For many homeowners in rural or suburban environments, long gone are the days when seeing a deer is an interesting wildlife spotting. Instead, a homeowner is more likely to see their blood pressure rise as this wild grazing animal proceeds to munch on carefully nurtured flowers, shrubs, or even trees. In many areas, deer have become a serious nuisance that threatens to destroy residential and business landscaping.
The main culprit is the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), a species now found in every state east of the Mississippi, as well as parts of Arizona. Geography alone is no protection, though, since western states must contend with Odocoileus hemionus (mule deer), which can also be destructive to landscapes.
Deer will eat a range of vegetables, fruit, and flowering plants, such as tomato plants and dill, and they often eat every hosta, azalea, tulip, lily, or pansy in the garden. In harsh conditions when other food sources are scarce, deer can destroy expensive shrubs and trees by chewing off the bark and branches. And these grazing mammals quickly become acclimated to humans; they have been known to chew up the backyard shrubs while homeowners watch aghast while sitting at a picnic table just feet away. To add injury to insult, in many regions deer may also spread certain diseases.
No wonder homeowners are desperate for effective strategies for keeping deer out of their landscapes.
5 Ways Keep Deer Away From Your Landscape
Use Scent Repellants
Many commercial scent repellants are available that promise to keep deer out of your landscape. The best ones are formulated with real or simulated predator urine—these are often sold as broad-action repellants that work on many different species, including deer, rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels. Other repellants use hot spices or extracts from blood meal or rotten eggs. Whatever source it comes from, a repellant spray must be re-applied to plants after every rain for maximum deer deterrence. And it's not enough just to spray the ground; scent repellants should be sprayed on any branches up to 6 feet above the ground.
It's a good idea to have several different scent formulations and rotate them to prevent deer from becoming habituated and immune to any single scent.
Dozens of different home-made scent repellants have been tried against deer, and you may have success with one or more of them: hanging fabric softener strips or bars of scented soap from trees; spraying plants with mixtures of hot pepper, garlic, and rotten eggs; placing ammonia-soaked rags around the landscape; or laying blood meal or bags of human hair around the garden.
Use Motion and Sound Repellants
Deer dislike sudden, unfamiliar motion, so a landscape with windmills, solar-powered "scarecrow" devices, or motion-activated lights may well succeed in keeping deer away. Even wind chimes can scare deer away. If too much audible sound is not pleasing to you or your neighbors, there are also ultrasonic sound-makers powered by small solar panels and activated by motion sensors. The high-pitched sound can't be heard by humans but is extremely annoying to deer. Some of these ultrasonic devices also activate a flashing strobe light when they sense motion.
Water sprinklers connected to motion sensors can also be very effective at keeping deer away. But don't expect simple watering timers to work, as deer quickly learn to adjust their feeding schedule around the watering schedule.
Plant Deer-Resistant Plant Species
Your local County Extension agent's office can guide you toward deer-resistant plants that are appropriate to your area's growing conditions. But be forewarned that when conditions become especially harsh, deer will turn to almost any plant as a food source.
Some plants that are generally ignored by deer or even repel them include those with fuzzy or hairy foliage, such as lamb's ear, yarrow, squash, and pumpkins. And deer are confused and repelled by plants with very aromatic flowers and foliage, such as mint, rosemary, Russian sage, lavender, peonies, boxwood, onion, and garlic.
Some plants are known to taste bitter to deer, including yarrow, ferns, poppies, daffodils, foxglove, and snowdrops. Be aware, though, that some of these plants are also toxic to other animals, including dogs and cats.
Deer tend to avoid plants that have tough leaves with fibrous or leathery textures. Pachysandra, iris, and lavender are often immune to deer except in extreme conditions. Deer also generally avoid plants with spines or thorns; using barberry shrubs, and planting globe thistle and acanthus in your flower beds is a good idea if your area is plagued by deer. Similarly, deer tend to avoid sharp-edged ornamental grasses and sedges, which are difficult to digest.
