Deer! Oh Dear!  Gardening among large herbivores

Photo Credit: Emily Bulmer

Deer! Oh Dear!  Gardening among large herbivores

👤Emily Bulmer 🕔May 31, 2013

They strike at dawn. Silently, with razor-sharp teeth, they leave a path of total devastation behind them. With a keen sense of smell, excellent visual acuity and reflexes faster than a cheetah on amphetamines, you have no chance. The deer in your backyard are eating all your geraniums, peas and raspberry canes. Whether you live on a rural property or within city limits, you may walk out one day to inspect your kale to find all that is left are the blunted, naked stems. No row is immune.

Alternatives to hanging out in your yard doing your best impression of Elmer Fudd include choosing less tasty plants, planting bait plants to give them something else to eat, using repellents, and fencing.

Deer and People

Like it or not, we must first admit that it is people that are in the deer’s backyards. As towns spread out into the countryside, houses, farms and shopping malls take up more deer habitat, and at the same time replace natural vegetation with easy garden buffets. Though we may feel antagonized by their persistent chewing on our landscaping, they are just doing what comes naturally, and it is up to us to find solutions to protect our hard work.

In northern BC, there are several deer species. Mule deer, black-tailed deer and Sitka black-tailed deer are members of the same species Odocoileus hemionus. Mule deer are larger and lighter in colour and found more dominantly in north-central BC. Black-tails are smaller and darker, and more commonly found in coastal regions. The Sitka black-tailed are the smallest—these are the deer found on Haida Gwaii. The Dakota white-tail is the subspecies of white-tailed deer found in northern BC, with the largest populations in the Peace River area.

No matter what the species, deer will eat between 2 and 4.5 kilograms of vegetation per day, browsing on more than 500 different plant species. They enjoy variety and prefer to nibble a bite here and there, conducting a continuous taste-test of their environment. Their habits and haunts revolve around food and shelter, so if they find something good in your garden, chances are they will be back. In addition to habit, they also have scent glands near their feet, leaving a trail of signals to other deer in the area. In the spring, tender new grass and tulips are favourite snacks; in the summer, roses, hostas, broccoli and kale are at risk. In fall and winter they will eat shrubs, apple trees, dig up carrots with their sharp hooves and even empty the contents of birdfeeders.

Resistant Plants

The tendency for deer to eat out of gardens can vary from year to year, depending on their population, weather conditions and relative abundance of other food sources. Few plants are truly deer-proof, but some are less attractive than others.

Flowers and landscape plants can be hard-hit, especially in the early season before other plants are growing. Rarely and seldom-damaged hardy annuals include snapdragon, dusty miller, strawflower, forget-me-not, poppies, bachelor’s buttons, nasturtium, foxglove and sweet william. Perennials that don’t attract Bambi’s attention include monkshood, bleeding heart, statice, lady’s mantle, columbine, sea thrift, delphinium, lupine, and beebalm. For bulbs try one of the many varieties of ornamental onion (Allium), daffodils, or Siberian squills.

Garden vegetables that are less attractive include strong-tasting and strong-smelling plants such as onions, garlic, chives, dill, leeks and mint. Plants with fuzzy or prickly leaves like squash, pumpkin and cucumbers afford some protection from deer. Potatoes and other nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers are somewhat toxic to deer, but this does not always mean they are safe. Rhubarb leaves are also toxic, so this plant is not generally bothered.

Another strategy is to use bait plants that deer will enjoy more than anything else. Kale and peas are both tasty,  and planting them around the perimeter of the garden as a sacrifice may keep the marauding masticators out of your pansies.

Creative Deterrents

Deer repellents are available, and contain ingredients such as cayenne pepper, garlic, dried blood, rotten eggs, and even coyote or cougar urine, but have mixed reviews for effectiveness. If you are planning on eating the plants that are being eaten by the deer, spraying your crops with any of these things is a bad idea. This method can work to help curb deer from making your house a regular pit-stop in their routine. Repellent is not long-lasting, however, especially if it rains frequently or if you are using a sprinkler to water.

Sprinklers or noisemakers triggered by motion sensors, air-horns, dogs, or a radio left turned on can help, but most of the time deer will get used to these methods and go on calmly eating away. Old compact discs hung off of trees or along a clothes line can be effective; the flashing reflection can scare off the deer. Some gardeners collect bags of human hair from salons and barber shops and spread the hair around the perimeter of the garden, creating a strong human scent in areas they want to protect. Strong-scented soaps, such as Irish Spring, hung in trees or around cherished plants, may also make a difference, but are not guaranteed for effectiveness. One high-tech solution includes broadcasting pre-recorded sounds of hostile and territorial bucks and alarm calls from does over a loudspeaker in your yard.


Though the initial outlay of money for materials is higher than any of the other methods listed above, fencing is probably the most consistently effective means of keeping your plants safe. A well-constructed fence that is 8-10 feet high will keep deer out, and the space inside can be reserved for the most vulnerable flowers and vegetables. Wood fencing or woven wire are both effective. For a list of materials, plans and cost estimates, look up the Crop Protection and Wildlife Control Fences factsheet published by the BC government. Keep in mind that fencing large areas is not cost-effective or practical and that there may be bylaw restrictions regarding fence height and construction materials. Electric fences can be effective but need to be checked often to ensure they have not grounded out or been pulled down, as they are not typically as sturdy as wire or wooden fences. If you do have a fenced garden always remember to close the gate!  If deer become trapped inside the garden with no way out, you will be dealing with a whole new magnitude of damage.

It is also worth keeping in mind that where deer go, moose go also. Moose can be even more destructive in a garden, being more temperamental, aggressive, and physically stronger. Setting up systems that keep deer and moose out of the garden help protect your plants, but they also help protect wildlife in the long-run. Deer and moose that become habituated to humans and human-sourced food lose their fear of people and can become ‘problem’ animals, which usually ends badly for them.

This season, arm yourselves with soap, bags of hair, and cayenne. Raise the fences and set the decoys. And above all... be “vewwy, vewwy quiet.”  

For more information, check out Deerproofing Your Yard and Garden by Rhonda Massingham Hart (Storey Publishing).

deer repellent

1 tablespoon of liquid dish detergent

2 tablespoons of hot sauce

4 cups of water

Mix gently (don’t lather the soap) and sprinkle or spray on plants that deer are likely to eat.