Sunday, January 9, 2011

Deer Country 5: Deer & Veggie Gardens

Raising veggies in Deer Country is a challenge. When I surveyed Howard County Master Gardeners and asked them to name vegetables that deer don’t eat, the most common answer was, “I can’t think of one.” Several said “onions.” Fewer said “herbs.”

Unfortunately, those answers are correct. Deer eat most garden veggies and avoid plants in the Allium family, such as onions, garlic, and chives, as well as strongly scented herbs, such as those in the mint family.

So what’s a veggie gardener to do? Here are three options:

Repellents: In “Deer Country 4,” I discussed repellent sprays and the fact that many cannot be used on edibles because they contain rotten eggs or other offensive ingredients. But note that I said “on edibles.” Some repellents are designed to be used “near” edibles, close enough that deer turn away from the repellent and the garden. Also note that I said “many,” not “all.” Some spray repellents may be used on edibles and have labels outlining proper usage. Because of their expense and requirements for reapplication from time to time, repellents often are only practical for relatively small gardens.

Gromit, Garden Guardian (Photo: Cindy M.)
Dogs: Chihuahuas probably won’t make deer move on to distant grazing land, but larger dogs, usually with fencing, are sometimes used to keep deer out of agricultural areas, especially orchards. When I surveyed Howard County Master Gardeners, one replied that she has an Australian herding dog, Gromit, who loves to chase away deer that come inside his “Invisible Fence.” She explained that deer have learned just what Gromit’s limits are and stop running once they reach the boundary. Pets of home gardeners, of course, generally aren’t on sentry duty 24/7, which your local deer will duly note. And if your pet is a “digger” and you don’t want your garden uprooted, your solution more likely is fencing.

Fences: For a large veggie garden, the most practical—and perhaps most expensive—answer is fencing. But what kind—electric, plastic, welded wire? And how high—4’, 6’, 8’, 12’, the sky?

Paul K. Checks His Solar Electric Fence
Many gardeners in deer country use electric fences—often baited with aluminum foil folded with peanut butter over the wire, so deer sniff, touch the foil, and receive a nonlethal electrical zap. Most are rapid learners. Newer models of electric fences are often reasonably priced and solar powered. Electric fences may not be practical, perhaps even prohibited by law, in urban settings and where children abound. And though electric fences are popular with many gardeners, deer sometimes are hungry enough to just barge through the fence, enduring the shock in order to get to a meal. Neil Soderstrom’s Deer-Resistant Landscaping,” the book I recommended in “Deer Country 3,” has 15 pages about various types of fencing.

"Soft" Fencing Doesn't Work
Hardware stores often stock plastic “deer fencing” or “deer netting.” I’ve tried several grades and brands, and our local bambits haven’t been impressed. Within weeks they learned that all fencing isn’t manufactured equally. Soft, plastic fencing, even metal chicken wire, “gives” when deer lean into it to grab a leaf or two, stretching the fence, and, if the leverage is right, even bending and destroying steel fence posts. The photo at left shows steel posts bent at right-angles by deer intent on leaning through one of my experimental steel post/chicken wire/plastic wire fences.

That leaves standard welded wire fencing—even chain-link fencing if you want to invest significantly. The heavier and taller the fencing the better. Deer have no problem standing next to a 4’ fence and leisurely hopping over. On the run and in the right circumstances, deer can clear an 8’ fence.

So what to do?

First, think smaller garden area rather than larger. Deer seem to like to know how they’re going to get into and out of an area, so many are reluctant to jump into relatively small spaces. A 10x10 garden generally will be more deer proof than a 20x20 garden.

"Fence Extenders" at Lake Elkhorn Community Garden
Second, think taller fencing rather than shorter. Many gardeners in our area install 6’ to 8’ fencing, which most deer respect. Other gardeners use 4-foot fencing with wooden or plastic post extensions to which they add strands of wire or rope and sometimes dangling plastic bottles or other distractions.

One Master Gardener has an 8-foot wooden fence with narrow slits that deer never have jumped. Her theory is that they cannot see what’s on the other side and decide not to venture into the unknown.

Our veggie gardens are protected by a split rail fence faced with 4-foot high, 2”x3” welded wire fencing, which I believe no deer has jumped in the 14 years we’ve lived here.

Doesn’t that break all the rules?

Well, no, deer don’t read the rules. I believe there are specific reasons deer haven’t jumped our fence. Our garden is on the side of a hill, higher on the garden side, lower on the deer side. Since our garden is on the slope, I’ve terraced it into relatively small beds with concrete stacking blocks, which add uncertainty to “what’s over there” when the deer see it. Just beyond the narrow veggie gardens is a concrete sidewalk and then another level of terraced flower gardens—and then our house—more uncertainties.

If you have a severe deer problem like we do—not just one or two browsers from time to time—read up on the subject and consider alternatives that will help you grow veggies sanely in Deer Country.

To link to “Deer Country 3,” which contains more information about Soderstrom’s book, CLICK HERE.

To link to “Deer Country 4,” which discusses repellents, CLICK HERE.


  1. While deer like almost everything in my garden (especially beets and spinach), they generally don't bother my brassicas (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, etc). Don't know why, maybe its the strong taste?

  2. Could be the taste, Kent. But it could be that your local deer just prefer something else. Deer in our neighborhood browse on our marigolds, which are about the strongest-tasting plan in the garden.

  3. the yard and then hits that plastic, I can almost hear the Flintstone brake squealing sound effect and see her legs spinning with smoke coming out. I yell "ha ha" at her every time this happens.iron gate