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Diggin' It

Deer-resistant gardening made easy

Three easy steps to deer-resistant gardening

By Genevieve Schmidt / June 22, 2011

Allium bulbs, which are tall and dramatic, don't appeal to deer but are easy for gardeners to grow.

Courtesy of Timber Press

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While gardening with deer can be a challenge, Ruth Rogers Clausen has some tips to make it easier.

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Ms. Clausen is the author of the new book "50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants" (Timber Press, $19.95), an enthusiastic guide to the best-performing deer-resistant plants for the garden.

Learn to recognize deer damage

According to the book, one of the first steps in preventing deer damage [pdf] is recognizing it. Because deer have no upper incisor teeth, they tear their food, resulting in ragged, torn leaves. This is the most obvious indicator that you’re dealing with deer eating your plants, rather than rabbits or woodchucks.

Another clear indicator of deer browsing is that the damage will usually occur from ground level to five feet up. If you can see from this evidence that deer are harming your large shrubs and trees, one way of avoiding damage is to purchase plants with a canopy above five feet in height, to allow your large shrub or tree to grow and photosynthesize without being eaten.

The last obvious signal to look for is deer droppings. Deer scat is usually a pile of small round droppings. If you see this, it’s clear what pest your plants are suffering from.

Repel deer and protect new plants from them

Clausen discusses a number of protective treatments to deter deer from munching on your plants.

Protective measures to existing plants tend to fall under two main categories; either putting up a physical barrier against deer -- such as a fence -- or using repellents to scare them away or make plants unpalatable.

For fencing, Clausen recommends the tried-and-true eight-foot-tall fence to deter leaping deer from crossing. However, she also shares the information that two, four-foot-high fences placed three to four feet apart will also do the trick, because deer are wary of becoming trapped between the two fences.

Repellents aren’t Clausen’s preferred method of dealing with deer. Most repellents are messy, only somewhat effective, and need frequent application or maintenance to perform their best.

However, they can be useful for protecting new plants from curious munching, or during dry times of the year when deer will often eat plants they don't normally favor.

A few of the repelling treatments she mentions include motion-sensing sprayers such as the Havahart Spray Away (to startle deer), commercial mixtures that make plants smell or taste bad like Plantskydd or Deer Off, and organic fertilizers with a pungent odor, such as fish emulsion, which she recommends applying at half strength to avoid overfertilizing.

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