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Garden Deer
Joan Katherine Shaw

Buck Deer in Velvet, Big Basin National Park, CA

Young Buck Mule Deer, antlers in Velvet, at Great Basin National Park, California

Lovely to Look at, but ...
I have a flower- and shrub-hungry doe with two lovely spotted fawns in residence and have run out of options to get rid of them short of murder. They love lilies. They love roses. They love arborvitae and squash blossoms and the succulent tips on apple tree limbs and the new shoots now at browse level on the green bean vines. They ignore the nearby field of alfalfa. They ignore the grass. They ignore the weeds. And they ignore the owners of this place. That is, they bound off (to return later) if we shout at them and wave our arms, but until they get a reaction like that they simply take note that we've appeared and go on with whatever they were doing -- usually ravaging some valuable plant.

This little family is actually in residence. They're often joined by four or five peripatetic others who like to come in at dusk to our south copse, taking off a few rose buds and lilies and flowering plum leaves before bedding down for the night.

These are Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), confined mostly to the West, the kind with the enormous mule-like ears (see above photo). According to accounts in various wildlife references, these animals (unlike the white-tailed deer of the East, of which more later) avoid human habitation (Ha!), but rather hang out near forest edges and on the brushy slopes of the foothills.

Cache Valley has two herds, classified as The Mountain Herd and The Valley Herd. At one time Cache Valley had only a Mountain Herd and we never saw hide nor hair of a deer this far away from the foothills, but the heavy winter of 1984 drove many of the animals down to the river bottoms. Here the does, giving birth to fawns in the spring, stayed to raise their young. Then, before they could lead the fawns back into the mountains, they died here, most likely from the weakness brought on by the heavy snows. If a group of these orphaned fawns were born, say, along the Cub River which flows right below DragonGoose Farm, they would likely stick around. As Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd write in A Year At North Hill, "Deer prefer to live within one square mile of the place of their birth."  The garden here is, unfortunately, well within that boundary.

  Deer in Livermore, Colorado
Mule Deer making themselves at home in Holly and Jonathan Shaw's backyard, Livermore, Colorado

The smaller White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are found east of the Rocky Mountains, down into Mexico, and up into the Pacific Northwest. The cutting down of forests and clearing of farmland have favored their growth, they number in the millions, and will apparently eat anything grown in gardens, parks, and along roadways and street sides, depending on how hungry they are. The problem is especially thorny along the east coast in the United States; for instance, in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, where the deer per square mile of habitat number 104 and where the communities there have 2,045 deer-car collisions annually. Deer on the roads and streets are especially lethal to motorcyclists, almost always resulting in the death of the driver.

Recently, in one community in Montgomery County, 75 percent of the residents voted for nighttime sharpshooting by police to thin the herd. They are also working on a petition to raise the community's fences to eight feet. One enraged home owner shot a buck in his garden with a bow and arrow, drug him on to a nearby jogging path, gutted and flayed him, and propped the result up on sticks. For a short time, Satanism was suspected. Then the truth came out.

Among the communities in these deer-infested areas, the feeling is one of smoldering resignation, one resident suggesting to anyone who'd like a garden to get an apartment seven stories up with a patio and garden in pots. "As yet," she said, "they haven't found any deer that can climb up stairs."

So here in the West, we don't have it quite as bad as in the East.


Dennis Austin, Utah Wildlife Resources biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources, told me a few years ago that the white-tails are moving toward the mountains and through the valleys into Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. We haven't seen any yet. Dennis said that what the gardeners in the East attest is true, the White-tails are not afraid of humans and will eat anything that grows in a garden.

Deer browsing in a field outside of Boulder, Colorado

Mule Deer browsing a field outside of Boulder, Colorado,
This photo was taken in spring -- witness the reddish brown coats

Remedies Galore
Look in any number of garden books that have a section on pests and predation, or do an Internet search on the subject, and you will find reams of information on deer control. We're advised, for instance, to hang bars of soap on favored plants, but here at DragonGoose Farm ALL our plants are favored and there are beds that cover some two and a half acres. The prospect of hanging bars of soap on even every third or fourth of the 350 to 400 rose bushes on the place is enough to make faint the most robust of hearts.

Other repellents suggested are strips of anti-static dryer sheets, panty hose stuffed with human or dog hair, bags of coagulated blood or blood meal, cloths saturated with a garlic and rotten egg mixture and tied to plants or stakes, scattered chunks of putrified meat, the same of dog feces, and an application around favored beds of human, dog, mountain lion, or bear urine. One gardener had his male guests go out to the perimeter of his garden to empty their bladders after dinner. The least obnoxious procedure is spraying plants with hot pepper wax, and I've tried this myself, but the Horticulture Director of Salt Lake City's 100-acre Red Butte Garden is quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune's August 13, 2003 issue as saying, "We stopped using hot pepper spray when we found the deer eating the hot peppers in the herb garden."

An unappetizing procedure suggested in the Lifestyle section of the Akron Beacon (Ohio) suggested a mixture of equal parts water and bone tar oil (Magic Circle Deer Repellant). Wearing rubber gloves one saturates one- or two-foot long strips of cloth with this stuff, then ties the strips to stakes. The writer admits that the stuff smells "absolutely terrible," and Nancy McCord in her excellent handbook, Please Don't Eat My Garden, concurs.

What is that lovely line in Victorian literature about the soft, sweet smells of the garden? Do all these repellents sound repellent themselves? Well, they are. Several years ago, I decided to try some commercial animal spray to safeguard my lilac stems that had suddenly appeared to be tempting to the ground squirrels (cute little beasts, have you ever heard them whistling together?).

When my older daughter came home from school the day I'd made the application, I told her what I'd done, and she said, "I noticed it," rolling her eyes. "I was under the impression," she added, "that a sheep had died." And this was in the cool of the evening, in the spring, and she'd come up the drive with the windows of her car CLOSED.

And was that malodorous spray worth it? The ground squirrel problem, even the (fairly awful) mouse and vole problem, eventually disappeared, but I think it was less my one disastrous application of repellent than the work of owls and hawks, an army of cats and a family of foxes -- all of which had taken up residence during the next few years.

Deer in the Rocky Mountain National Forest, Colorado

A doe browsing in the Rocky Mountain National Forest, Colorado

Movement and Danger Underfoot
Well, and if none of these repellents work, or if we don't especially like the idea of having our gardens looking like a rag show or smelling like a lion house at the zoo, we're advised to try a flashing light or a security light that flashes on when a deer passes by. This sort of thing is supposed to startle the animal, as should a blast of water from a hose attached to a sensor, called a "Hydo-Blaster." I tried -- and still have stored away in the hall chest -- an electronic motion sensor called a "Yard Gard." It's powered by AC current and gives off an ultrasonic frequency for about 4,000 square feet that bothers the animals' ears but can't be heard by humans.

One year I tried using something we'd bought from Sharper Image for the inside of our house when our German Shepherd was at the vet -- the "Radar Watchdog and Intrusion Alarm." Like the "Yard Gard," it also runs on AC current and, when activated by motion, even through the walls, it erupts with the sound of two Doberman Pincers barking and growling as though gripped with blood lust. It startled the life out of our daughter Melanie whenever she came in to feed the cat in our absence, but when I put it out by the tulips and daffodils it didn't, apparently, startle the deer.

Other deer-startling contraptions suggested are metal pie plates or cans hung from trees that would rattle in the breeze, hanging metallic strips that flutter, or aluminum disks reflecting light as they turn, introducing movable plastic owls with reflective eyes and movable scare crows, and laying down wire fencing in a kind of flat ring around flower beds. The theory of the ring of wire fencing laid flat on the ground is that deer are uneasy about footing that doesn't feel right and will stay away from the roses so protected. If you feel that metal fencing spread around your rose beds might look just a tad tacky, you're definitely in the majority.

One article suggested placing a radio in the garden and turning it on from dusk to dawn when four-footed prowlers wreak havoc including, of course, the deer. Our farmer neighbor down the road tried the radio business, hooking it up with a timer, in an effort to keep an irritating crowd of racoons away from his trash cans. His rather large garden is next to another large garden of our other neighbor, who is a doctor. During the summer night, bedroom windows open, the doctor and the doctor's wife kept hearing things going on in the distance. Shouts. Conversation. Music playing. Screams? They got up in the night to look for lights, intruders, death and destruction. Should they call 911? And so on.

Finally, the doctor and his wife, dressed in their outerwear and carrying flashlights (and possibly weapons), went on an after-dark excursion and traced (surprise!) a radio at the bottom of their garden -- on the other side of the fence. They turned it off. The next day the doctor had a conference with the farmer next door who was actually his patient. Much embarrassment on the farmer's part. The radio business was dropped. I was so intrigued by the story I never did ask whether or not the radio was effective in keeping the racoons away.

We have security lights in several areas on DragonGoose Farm, though not specifically for the deer who turn them on at all hours with perfect equanimity. We have never tried the water blast. The ultrasonic ray gun mentioned above did not save the tender tops of my tulips and daffodils and by the time the roses started blooming, the deer were well used to the ultrasonic irritant and so it wouldn't bother them -- if it ever did. At any rate, deer when hungry enough can get used to anything we gardeners dish out, including all the smells and sights listed above and more. Therefore, these references tell us, one deterrent must be changed to another in a more or less constant rotation in order to keep the animals on their toes.

