How to Keep Deer From Devouring Your Landscape

Learn clever ways to deter deer.

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In the depth of winter, deer can make some serious dents in a landscape. I opened my curtains one wintry morning to find a trio of deer browsing just outside our large picture window, snuffling through my mixed perennial and shrub border taking random nibbles. Thankfully nothing piqued their interest, and they kept moving.

Deer With Tongue Sticking Out

Deer With Tongue Sticking Out

In winter, a deer’s diet often features dried leaves, twigs and nuts like acorns, which adds up to a fibrous feast.

Photo by: Craig Lewis for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at FWS.gov

Craig Lewis for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at FWS.gov

In winter, a deer’s gut is filled with bacteria for digesting woody plant material, like twigs, acorns or your dormant roses. Even so, winter deer are (often hungry) opportunists and also nibble green grass and cold-hardy greens like kale. Adapt summer deer-proofing strategies to protect your garden from grazing deer in winter. These tactics work in late fall and early spring, too.

Protect Prized Plants

Bird Netting Over Tuscan Kale

Bird Netting Over Tuscan Kale

Deer will nibble greenery in winter, including cool-weather crops like dinosaur kale. Make crops off limits to browsing deer by covering them with plastic bird netting.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

The simplest approach for protecting small plants, like a new shrub or a lone Tuscan kale (above), is to cover the plant with bird netting. With woody shrubs like hydrangea, drape netting and hold it in place with spring clothespins attached to twigs. For plants like kale, slip landscape staples through net corners to provide just enough weight to keep netting from shifting. The netting disappears into the background and doesn’t diminish garden views. The bonus is, if hoarfrost forms one winter day, the netting turns into a breathtaking sculpture.

Scare ‘Em Off

Deer are skittish by nature. Capitalize on that fear factor by letting your dog loose in the yard. Deer are smart, and they quickly learn if your dog is on a leash or in a run that contains them. A free-range pooch poses the biggest threat. Motion-triggered deer scare devices emit sounds, turn on lights or, in non-freezing temperatures, spray water. These devices keep deer unsettled, but over time, they’ll adjust to the same threat. The trick is to mix up your scare tactics to keep them guessing.

Break Out the Sprays

Plantskydd Deer Repellent Spray

Plantskydd Deer Repellent Spray

Deer repellent sprays like Plantskydd activate the flight response in deer through the smell of dried blood.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Deer repellent sprays feature scents—like rotten eggs or garlic—that smell bad to deer. Some repellents offer predator urine contained in reservoirs you hang around the garden. I work primarily with Plantskydd spray and have had consistently good results. Liquid Fence is another repellent that many gardeners recommend.

With any repellent, your best success occurs with application according to instructions. Some repellents need to be reapplied after heavy rain or snow; others, like Plantskydd, last through the whole winter. If you’re dealing with especially persistent deer, alternate repellents, and spray them in different areas of your property. This technique keeps deer uncertain and afraid--and less likely to visit your yard.

Build a Fence

The ultimate deer stopper is an 8- to 12-foot fence (and even then, a frightened deer might be able to clear those). But deer can’t jump both high and wide at the same time, which means you can keep deer out with a shorter, wider barrier. A wide fence design is as simple as two fences, with an inner row 3 to 5 feet from the outer fence. Accomplish the same thing by planting shrubs or decorative pickets in what would be the landing area inside a fence (a few feet inside the outer fence).

A tall plastic mesh fence deters deer with an invisible-to-the-eye barrier that keeps views open and uncluttered. If you opt for plastic mesh, check out both the lightweight (cheap) and heavier (pricey) types. The lightweight works to exclude deer, but a frightened deer can bring it down and become entangled in it.

Keep Footing Unfriendly

Deer dislike walking through areas where they don’t have clear footing. By scattering and stacking loose brush, billowed bird netting or chicken wire, you can cover ground with a layer deer won’t want to cross. When you try this in one area, though, realize that the deer will re-route—and perhaps discover other areas of your property.

Mix It Up

The best approach is to mix and match several different techniques. Using a variety of anti-deer strategies keeps deer uncertain and less likely to devour your plantings.

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