Plants can keep deer away from the garden

Last Updated: 
July 19, 2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Learning to coexist with deer could be easier than banishing them from your property entirely. But waking in the morning to find tender, newly planted tomatoes with their tops bitten off can make even the most patient gardener unhappy.

A tall fence is the best insurance against deer damage; however, landscaping with deer-resistant plants can be an esthetically pleasing alternative, according to Nancy Allen, faculty member in the fisheries and wildlife department at Oregon State University.

The worst deer damage usually occurs from late fall through early spring. Oregon's mule deer and black-tailed deer each eat up to seven pounds a day, from a selection of more than 500 types of plants. In the winter, they eat almost anything, including lichen, twigs, bark and evergreen boughs. Acorns are an important food in the fall.

"A plant can be deer-resistant, but not necessarily 'deer-proof,’ for several reasons," Allen said. "Plants that deter deer have a strong scent, thick or leathery leaves or fuzzy or spiny textures. Many are poisonous, some at all times, and others only at certain growth stages."

An OSU Extension publication (EC 1440) called "Deer-Resistant Ornamental Plants", lists deer-resistant plants as a general guide. The list of about 100 plants and their climate zones includes perennials as common as iris and columbine; shrubs such as jasmine and lilac; trees, including edible fig and Scots pine; and vines and ground covers, including poisonous nightshade.

"Deer sometimes will browse the plants listed and other times avoid plants not listed," Allen cautioned.

Many gardeners have found that fences of black plastic mesh keep deer out of the garden if they are at least eight feet tall and supported with metal or wooden stakes. Five-foot fences will work if they are solid; deer usually won't jump when they can't see the other side. Examples of other fences and more details are available in another OSU Extension publication (EC 1557), “Reduce Deer Damage in Your Yard”.

"Deer have an acute sense of smell to locate food, and it can be used to our advantage," Allen said. "Certain scents can deter deer if used properly and reapplied often."

Commercial products are available, or there are home remedies such as hanging deodorant soap bars from trees or placing them around the garden. Pepper spray can be an effective repellent, as well as the odor of human hair, which can be rolled in balls and hung in trees or on stakes.

A dog can be an effective deterrent, as well, if allowed to run loose in a fenced yard, both night and day, because deer feed at night. Fencing individual plants with black plastic mesh can protect them until they become established. Support the mesh with stakes or poles that provide plenty of space around the plant.

If you change your deterrent tactics throughout the year, deer will not become accustomed to them.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Nancy Allen