milkweed blossom
Image by Sandy Repp

Milkweed Blossom

Gardening With Deer Q&A

Preventing Deer Damage

Question: I have a deer problem. Is there anything they don't eat?

Beautiful, but too prolific, deer are a problem not just for farmers and gardeners, for car drivers, for outdoor enthusiasts who may get Lyme disease, but also for other fauna and flora who suffer from the loss of biodiversity that results from deer preferentially nibbling on native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.

But what can a gardener do? Some plants are less attractive to browsing deer - plants that they may sample, but not consume. They may have a strong aroma that deer don't like (but which people often do). We can list many such herbs and perennials such as yarrow, Russian sage, bluemist shrub, lavender, nepeta, culinary sage and other salvias, and beebalm. Deer tend to avoid plants with fuzzy leaves, like lungwort and lambs ears. Irises, peonies, bleeding hearts, foxglove, bluestar, hellebores, monkshood, Brunnera, coral bells, yellow corydalis, and black snakeroot are usually avoided. Ferns, ornamental alliums, and ornamental grasses are usually ignored. Among bulbs, narcissus, snowdrops, snowflakes, Fritillaria, and Camassia are generally safe, as are smaller bulbs like scilla and glory-of-the-snow. Woodies include forsythia, birch, boxwood, and some spruce and viburnums.

Deer do vary in their tastes, however. They also vary in what they are familiar with. I still hear from people whose Hosta haven't been bothered. I also hear from people whose dog(s) is an effective deterrent, but that also can't be relied on! There are effective deer repellents on the market, with the best ones being based on rotten eggs. Fortunately, the smell becomes too faint for most human noses after a while. Commercial repellents have a spreader/sticker in their formulation that helps them to last longer than home remedies. But all repellents need to be reapplied to new growth when it appears, as that is the tastiest part.

What if you're not sure that deer are the culprits? Deer damage is usually ragged, as they tear leaves and tips off, since they lack incisors. Rabbits and woodchucks usually leave an evenly cut edge. Of course, if the damage is high enough, that is also a clue.

To protect vegetables, you really need to plan on a fence. Deer repellents are mostly not labeled for use on edibles. It's best to install the fence first, before they get a sample. Once they've tasted veggies, it will be harder to keep them out! Between deer, rabbits, and woodchucks, the only veggies I can grow without a fence are garlic, onions, and their relatives. The recommended minimum height for a boundary deer fence of wire is 8 feet. Some local gardeners have had bad luck with plastic deer fencing. However, there are other strategies and designs. These vary from a seasonal fence just during the growing season, or wire circles to protect individual trees or shrubs, either all the time or just in the winter, to electric or high tensile fencing for an orchard.

To learn more about gardeing, including deer problems, consult the Cornell gardening website, or call the horticultural hotline at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County at 272-2292.

Last updated January 29, 2021