Dealing with destructive deer

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sure they're majestic and beautiful and you'll slow down on the highway to spot deer in fields. When one is in the backyard, people often scramble to grab the camera.

But deer aren't so cute when you wake up to half-eaten begonias and destroyed sweet potato vines.

Urban sprawl and encroachment on their habitats has made deer less fearful of human presence, as they now look to gardens as their primary food source in many cases. They'll take out prized plants without a second thought and come back for more the next day. As their natural habitats decrease, the challenge to keep deer out of even urban gardens is becoming a greater problem.

There are three ways commonly used to repel or deter deer: physical barriers, scare tactics and repellents. However, anything short of urban hunting -- which remains illegal within city limits in Cape Girardeau and surrounding towns, despite tentative talks earlier this year -- will result in only limited and temporary success at best.

Creating a physical barrier that is tall enough is a challenge. Deer can clear a fence or object that is 10 feet tall or more. However, deer will not jump over an item where they cannot see their landing zone, nor will they jump over wide objects, such as a wide hedge or a fence that has a row of wires angling outward. This can make building or planting a deer-resistant physical barrier more manageable. Still, the physical size of the garden or property can preclude this type of barrier as an option.

On a more manageable level, this leaves two remaining options. The first one is scare tactics. There are many commercial products and home remedies that can be effective -- temporarily. Some people have methods they swear by. One large-scale gardener who claims that the combination of motion-activated strobe lights and the sound of classical music is highly effective in keeping the deer in his area away. Bet that works on the neighbors, too.

The biggest limitation, no matter how effective initially, is that once the deer become acclimated or accustomed to the "scare" device, they'll resume their normal feeding habits. The length of time this takes will vary. But the bottom line is that it is only a matter of time, and eventually scare tactics alone will not be enough.

The other method of deterring deer is to use repellents in the form of offensive tastes and smells. A common example of a tastefully offensive repellent is rotten egg bits.

Some government studies attest to the effectiveness of this type of deterrent. Other taste repellents, including mint oil, garlic oil and capsaicin, can be effective for limited periods. As with any topical application, though, weather conditions such as rain or simply exposure will require potentially frequent reapplication to remain effective.

Joe Touchette from Plants Plus on Kingshighway recommended Hot Pepper Wax, a nontoxic cayenne pepper chemical mixed with a waxy solution to help it stick to the plant longer.

"Deer will test it, not like it and eventually you won't have to keep spraying it," he said. The deer will find their food elsewhere.

You can place decoy plants around your property as a way to distract deer to a tasteful but less valuable plant or one they won't eat altogether.

"Generally plants with a noxious scent they won't bother. Things with a fuzzy leaf they won't bother," Touchette said. He suggested lantana because of its terrible taste and smell.

Deer will likely continue to be the most challenging and destructive pest that many home and commercial gardeners face. Stay proactive and use multiple strategies that incorporate a combination of physical exclusion, scare tactics and repellents that are offensive in taste and smell. Home remedies abound, and no one will think you are tacky when you hang bars of green soap in pantyhose along the edge of your garden.

If it works for you, that's a great place to start.

Features editor Chris Harris contributed to this report.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: