The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population has  increased dramatically since the 1960s. As the deer population 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 seeing 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:

1) Exclusion by deer-proof fence
2) Scare or frightening tactics
3) Habitat modification
4) Hunting
5) Repellents
6) Alternative (non-palatable) plantings


Exclusion - 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.

A 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.

Scare Tactics - 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 crop.

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.

Habitat 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 action.

Hunting - 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.

Repellents - 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.

Bear in mind that repellents will not completely eliminate damage. Many repellents do not weather well and will need to be reapplied after every rain.

Alternate 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 the year.

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 problem.

The 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.

Note: We 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 Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.


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