, you can often get away with shorter fences if those fences are solid. A good, solid fence choice for keeping deer out are wooden stockade fences, which can be effective at deer prevention even if they’re only 6’ tall.
To make your fencing even more robust, consider creating a double fence by using a solid stockade fence on the exterior and then placing another, less expensive fence, such as one made of chicken wire or hardware cloth, inside of your stockade fence, with about 5’ between your fences. As deer hate feeling trapped, this is an amazingly useful setup, even if you opt to install shorter 5 to 6’ tall fences.
Another option, depending on your location, are electric fences; however, you’ll want to check with your local zoning laws before installing. Electric fences can be installed quickly in a single afternoon, are generally inexpensive and can be powered by solar energy if you don’t want to run a cord from your house.
A barrier made of clear fishing line can also be useful at deer prevention and some gardeners swear by these simple barriers. Just drive a few stakes around your garden and string clear fishing wire around them to create a makeshift fence, being careful to hang your fishing line at least 3’ high. The idea is that deer are less likely to jump barriers they can’t see so they will inadvertently bump into the fishing line barrier. When they do, they will become spooked and book it in the opposite direction, leaving your garden safe and protected.
One final option that’s not quite a fence, but is equally useful, are rock barriers. Deer have tender ankles that they are very careful of, so they generally avoid walking over unstable ground or rocky areas that may cause them to slip or harm themselves. For that reason, creating a moat of rocks around your property or your garden beds is often quite successful at keeping deer out. Your rock barrier can be simply spread on flat soil, just ensure that it is at least 6 to 8’ wide to discourage jumping.
Other barrier methods
If you don’t want to install fencing, or you already have a fence but you want to beef up your deer-proofing efforts, there are some other great barrier options.
You can hang deer netting on t-posts around your garden, or simply place netting around specific plants you’d like to protect. Just be advised that small birds and mammals sometimes get caught in this sort of netting so, if you choose to use it, do so carefully and inspect your netting daily for any creatures that might have gotten ensnared.
If you’re growing fruit trees, it’s always a good idea to encircle tender trunks with tree protectors or makeshift tree guards made out of hardware cloth. This is useful for preventing deer damage, but it can also ward against damage caused by smaller garden pests, like voles.
Other deer deterring options
Repellent sprays are often used to keep deer out of gardens and away from specimen plants. Frequently made from natural, yet nasty smelling, products, repellent sprays often contain putrefied eggs, blood meal, hot pepper oil, garlic or soap.
To increase their utility, be sure to regularly apply repellent sprays once a week, and particularly after rain or periods of high humidity. Sprays should be sprayed all around plants and gardens and should be sprayed at least 6’ high on larger plants like trees and hedgerows. Additionally, try using different spray products and swap them out frequently so your local deer don’t get used to a single smell.
Motion operated sprinklers or flood lights are two other excellent options for keeping deer out of your yard. If you want to use either, look for taller options to avoid sensors being blocked by weeds and other plants and opt for systems that work at night too.
And then, of course, there are the traditional options that may not work 100% of the time, but many gardeners swear by. Such options, include placing Irish Spring Soap around your yard, hanging fabric softeners from trees, spraying predator urine around your space, or adding pie pans or windchimes to spook deer.
These low-tech, low-cost deer deterrents can easily be combined with fencing, deer-resistant plants, motion-activated sprinklers and other deer-proofing options to boost the effectiveness of your garden security. While no single method will work all the time to keep deer away, the more deer-proofing elements you combine in your outdoor space, the safer your plants will be from foraging deer.
- Blundell, Danielle. “20 Ways to Keep Deer Out of Your Yard.” This Old House.“11 June 2022. 2022.
- Walliser, Jessica. “Deer Proof Gardens.” Savvy Gardening. 11 June 2022. 18 April 2017.