white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population
increased dramatically since the 1960s. As the deer
has expanded, they have moved into suburban and
urban areas. Increasingly, homeowners must deal with deer
damage to their ornamental and garden plants.
As deer begin to be plentiful, homeowners initially enjoy
them and may actually encourage deer to come into their
yard by feeding them. Rural townships may ban hunting or place
restrictions on firearm use for safety reasons. Homeowner
attitudes change, however, when landscape plants suffer heavy
browsing damage and gardens become difficult to grow. In
addition to browsing, damage may occur in the fall when bucks
begin rubbing antlers on small trees or young nursery stock.
Commonly Used Control Methods
Controlling deer damage is not easy. There
are several methods of at least minimizing the damage and they
fit into six categories:
Exclusion by deer-proof fence
Scare or frightening tactics
Alternative (non-palatable) plantings
Physically excluding pests such as deer from our landscapes,
gardens, orchards, etc. is the most effective way to prevent
damage. Unfortunately, it also the most expensive and often,
least compatible approach for homeowners.
deer-proof fence does not fit well with most home landscapes
and can be expensive if large areas are to be protected. For
small vegetable gardens, a deer-proof fence may be constructed
using standard wire fence attached up 12-foot tall posts.
Electric fences are less expensive and can
be just as effective, however, they do require regular
maintenance. For best results they should be constructed before serious damage occurs and must be kept electrified
at all times. Researchers have had success using a three-wire
electric fence baited with aluminum foil strips attached at
5-10 foot intervals. The ends of the strips are smeared with
peanut butter for "bait." When the deer lick the bait, they
get a "tickle" that warns them of the fence. Deer may learn to
jump electric fences if they are incorrectly installed or
maintenance is lacking.
- Frightening deer usually only works for short periods of
time before the deer adapt to the specific tactic. Gas
exploders, music or lights attached to motion detectors or
discharging firearms (where allowed) may provide enough
protection to allow for the harvest of a fruit or vegetable
Longer term success has been reported by
people who install the so-called "invisible dog fence" around
the entire perimeter of their property. Once the dog is
trained to stay inside this area, it may be left outside at
night to scare off deer.
Modification - This approach is expensive and may
actually attract deer if misapplied. A professional wildlife
biologist should be consulted if this is the desired course of
- Population reduction by sport hunting is the most cost
effective, long-term solution and should be seriously
considered if damage is wide spread. However, hunting is now
prohibited in most suburban or urban areas due to safety
issues in populated neighborhoods. Be sure to check with local
units of government for specific regulations.
- This is the method that is most commonly used by
homeowners. Repellents discourage deer
from feeding by making the plants either taste or smell bad.
Effectiveness of a specific repellent will vary depending on
deer density, season of the year, and availability of
alternate foods. To be effective, repellents must be applied
before deer begin actively browsing on your plants.
in mind that repellents will not completely eliminate
damage. Many repellents do not weather well and will need to
be reapplied after every rain.
Plantings - Although their feeding habits may
change seasonally, deer choose plants based on nutritional
needs, palatability, and past experience. They seem to show
a preference for new plantings and cultivated domestic
varieties. Damage to ornamentals may occur at any time of
When deer numbers are high or food availability is low,
damage may occur on plants that they would normally not
touch. Deer may exhibit localized taste preferences so what
they eat may vary somewhat from site to site.
Research has documented that deer may eat as many as 100
different species of plants in a given locale. However, they
do tend to avoid certain plants and this knowledge can be
helpful in choosing plants for sites where deer area major
following lists categorizes landscape plants based on their
desirability as a food for deer. Judicious plant selection
in combination with a variety of control methods should
provide homeowners with reasonable success. Remember to
begin control measures before significant damage occurs.
Garden plants that suffer rare or occasional damage when
mature may suffer frequent damage at transplanting time
(e.g., peppers, corn, okra, squash). The same may be true
with garden plants that are planted early in spring and
again in fall.
have provided some general information and
observations on this topic aimed at the home
gardener. Before you take
any serious action in your landscape, check
with your state's land grant university's
Service for the most current,
appropriate, localized recommendations.