Coping with Deer

What follows is a variety of comments on ways to reduce deer browsing on our native plants. Many were extracted from a string of emails sent in April 2022. Scroll down to the bottom for a recipe for deer repellant.

Photo credit: Henry from Arizona, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My deer herd hasn’t bothered mints, milkweed, columbine, goldenrod, bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), or ninebark (Physocarpus). Many other plantings are too new to tell yet or are fenced. Deer love mountain ash, red-osier dogwood, and cranberry viburnum.

Kristine Bradof

Last year I planted the cutleaf coneflowers which were supposed to be deer resistant but those are the plants they are each and every leaf off of!

I think it is a personal taste thing. Why wouldn’t it be? Think of how many people you who, for example either love or hate cilantro!

Jill Fisher

I have experience with native plants and deer… but mostly in Pennsylvania not the Keweenaw. I have never seen them go for any mints , milkweed, goldenrod, echinacia, eupatorium (Joe Pye or boneset) , or aster. Also they don’t eat ferns. And a couple of native grasses I have used do not interest them. However, I think when really stressed and hungry they will try out almost anything. 

Bonnie Hay

Jack-in-the-pulpit stands out to me as the least favored (by my deers anyway) plant on the list. This also fits the truism that a forest floor dominated by ferns and jacks is an indicator of heavy deer herbivory. Apparently, oxalate crystals in Arisaema foliage are pretty effective against deer, plus the reproductive fluidity of jacks/jills allows them to cope with indirect effects of deer.  I discovered these details in a favorite blog–‘In Defense Of Plants’, which has several interesting articles on deer, jacks, fungus gnats, etc…Enjoy,doesn’t%20end%20their%20either.
Pretty much everything else on the list [that I have tried in my landscape, 17 of the 27 spp] has been munched by deer at some point. Over the years, I have kept records of deer browse that I’ve been meaning to collate into something useful. These observations both corroborate and contradict what others have found (fickle deers). Now I wonder if my records would even be useful? Even on plants they generally seem to avoid—milkweeds, joe-pye, showy goldenrod–deer seem to have a knack for nipping off flower buds just before they’re about to bloom. If you are more diligent than me, and focus on topical deterrents applied to flower buds, you might get blooms for the nectarivores and pollinators in spite of the deer.

Other species on the list that look promising, but that I have not tried, are Penn sedge and the bluestems. Only a minority of deer-browsed plants are graminoids (maybe 10-20% of their diet; because of digestive issues), so maybe the deer damage mitigation strategy of surrounding garden beds or otherwise incorporating grasses into your landscape will help. While it snowed most of the weekend, I took a deeper dive into the literature on deer herbivory in northern midwest forests [  ]  Carex pensylvanica rated highest in abundance outside deer exclosures. Certainly seems worth a try?!  BTW, this article includes info on many UP natives (not on the Dennis GH list) and study sites included the Ottawa, but that’s a digression for another time. 

Back to the interesting behavioral aspects of deer feeding preference that Kristine, Jill, Bonnie and Susan raised.  Supposedly [but correct me if you know better–deer behavior still confounds me], deer initially learn what to eat from their mothers, and then acquire additional preferences later.  Also, it seems like I see the same familial group [doe, yearling(s), fawn(s)] traveling to and fro my neighborhood daily, throughout the summer.  Most likely, they’re not trotting over to Hancock during the day, unless perchance it’s hot and they fancy a swim?  So like Jill pointed out, we should probably expect, actually, to find variability, since different groups of animals are involved.  The take home on that then is–whatever deer browsing patterns or insights we can glean from our nearest neighbors are probably most useful. And, whatever you can do to block their habitual travel routes through your property or your neighborhood could really help. This feels bad to recommend since ecological landscaping should actually facilitate wildlife corridors, so make any barriers to deer porous to other critters.  

I also wonder if deer feeding behavior could work to our advantage, assuming they are wary of novel plants [anecdotes anyone?]  If deer are creatures of habit, like my dear husband, they’ll stick to eating the familiar.  And if this is the case, I wonder if some plants on the Dennis GH list might do well, at least for a while, because they’re unfamiliar to our local deer?  When unfamiliar plants are next to ones they like, maybe they’re more likely to be sampled and added to the deer menu.  About half the species on this list are not indigenous to our area, so it could be an interesting experiment to install an isolated garden plot with just these species and see what happens? 

Bottom line: best thing I’ve planted in my war against deer are fence posts.  Shoulda/wish I coulda/woulda done so years ago, rather than just last year.  Multiple references said best bite the bullet and go for the fence right from the start.  However, it is expen$ive (I did not actually ‘plant’ the fence myself).  I thought I could win enough battles using feeding deterrents, motion sprinklers, unpalatable plant selections, cages around saplings and shrubs, etc etc, including chasing deer back into the woods with sticks and stones.  In the long run (15 yrs later), I now realize my new perimeter fence would have paid for itself, especially if you account for all the sacrificed plants and wasted time & materials spent on other strategies, plus benefits my landscape could have provided as better habitat for numerous and diverse critters (rather than feeding ~5 deer/yr for 15 yrs).  

Liz Gerson

When planning my vegetable garden about 17 years ago, I put a deer fence in right away. It has worked well. I never thought about protecting flowers or whatever is around the house. I know they don’t touch rhubarb or asparagus, and they haven’t done much damage to lilacs or irises or peonies or phlox. I also have wild native plants around such as joe pye weed and goldenrod, which they don’t touch. So maybe I’ll begin to have a problem as I plant more natives. Last year the group suggested that I plant natives in the vegetable garden since they’d be protected from deer. We’ll see. 

Beth Flynn

My all time “favorite” for human response to “pest” animals was what I went through to attempt to get rid of rabbits when living in a subdivision area.  They were devouring all my flowers surrounding a lovely deck we had just build. I got professional advice from a well respected nursery and was told to exclusively plant marigolds and put blood meal on top of all beds. Shortly after expending the time and money to do so, we went out one very hot August day in Ohio to sit on the deck and there were the bunnies, sitting IN the blood meal, while chomping on the marigolds. And they ultimately  got the “last laugh” as the blood meal stench was so strong that we could no longer sit on the deck for quite some time.  I had to give them credit!

Susan Miko

Liquid Fence Deer Repellant

1 gallon of water
2 raw eggs
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
20 drops of clove oil
1 tablespoon dish soap

Combine the water, eggs, and garlic. Let sit a few days in a warm place—outside. Add the clove oil and dish soap, shake, and strain. Spray around the perimeter of your garden periodically, especially after a rain. VERY stinky when sprayed, but the smell goes away for people when the liquid fence dries.

Other online recipes call for more eggs. This is supposed to work for rabbits too.

Formula P

Free. Always available. And yes, gross, at least to some people. Human urine does a really good job repelling deer. You will need to reapply periodically, especially after a rain. As for technique, men can sprinkle plants the old fashioned way (don’t do this in public view). Or you can put urine in a squeeze bottle and drip it around the plants. Or … punch holes in the lids of small plastic containers. Put urine in the containers and cover with the lids. Place among plants. This is supposed to work all season long, though I did have a deer step on one and crush it before eating my pussy willow. Nothing is perfect except a big fence.