Deer, oh deer

Unwelcoming Bambi to the garden

IF I COULD find a surefire cure for keeping deer away from gardens, I could retire. Of all the gardening questions I receive, one of the top three begins: “How do I keep deer from eating my…(insert plant here)?” Deer are problematic for many gardeners across North America, so much so that hostas, those beloved workhorses of shade gardeners everywhere, have dropped out of the top ten most popular perennials, primarily because deer consider this leafy plant to be a full meal deal. If you’ve ever come out to your garden to find tulips nipped off to the ground, hostas chewed off to their stems, foliage browsed back on rhododendrons, roses, cedars, yews and hollies…you’ve got deer problems. Unless you live in Newfoundland, of course, where there are no deer…but there are moose!

Deer aren’t considered problematic by all gardeners; some enjoy having wildlife in their back yards, and may even feed them. I have been fortunate they’ve never been a problem for me. In my former home, we had an “attack donkey” that would blat and fuss at deer if they even came through the pasture. Now that I’ve relocated to Wolfville, I expected some problems, but although my friend who lives on the other side of the duplex has a huge vegetable garden, and I have seen deer crossing the road near here, we’ve not had them in either of our gardens. Yet.


Why so many?

Wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft says deer were rare in this region until about 100 years ago, while moose and caribou were far more common in years past. He calls white-tailed deer an “‘around the farm animal’ more than a backcountry or wilderness animal,” as they are less reclusive than moose and caribou in their foraging habits. Much of the forest cutting, patterns of ownership and land use in recent years have favoured deer over moose; caribou are susceptible to the brain worm brought to our region by deer and climate change has been causing habitat loss concurrently with humans altering it for development. We all know of subdivisions and other residential areas that were woodlands and meadows not long ago; these were formerly habitat for deer.

Bob also points out that because hunting laws forbid discharging of a firearm within 400+ metres of a dwelling, deer have learned they will not be shot in residential areas.

Because moose are a backcountry animal, most of us will never have a problem with them in our gardens. The exception is in Newfoundland, where high populations of moose drive them closer to people’s dwellings. Newfoundlanders have long put up sturdy pole fences around their gardens to keep moose—and in some areas, free-ranging livestock—out.

Luck of the Irish

Lynda and Doug MacLellan live in Cloverville, not far from Antigonish, NS. Although they have planted a vegetable garden for 35 years, it was only a few years ago deer decided it was a great place to feast. Lynda says Irish Spring soap was effective one year as a deterrent, although the deer had already ravaged her sugar snap peas and Swiss chard before she hit on the idea. “We sprinkled rows with shaved soap and used small mesh bags filled with pieces of soap, hung on the supports for the peas. The deer entered once or twice, but only ate small amounts of the bean leaves.” She was lucky the soap worked for as long as it did. Deer often become accustomed to repellents, whether home grown tactics like soap or commercially prepared products, so you often have to rotate through several different products in a season. All need to be reapplied after rain, and if it’s a rainy summer this can get frustrating and costly.

Deer de‘fence’

The MacLellans decided to try a deer fence and purchased a type made of very fine material, making it almost invisible. They wove brightly coloured PVC flagging tape around the fence perimeter and Lynda says it worked well until “my husband cut a hole in the bottom of it with the lawn mower. Not long after that the deer crawled in through the opening and had a feast.” Last year, they bought another roll of the fencing and all was fine until late August, when the deer jumped the seven-foot-high fence, which gave way and caved inward. She says they’re going to try another product this year as she feels the current fence is too thin. She also says, “a Google search will reveal that male urine deters deer. My husband refuses to co-operate so that idea has not been tested!”

Gaile and Rob Maddigan live in Martin’s River, not far from Mahone Bay, in a quiet, wooded residential area with large lots. After he retired several years ago, Rob took up gardening and began building beds around their property. A vegetable garden in their back yard, not far from the woods but receiving plenty of sunlight, seemed like a great idea…until the deer discovered it. They’ve also sampled the holly bushes, but interestingly haven’t bothered the hostas near the house.

