Deer in the Garden: How to navigate gardening with wildlife

Hungry animals are bold animals.  They will walk right into populated areas for a quick snack.  And apparently, my garden is fair game.  Here are my hard-earned tips on how to keep them out of yours.

I remember losing an entire mulberry bush–yes, a young one up to about mid-calf–to something.  We homesteaded on the edge of forestry land on a Montana mountain.  My guess to that surprising loss was actually a moose.   But you don’t have to live where big game live to lose your hard work to animals.  Rabbits have few natural predators in urban areas and breed like, well, rabbits.  They’ll destroy hours of hard work in minutes.

Over the years, I have tried various methods for keeping the deer from eating my prized plants, but nothing has proven 100% successful.  Then again, I’ve never gone the electric fence route of the you-pick-veggie-garden that I frequented while living in Libby, Montana, either.  Yes, people resort to electricity where the game is big and plentiful.  Short of that, here are some tips that might help you stave off the animals from chomping on your garden plants:

Physical Barriers

Although high fences might help, don’t be surprised if they are breeched.  It is common to see mule deer jump a six foot high fence, and that’s the story of how I lost a 1/3 of an acre garden in just two days.  Although the fence will help, you will still need to protect your plants on an individual level,  whether you decide to use physical barriers or liquid deterrents.

Don’t worry how your fencing looks.  Chicken wire and found wood or metal stakes will do the job nicely.  Physical barriers can make it difficult to weed unless it’s removable/portable.   However, if you don’t properly secure the chicken wire to the wood or mount it firmly in the ground, the contraption will take out the whole plant for you on its way down, when the deer (or wind) is determined.

We planted this thriving peach tree this year, and nothing has touched it all season with this barrier and occasional deterrent spray

My personal preference is to create strong physical barriers around trees and bushes with chicken wire, because I do not need to access them as frequently.  When you remove the barrier in the Autumn to do trimming, remember to put it back up!  Autumn grazing can kill your plant so that it will never come back!  We lost a beautiful rose topiary to deer just last year from Autumn grazing and this Spring, it wouldn’t revive.

For best results:

  • Create a small barrier around each plant, not around a full bed.  They will jump or burrow and destroy your garden in a night (yes, even my 6 foot high fence!).
  • Give approximately 6-12 inches from the plant to the barrier, based upon how much bigger the plant will grow this season.
  • Occasionally check the sturdiness of the barrier, looking for signs of burrowing or loosening of the stakes.

Liquid Barriers (Deterrents)

The toxic ick you buy in the store is poisonous to pets and wild animals alike and should be illegal.  There are so many effective essential oils and homemade ingredients that can keep rabbits and deer at bay, that there is no need for something harmful.

This is the first year this strategy of spraying my plants has worked for me at all, but it is not working perfectly because of my inconsistency in applying my nasty-smelling concoction to my plants.  I wasn’t convinced they worked at all, so I left one tomato plant unsprayed, and here are the results:

tomato plant not sprayed
I sprayed all but one tomato plant, to test the spray for efficacy. On the left, you see a sprayed plant. The one on the right was NOT sprayed and had the top eaten completely.

When you first apply deterrents, you should apply them everyday for about 3-5 days, and then weekly after that, and again with rain.  I personally stop spraying when food is present, like tomatoes or zucchini on the vines.  Another reason this does not work perfectly, I’m certain.  Although the spray is all natural, I do not want to risk the bacteria added with my concoction (which has rotten eggs in it), and I don’t want to alter the flavors of my veggies with things like the thyme oil.   There is any number of ingredients to use, such as hot pepper spray.  If you use something other than this, would you leave a comment for others?  Thanks!

My recipe:

Mix two raw eggs (they can be broken ones from the coop) in a quart of water and leave out in the sun for 24 hours.  The next day, add 3-4 drops of thyme essential oil and a pinch of garlic powder.  Strain out the egg chunks to keep it from clogging your spray bottle.  Put this in a specially-marked spray bottle, and hold your nose!

Do you do home haircuts?  Collect the hair and sprinkle it along the perimeter of your garden!  Although I’ve never tried it, I bet you could be the weird gardener who asks the local beauty shop for theirs.

Location Strategy as a Barrier

One for the blackbird,
One for the mouse,
One for the rabbit,
And one for the house.
   –Author Unknown


If gardening only yielded 25% of my efforts like the above poem, I think I’d be too discouraged to continue.  The permacultural attitude of still planting for the animals is a valid and effective one, however.  One of our prettiest trees has a berry that, although edible, we don’t enjoy at our house (Chokecherry).  We prefer to make that our donation to the beautiful birds that grace it.

rosehipsAnother strategy is a living hedge, which is planting bushes with berries edible to wildlife (Siberian Pea,  American Cranberries, and Rosehips) around the perimeter of your planting area.  As the graze the outside of the hedge, they are creating a natural path around your garden, and being nourished too.  You will also attract more birds and maybe even more pollinators.   Siberian peas also work for chicken feed and the bees love it, and rosehips also make a lovely tea.  Plant something that you can enjoy and glean from, even while creating beauty and habitat.

The most effective ideas of planting strategy are to:

  • Plant extra for the wildlife
  • Redirect the wildlife around your garden with a living hedge
  • Plant a naturally deterring plant nearby, like geraniums, ferns, and spirea (many others, too).
  • Consider potted plants on your deck.  Patios will still succumb to the rabbits and deer, but they will all stay off your deck!

Deer in the Garden


Please leave a comment with your strategies!  

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