Protect your garden from hungry deer

Published 8:00 am Saturday, July 8, 2023

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Hardly any plant is off limits to deer, but gardeners can employ a few techniques to help keep them away from summer gardens.

Familiar with human activity, perceptive deer observe behaviors that enable them to work around deterrents. While there aren’t many foolproof ways to keep deer out for good — aside from 10-foot-high fences — homeowners can angle a shorter fence 45 degrees to give an illusion of a higher one or install two 5-foot-high fences 4 feet apart.

“Deer don’t have the ability to estimate distance correctly, so the fences will look closer and higher than they actually are,” said Kirsten Ann Conrad, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in Arlington. “They won’t risk getting caught between the two fences, so they’re less likely to jump.”

While not everyone can invest in fences, and some localities may not allow it, gardeners also can try non-toxic deer repellents.

“These sprays are generally effective if they’re applied early and frequently,” Conrad noted. “If deer learn to avoid your landscape because the treated plants don’t taste good, they’ll continue to avoid your property even after you’ve stopped spraying.”

Deer can get accustomed to repellents so it’s best to rotate between different types. Ultimately, if a deer is desperate, a repellent may not keep it away.

Man’s best friend also can help, as neighborhoods with many dogs frequently have fewer deer.

“If you have either a dog on a tether or within a fenced area, their presence and activity may reduce the likelihood of deer coming,” suggested Jim Parkhurst, associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

Parkhurst explained that deer are frequently attracted to showy plants people cultivate in gardens, including Asiatic lilies, hostas, some azaleas and roses.

“We always refer to these as the Dove chocolates of the deer world,” he said.

While no plant is truly deer-resistant, there are some they don’t prefer. Native plants like mountain laurel, cinquefoil, Virginia bluebells and wild bleeding hearts are less susceptible to deer damage and help beautify landscapes.

For a list of plants thought to be less prone to deer damage, visit

Finally, unpredictability is key. Deterrents like wind chimes, spinners and other objects are helpful when moved around in the garden.

“The more you keep them off guard, you move it, you change its location, you take it down for 2-3 days then put it back somewhere else,” the more effective it will be, Parkhurst said.

It’s a lot of work for the homeowner, he admitted, but that unpredictability will help keep a garden safe.