If you're interested in any of these electronic or mechanical devices to repel deer, you can browse through a long list of descriptions with pictures here.

Mule deer on a misty morning

Mule deer on a misty morning in a neighboring farmer's equipment yard (Ethy KS Cannon)

Complete Renovation
So if noise and sudden flashes and repellant smells don't work or seem frankly repulsive, what then? Well there are shrubs and flowers that are said to be unattractive to deer, so apparently gardeners could dig up and replant with them. In Cache Valley and Utah in general these unfavored shrubs and plants include Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifern), Singleaf Ash (Fraxinus anomala), Shrubby Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), Gooseberry (Ribes grossularia), and Yucca (Yucca spp.) Among the flowers and vines listed as unattractive to deer are Daisies (Bellis spp.), Tiger Lily (Lilium tigrinum), Myrtle (Myrtus spp.), Buttercup (Ranunculus spp), and Wisteria (Wisteria spp.) The Tiger Lily said to be unattractive to Cache Valley deer, Lilium tigrinum, is starred with the note that what is meant here is a plant species native to Utah. My own Tiger Lilies (Lilium lancifolium) appear to be nothing if not attractive to my resident deer.

Many gardeners report that plants classified as unattractive to deer are often browsed down to the nubbins in their own gardens. In fact, after a heavy winter, any young shoots emerging from the ground are attractive to deer. Daffodils are listed as unattractive in list after list but the young shoots still get their tops nipped off at DragonGoose Farm along with the tulips nearby, and so do the very young shoots of Red-Osier Dogwood. So far they've bypassed the Cinquefoil, but by the time the Cinquefoil starts sprouting in the spring, the roses are covered with succulent leaves, so why would they bother? Further, if deer are hungry enough, say, during drought such as Cache Valley has experienced for the past five years, the animals will eat anything, and who can blame them?

And what of vegetable gardens? And fruit trees? We can hardly replace them with something unappetizing to deer. Deer find delicious everything that humans find delicious, though some gardeners have tried planting deer-repellent plants around the perimeter of veggie and fruit gardens such as aromatic herbs (sage, chives, thyme, and lavender). We've never tried it, though we grow these plants in our bricked herb garden.

A full list of plants and trees attractive and unattractive to deer can be found in many publications including Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd's A Year at North Hill, in Nancy McCord's Please Don't Eat My Garden!, and in an article specific to Utah by D.D. Austin and A.B. Hash at http://www.wildlife.utah.gove/habitat/deer-browse.html.

These lists are interesting, but even though deer might turn up their delicate noses at the buds on, say, a Norway Maple or a Birch, both listed as unattractive browse, the bucks can reduce even good-sized specimens of these trees and others to matchsticks in the early spring by using them for jousting practice or as posts to rub the velvet off their antlers -- as we've learned here on the farm by sad experience.

So, faced with so many far from failure-proof remedies in getting rid of deer and short of keeping a shotgun handy to shoot the beasts on sight, what can we gardeners do about them?

The Ultimate Solution
At the end of almost all the helpful hints about deterring deer from the garden is the bitter pill -- build an 8-foot fence. We had to do that to protect our south apple orchard -- an unattractive alternative, but the south orchard is rather hidden. The young apple trees in the smaller orchard on the north are now too big to wrap in burlap for the winter as my daughter, Melanie, has done since they were planted, and so we'll have to fence up there, too. This orchard is much more visible, especially to one neighbor who lives only some 1,000 feet away from the trees. We've been spending quite a bit of mental energy trying to plan a fence that will look half-way attractive or at least less obtrusive than our pole and wire mesh fence on the south -- without sending us into bankruptcy. So far, the problem looks formidable.

We've been toying with using attractive posts and black wire mesh, billed as almost invisible at a distance, or trying a lower, more attractive fence on taller posts with two strands of electrified wire above. Lower fences do slow the deer especially lined with shrubs inside, because deer are hesitant to leap when they can't see what's on the other side of what they're leaping over. This last is a good choice to us, though the two- or three-year period of waiting for this shrub border to grow into a brushy size would leave the trees vulnerable for quite a while.

Ah, well. The deer are here. And they might well outlast us and our gardens both.

Best wishes,
Joan Katherine Shaw
Mid-September 2003

Photos by Alan W. Shaw, Melanie Shaw, and Ethy K. Shaw Cannon

Books mentioned in this essay:

click to buy Click to buy or browse A Year At North Hill by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd

click to buyClick to buy or browse Living Seasonally, Another book by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd
click to buyPlease Don't Eat My Garden!

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