Do you hate walking out the door in the summer to find your impatiens nipped off at the ground or your hosta leaves cut back to the stem? Maybe you're plagued even earlier in the year, with mysteriously disappearing tulips or neatly cropped pansies. It’s almost time to start seeing deer damage, and if they're already sampling your garden your garden, now is the time to act. The longer deer have been allowed into your yard, the more you'll see, and the harder it will be to get rid of them. There are four main ways to deal with a deer problem: repellents, frightening them, fences, and deer resistant plants.
Taste and Scent Repellents for Deer
Repellents seem to be the most common solution, but they're generally not the most effective. They can manage mild to moderate deer problems if you start as soon as you see damage and rotate through different types. Both scent and taste repellents are available, and some commercial products combine the two. Scent repellents include rotten eggs, garlic, bars of soap, and deer fear pheromones. If you opt to used soap bars, pieces must be hung on wires for the smell to circulate, and you’ll need a ton to keep the deer away, so this option may not appeal to you if you're dealing with an ornamental garden. Deer pheromones repellents work by emitting a smell that deer release when frightened to warn other deer to stay away.
Taste repellents usually rely on capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers spicy. In store bought spray repellents, you'll often find capsaicin mixed in with the garlic and egg. You can find any of these at your local garden center, but be sure to read the packaging first. Some must be applied under certain conditions or reapplied frequently, and if you have a large property you may not want to deal with the time and expense required to keep the deer away by these means. Not all of these products are safe to use on plants you intend to eat, even if the active ingredients are things you recognize, like egg solids. Natural does not necessarily mean safe. Always be sure to read landscape product labels.
Scaring Deer Away
Deer can also be frightened away. Shooting them, while it may be an effective means of instilling fear, is not a recommended or legal way to deal with the problem in urban or suburban areas like Indianapolis (and it always requires licensed permission). An outdoor dog can be an excellent solution more appropriate for heavily populated regions. Sometimes people use noise-making devices to repel the animals, but they quickly adjust to the noise, and it can end up bothering you and your neighbors more than the deer.
Proper fencing is a reliable way to keep out deer. Deer fences should be at least 7 feet high and sturdy enough not to be easily knocked over. Mesh fencing designed specifically for this purpose is less expensive, but also less attractive. A solid wood fence will also keep them out, but at much greater expense, and you may not be interested in physically and visually cutting your property off from the world. If you have a smaller vegetable garden you want to protect, this may be a more fitting situation for using mesh fencing. Make sure your fence is solid down to the ground, because deer can just as easily climb under a fence as jump over it.
Plants Deer Avoid
The last way to keep the pests out is to use plants they don't want to eat. Deer will generally avoid plants with strong, pungent scents or tough, hairy, or thorny stems and leaves. I'll give you a list of some of the most common options, but if you check the plant tag at a nursery or garden center, if will often tell you if deer leave it alone since this is such a common problem. Here are some plants deer don't like. For a more comprehensive list, check out this resource from Rutgers University. I put a * next to any plants that are native to Indiana, and a + next to any that attract pollinators.
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)+
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)*+
Salvia (Salvia nemorosa)+
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra species)*
Brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla) (great alternative to Hosta)
Daffodil (Narcissus species)
Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica)
Ornamental Onion (Allium species)+
Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)+
Annual Vinca (Catharanthus rosea)+
Marigold (Tagetes species)+
Cleome or Spider Plant (Cleome hassleriana)+
Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)+
Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)+
Ajuga or Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis)
Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)
Spotted Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum)
Bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis)+
Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)*+
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia species)+
If you mostly plant species deer don't like to eat, then you can selectively protect the plants you love that the deer also love and save yourself a lot of time and effort. The nice thing about these deer damage prevention strategies is that they are usually effective at keeping out rabbits as well, if you have problems with them. These are the most common solutions I'm aware of, but I know there are more deer repellent strategies out there, especially when it comes to home remedies. Do you have anything to add to the list? What has worked or not worked for you in the fight to keep deer from eating your favorite plants?