I recently watched a large doe pruning our forsythia. Now, I will be the first to admit that we live in the middle of wildlife country, with Rothrock State Forest all around us. As I am writing this article, I can look out the window and see a porcupine eating some succulent weeds, rabbits doing the same and several deer browsing away in the field. Throw in the chipmunks, squirrels and groundhogs and the army is assembled and ready to help themselves to tasty garden flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs.
Many people who move out in the country love the deer until they consume the shrubs they paid big money for or horn up the nice tree they planted in the yard. The deer have moved into areas populated by people. These areas are desirable to deer because they often feature a mixture of woodland and open areas with plenty of plants. Deer like to be able to dart back into the wooded areas when they feel threatened. In addition to damaging your garden, deer can bring pests like deer ticks, which can carry Lyme disease.
If you want the short answer to your problem, a tall fence that the deer cannot jump over is the most effective method of keeping deer away from your plants. If a fence is not an option, there are several other methods that you can try.
The first step I would try is to protect your plants. Cover your plants with row covers every night, and remove the covers every morning. Install tree protectors on your trees to prevent deer from damaging them. We did that on seven trees that we planted to prevent the deer from rubbing their antlers on them to remove the velvet. Deer also like to graze on young trees. They enjoy helping themselves to the leaves on the lower branches.
A second approach would be to redesign your garden. Choose plants that deer do not prefer. When food is scarce, typically in late fall through early spring, deer will move into gardens to feed. Bitter, spicy, thorny and tough-leaved plants are undesirable to deer. If you use these types of plants in your landscape, you may be able to deter the deer.
Scare the deer away using motion detectors attached to lights or a radio, or use dogs to chase them away. This method works in the short term, but you will have to vary the location and type of scare device you use every few weeks, or the deer will get used to it. A dog that patrols your property can scare off deer. It is recommended to keep the dog on your property using an invisible fence or a low fence. This method provides light to medium protection, because deer can get used to a dog. I would consider your neighbors feelings also with the lights and radio attached to motion detectors.
You can also use a deer repellent. Some repellents are applied directly to the plants to make them less tasty. Other repellents are applied to the area around the plants to deter the deer with smells. Switch repellents periodically to prevent the deer from learning your pattern. You have to reapply the repellents such as applying dried blood around your plants. Always follow the directions that come with deer repellents.
Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.