Ask A Master Gardener – Managing Deer Damage

Authored by: Carol Shirk

This garden season was especially challenging for me because for the first time I battled deer damage. Despite being surrounded by acres and acres of corn and soybeans and having a fence around the garden, the little darlings preferred the fare inside my vegetable garden. They dined on my sweet corn, entirely consumed my fall beet crop, shared my peas and beans, and in general made themselves unwelcome. Now that we are moving into the fall/winter season, they are coming after my ornamentals. What to do?

One problem is that in general (and apparently in my specific location) there are more deer than in the past. According to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource (WDNR) data, there has been a fifty percent increase in the deer population in the last decade. The WDNR puts the 2019 deer population between 1.2 and 1.5 million deer. As their habitat overlaps with gardeners more and more, there is bound to be conflict.

While I thoroughly enjoyed watching the doe and fawns cavorted in my field this spring, I did not enjoy seeing the damage they did later. The one and only sure-proof deterrent for deer is a fence, and not the puny three-foot one I had around my vegetable garden. If you really want to get serious, it must be eight feet tall to protect a large area. However, the expense of such a fence is cost prohibitive for most people.

A less expensive but effective alternative is electric fences. Spread some peanut butter on aluminum foil and lay it over the wire to draw the deer to the fence. Once shocked a time or two, they tend to avoid it in the future.

As we approach winter and food sources dwindle, deer are more likely to feed on trees and ornamentals. In this case, wire cages around trees, shelters that are staked to the ground and surround susceptible plants, or netting that is draped around a plant can be effective.

There are many home remedies for repellants, including using human hair, rotten eggs, perfumed soap, and moth balls. None of these methods have been tested; furthermore, they have limited effectiveness and, in cases like mothballs, can be damaging to the environment. Repellants, if used, must be reapplied on a regular basis and should be changed periodically so that the deer do not become acclimated to them.

Harassment techniques like flashing lights, banging pans, electronic noise emitters, etc. are only effective for short periods of time and also have to be changed routinely as the deer become accustomed to the method.

When choosing new plants for your landscape, consider selecting ones that are not favored by deer. Although a hungry deer will eat almost anything, there are things that are less desirable. Thorns and briar are not a problem to them, but fuzzy is not palatable. Therefore, things like ferns, lamb’s ears (Stachys), lungwort (Pulmonaria), many herbs, and plants in the borage family are good choices. If you are in a deer-dense area, do not plant arborvitae or anything in the cedar family. These specific plants are like deer candy and the end result will not be pleasing for you. “Plants Not Favored by Deer”, found at the following link, is an excellent bulletin with a host of recommendations. Link: Plants Not Favored by Deer.


Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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