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Good Growing

Dealing with Deer

If you are like me, you may enjoy the sight of deer browsing in the forest. They are fascinating creatures to observe and one of the largest wild animals in Illinois. My interest in watching deer waned one morning last week when upon opening the drapes to the backyard I found myself nose to nose with a doe browsing on the hostas near the air conditioner. Our surprised staring contest broke when my yellow lab, Murphy, sounded the alarm. Too late dog, but thanks for trying.

It is widely known that deer in our area lack significant predation, resulting in ballooning population numbers and regular encounters with humans. Gardeners know the battle all too well. Deer are large creatures and nearly every plant within their reach is free game for these stomachs with legs.

Deer, of course, have their preferred food, but during lean times even "deer-proof" plants may wind up on their salad bar.

It is relatively easy to identify deer browsing. Due to dull incisors (front teeth) on their bottom jaw and a lack of incisors on top, deer twist and tear at plant materials. Deer browsing results in a ragged, shredded appearance of the targeted plant. Rabbits have very sharp incisors and clip vegetation cleanly at a 45° angle. Deer can also browse much higher on plants than rabbits. During winter when food is scarce deer may also strip the bark off of trees and shrubs.

Research has shown that exclusion is the best way to control deer damage in most situations. Investing in exclusionary fencing is essential for the dedicated gardener or commercial grower. Like so many other aspects of life, the most effective deer fencing comes with the highest price tag. Less costly fencing can be used seasonally or at times when the crop is most vulnerable.

Deer are excellent jumpers. Therefore, fences need to be a minimum of eight feet high. If you prefer not to erect a fortress around your garden, electric fences can be used instead of tall fencing. Electric fences are cheaper and still effective at deterring deer from entering an area. For fence designs visit the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management or contact your local IDNR biologist.

The best defense arises from multiple techniques. In addition to exclusionary fences, the following are additional tips for controlling deer damage:

  • Disconnect power to your electric fence and wrap a piece of tinfoil on the wire. Spoon a little peanut butter on the tin foil and turn the fence back on. Deer will be lured to the peanut butter only to be met with a shock. The light shock deer receives educates them to avoid your garden.
  • Install motion-activated sprinklers. Motion-activated sprinklers are triggered when something interrupts the laser beam. Point the sprinkler to the area you want to keep protected and when a deer, squirrel, or forgetful gardener walks through the beam, they get sprayed with a few cups of water.
  • Deer acclimate to scare tactics like scarecrows, reflective materials, and flags. Move these items every few days to prolong their effectiveness.
  • Repellents temporarily reduce damage, and many aren't labeled for use on food crops. The active ingredient in the highest-rated repellent in university studies contains putrescent egg solids (rotten eggs). Not something you want to spray on your tomatoes.
  • Another repellent that performs well has the active ingredient of bovine blood. Like rotten eggs, this product has quite the odor that will eventually fade to the human nose but linger for deer. Like all these sprays rain will wash them off and they will need to be reapplied. 
  • Home remedies like human hair, blood meal, and bone meal all weather away very quickly. Hanging bars of soap have an effective radius of three feet. In areas where deer have acclimated to people and our scents, these deterrents generally do not work.

Opt for plants that are not palatable to deer. Yes, there are plants that deer will avoid most of the time. Contact your local Extension office for a list of plants less susceptible to deer browsing. If winters are harsh, or deer populations are high, they will eat just about anything.