Wanting to grow his own vegetables and determined not to be outsmarted by the deer, Rob put his handyman’s skills to work. Last spring, he built a new garden off the side of the house. He cut birch poles from trees on his woodlot, peeled them, added steel spikes to the bottom to drive them into the ground all around the garden and wrapped a type of plastic mesh fencing called Deer-D-Fence around them. The resulting protective fence is seven feet high, and they haven’t had a single problem with deer trying to get in. He even built a sliding gate/door, using a pulley system to open and shut it when he wants to go into the garden, and finished the top of the fence off with arched poles, which add another foot of height to the structure. It has worked brilliantly; Gaile says “we don’t want to see the deer driven away…we just want to enjoy our vegetables before they do!” An added feature of this particular type of fencing is that if songbirds hit the mesh, they bounce off unharmed.

Deer aren’t just a problem for homeowners and home gardens. Kingsbrae Garden, a magnificent private garden open to the public in St. Andrews, NB, could be devastated by deer if they had easy access. Happily, tall hedges and fences surround Kingsbrae, although these need constant tending and repair as hungry deer will push through surprisingly small holes in a hedge.

Strategic control

Mike Strothotte is a gardener at Kingsbrae, recently transplanted to the East Coast from Nanaimo, BC. Of deer control at Kingsbrae, he says the driveway to the parking lot has “a cattle guard that would do a Montana rancher proud. All the gates have signs on them exhorting those who pass through to close up behind them to prevent those four-legged darlings from following them in.”

Several times during the season, Kingsbrae’s gardening staff does a “deer run” early in the morning. Starting in the lower Acadian Forest area of the site, where there are plenty of shady hiding places, everybody arranges themselves in a skirmish line and proceed through the bush, making as much noise as possible. Spotters are stationed at strategic narrowings or gates to shoo the fleeing quarry onward. Recently, deer chutes have been constructed near the outside gates, forcing the deer into the path of least resistance rather than bolting through the line of assembled humans.

Mike’s report on deer control at Kingsbrae is lighthearted, but he points out a more serious concern than half-eaten hostas and ravaged roses. “Deer are carriers of a brain worm, spread via feces, that they seem to be able to tolerate, but other animals do not.” Two of the alpacas in the children’s zoo area were lost to brain worm before the connection was established. Further sleuthing determined that slugs were an intermediate host, so Kingsbrae “instituted an elegant low-tech solution to this problem. Ducks eat slugs, with no ill effects—a win-win situation!”

What can you do to protect your garden from deer? Fencing obviously works, although it can be costly and time consuming to put in and maintain. Adjusting your gardens to plants that deer don’t like is another option. Deer will sample most any plant, but their favourites include rhododendrons, cedars, holly, roses, daylilies, tulips, hostas and almost all vegetables and fruits.

What don’t they like?

They generally tend to avoid plants with highly fragrant foliage, such as tansy, catmint (Nepeta), yarrow (Achillea), cranesbills or hardy geraniums, most of the strongly scented herbs, Russian sage (Perovskia), bee balm (Monarda) and alliums (flowering onions); toxic plants such as monkshood (Aconitum), delphinium, bleeding heart (Dicentra), poppies, daffodils, foxgloves, lily of the valley; plants with fuzzy or sharp foliage such as mullein (Verbascum), lambs ears (Stachys), silver sage, lungwort (Pulmonaria), wormwood (Artemisia), astilbes, threadleaf coreopsis. Other plants they don’t seem to find appealing include the campions (Lychnis and Silene), peonies, evening-primrose (Oenothera), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium), many perennial grasses including silvergrass (Miscanthus) and fountain grass (Pennisetum). They may nibble new growth on many shrubs and trees, but tend to leave ginkgo, juniper, spruces, lilac, witch hazel (Hamamelis), magnolias, St. John’s wort, cotoneaster, cinquefoil (Potentilla), and butterfly bush (Buddleia).

Two things to bear in mind about supposedly deer-resistant plants: deer don’t read the lists of plants that we recommend, and will sample almost anything, including plants that are toxic to other animals. And finally, the only truly deer resistant plant is either indoors, or made of plastic.