How it Works: Keep Deer Out of Your Garden

When you walk out to our backyard, the first thing you’ll notice is that CDs are hanging from the branches of many of our bushes. It’s not because we want our forsythias to look like gypsies; it’s to scare away the damn deer.

Catherine Bonham, administrative assistant at the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, estimates that there are between forty to fifty deer per square mile of forested habitat on the Island. That translates to about 2,000 to 2,500 deer – about the population of West Tisbury. And as most anyone who has tried to landscape a Vineyard home knows, “If you grow it, they will come.”

So what do you do, short of stocking up on hand grenades?

Well, you can be selective about what you plant. Deer love anything planted in the last couple of years, especially from a nursery, much the way my Uncle Chicky loved All-You-Can-Eat-Night at Bubba’s Ribs. But certain varieties are less appetizing to deer than others. For instance, deer love apple trees, azaleas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons. They don’t like spruce, birch, peonies, and tomatoes. Plant daffodils rather than tulips and thorny roses rather than refined hybrids. Consult your nursery or do a little research on line for a more complete list.

You can also take preventative measures, and it seems everyone has their own personal nostrums. Some claim that having a large, noisy dog solves the problem. Others, like us Curriers, prefer to decorate our shrubs with CDs, aluminum pie plates, and whirligigs to try and startle the deer with sudden movement. People hang Ivory Soap, garlic, or unwashed human hair from branches, or scatter rotten eggs and dead fish around their beds.

And then there is coyote urine.

Coyote urine is sold commercially, and some swear by it, although it can be a little pricey. Also, although we don’t have to worry about it here on the Island, it attracts coyotes.

Steve Masterson, horticulturist at the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury, says the arboretum uses three methods to protect against deer.

The first is fencing. If you can afford it and aren’t offended aesthetically, fencing is probably the first and best line of defense. It must be at least seven feet high – even this might not stop a motivated leaper – or higher. The second Polly Hill defense is draping individual bushes with plastic deer netting. Deer can still nibble at exterior leaves, but overall, it protects selected bushes and plantings.

The final defense is the use of repellents. Steve claims to have had success with two commercial brands: Deer Away and Bobbex-R. But he also admits that if food sources are particularly scarce, deer may simply ignore the repellents, in spite of the taste or odor.

So that’s how the pros do it: Fence, Drape, and Repel. And be sure to act early in the season before the deer have developed their feeding patterns.
One question: How do you suppose they collect that coyote urine? On second thought, never mind.