Finally, deer seem to avoid plants with gray or silver foliage. Lungwort, dusty miller, Russian sage, and lamb's ear are all plants that deer seem to pass by without even tasting.
Avoid planting fruit trees, berry bushes, and ground fruits such as strawberries, as these are almost guaranteed to draw deer. If you must plant species that are attractive to deer, position them close to the house since most deer will be nervous about a close approach to the home.
If you truly need to keep deer out of your landscape, sturdy fencing may be the only real option in areas where deer are plentiful. Ideally, fencing should be at least 8 feet high and fabricated of metal or black polypropylene mesh. Supplies can be purchased at home or garden stores. Some stores will even have ready-made fence kits that include everything you need.
Traditional chain link or wood fencing can also work, provided it is high enough. Deer will easily leap chain link fences under 6 feet tall, but a 4-foot-tall wood fence often works—possibly because it makes deer nervous by blocking the view.
Keep an Active Dog
The presence of almost any dog can be an effective deer deterrent. Even if your dog is not a deer-chaser, the smell of dog urine around a yard will effectively keep deer away in many cases. But be sensitive to neighbors for whom a dog frantically barking as it chases a deer may be more annoying than the deer itself.
What Causes Deer in a Landscape?
Deer are drawn to a landscape for one simple reason: safe sources of food. Provided deer are common in the region, any landscape that offers tasty and nutritious plant species—with no apparent threats—is likely to attract them.
How to Prevent Deer
The best way to keep deer out of your landscape is to deny them the food they crave and to create the illusion of danger. Avoid landscaping with plant species known to be eaten by deer. Don't feed other animals, such as birds and squirrels, since deer will happily consume bird seed and dried corn set out to feed other wildlife. And practice the five methods described above.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Are Deer so Fond of Gardens?
The whitetail deer that is the main enemy of residential landscapes usually weighs 100 to 150 pounds when mature. Deer are cud chewers with high nutrition needs, so they prefer soft, easily digestible plant leaves—and lots of them—which explains their fondness for flower and vegetable gardens.
Deer live 5 to 10 years, on average, and breed in November and December. Whitetail deer will produce spotted fawns, the males of which will begin to grow "spikes" or small antlers at about six months of age. As adults, the males then shed their antlers every December and January. It is not uncommon for entire families of deer—or even herds—to all attack a residential landscape at the same time.
What Is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)?
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a mysterious disease seen mostly in wild hoofed mammals, such as deer, moose, caribou, and elk. It is closely related to mad cow disease. Symptoms of CWD are chronic weight loss and behavioral abnormalities caused by brain lesions. If you see a very thin deer or one behaving oddly (the disease is sometimes called "zombie deer disease"), call your Department of Natural Resources and report the sighting. CWD has been reported in 26 U.S. states but is gradually spreading.
There is some evidence that CDW may be transmissible to other species, including humans, possibly causing neurological illnesses. Hunters are advised to avoid consuming deer meat in regions where CWD is known to be present and to use great care when field-dressing and disposing of deer body parts.
Do Deer Spread Lyme Disease?
Though they do not get sick from Lyme disease, deer may carry the virus in their blood. Humans do not, however, get infected from direct contact with deer. The real function of deer in the transmission of the disease is transporting the virus-carrying ticks from one place to another—including into your yard and garden. Young deer ticks initially are infected when they bite small infected mammals near ground level, then transmit it to larger animals by future bites. The largest wild mammals, especially deer, eventually deposit the ticks in taller grasses and gardens, where they are more likely to bite humans.
In regions where deer are common, it's a good idea to use tick repellant when hiking in grassy areas or woods, or even when working in a garden that is frequented by deer.
Can Deer Carry Rabies?
More than 90 percent of all cases of wildlife rabies occur in bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. But there are cases of rabies being found in deer. A deer that shows trouble standing, has a lack of coordination, and demonstrates no fear of humans could be an animal carrying the rabies virus. Deer with advanced rabies often show a lack of hair on the head in conjunction with the other signs.
If you see such symptoms, call your local animal control agency to report the sighting.