Keeping bambi at bay

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Last Updated: 
July 12, 2006

CORVALLIS - So much is written about attracting wildlife to your garden. But what if Bambi makes a buffet of your flower beds?

Once deer are attracted to your property, discouraging them is not easy, according to Nancy Allen, wildlife instructor for Oregon State University Extension Service. However, there are techniques that can help minimize deer damage to your landscaping.

First, consider things from the deer's point of view. Deer prefer to feed in open areas near cover, and humans have created the perfect habitat for them in clear-cuts, parks and suburban neighborhoods. Deer prefer a variety of tender new shoots and lush foliage, which they find in abundance in landscaped yards and gardens. They drink up to a gallon of water a day, which is easily provided in backyard ponds and birdbaths.

Browsing deer can severely damage young plants, especially in the spring and summer. Deer move around nibbling on different plants, sometimes pulling up bedding plants only to spit them out. Larger, established plants are usually able to recover from mild browsing. During late-summer drought, the lush green growth in an irrigated yard may be the only succulent food the deer can find. Winter browsing by deer is usually not as harmful because many plants are dormant and will recover in the spring.

So what will bring a truce to the Bambi Wars? Allen and her students have a few suggestions:

Landscaping with deer-resistant plants can make a difference. However, deer favor many kinds of plants and it is often difficult to find anything they won't eat. Preferences vary between individual animals, by season, and by region.

Some plants that may be deterrents to deer are those with a strong scent, thick or leathery leaves, or fuzzy, bristly, or spiny textures.

Deer repellants can be effective. They rely on the deer's strong sense of smell and range from commercial products to homemade concoctions of human hair, bloodmeal or chunks of deodorant soap. They must be reapplied regularly. Such deterrents are most effective if a variety of them are used throughout the year so that deer do not become accustomed to them.

Allen reports some success with homemade pepper spray. Mix four or five tablespoons of cayenne pepper or two tablespoons hot pepper or Tabasco with a gallon of water. Add one tablespoon of vegetable oil. Mix well and spray where needed. Reapply often, especially after rain.

Cages and netting can be used around individual plants that need protection from hungry deer.

A dog might help keep deer away, especially one that is large, awake and has the run of your property. Scare tactics such as recorded barking or flashing lights don't work for long, according to Allen. Deer are smart and will soon figure out if they are not in real danger.

Fences are the only foolproof method to separate your garden from deer, says Allen. Remember that deer can jump eight feet or higher and can crawl under and between strands of wire that are set too far apart.

Many gardeners have found that black plastic mesh works well around individual plants and gardens. It is less noticeable than other types of fencing and if supported properly with stakes, is effective at excluding deer. Yet because it is difficult for deer to see, you may need to hang strips of white cloth on the mesh to keep deer from plowing into it. The cloth can be removed after a month or two because the deer will have learned to take an alternate route.

Electric fences can be effective against deer. However, they require more maintenance and can easily short out with tall vegetation.

Finally, Allen says that being tolerant to the presence of deer and learning to co-exist may be easier than trying to keep them off your property entirely.

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Nancy Allen