From Mexico to Canada, Native American stories tell of the wit and wisdom of the deer. According to Sioux legend, the Great Spirit gave baby fawns their spots and took away their scents to help them hide while their mothers feed. Yet the deer’s forked antlers hint at the animals’ double nature – they can bless you with good fortune, or shape-shift into a less trustworthy being, such as the Deer Woman, who might lure a man with her beauty, and then stomp him to death.
I think she may be inhabiting my garden.
Or maybe it’s just the apples, which are fortunately in the front yard. Deer love apples, and this year our trees are loaded, so I’m having to rev up my defenses to limit deer incursions into my back yard vegetable garden.
They have the advantage. My main neighbor is a National Park, where hunting is not allowed, plus there is a stream and wetland nearby. It’s their home, and I’ve been gardening with deer for eight seasons now. Though we still have our conflicts, we’re working it out.
Passive Defense from Deer
Some time ago, in response to Ann Marie Hendry’s story on Designing a Potager Garden, Kris Martin commented that the information was great, but what to do when hungry deer move in? A fence tall and strong enough to exclude deer also ruins the view, which is my situation, too. It’s a personal choice, but I’d rather sustain a little deer damage than put my garden in prison.
That being the case, I use a number of small deterrents to define boundaries with deer. For low-growing crops like carrots, I cover the plants with wire cages, which protects them from rabbits, too. Hiding plants from view with tulle tunnels works well with cabbage family crops, and I know of one gardener who uses a cloth enclosure, strung between poles, to keep deer from finding her beans. Deer love beans, as well as beets, spinach, chard and carrots, so I don’t attempt to grow these crops without protection.
Several of my neighbors have great success enclosing their gardens with a single-strand electric fence at waist height, and if my garden was in an open field, I probably would, too. But as it is, the garden is well served by a 12-foot (4m) deep bramble thicket on two sides, which is too much of a long jump – deer like to see where they are going.
The deer prefer to enter the garden by following walkways meant for people, but there are several ways to discourage them. They don’t like walking on metal roofing, so there are a couple of pieces on the ground just outside the garden’s back entrance. The front entrance is guarded by mesh bags laden with heavily-fragranced deodorant soap. Clusters of solar lights come on at night, and I move them around every few days to change the scene.
Deer Fencing and Repellents
A secure deer fence is serious business, and where I live all of the organic farms are enclosed with 8-foot tall mesh deer fences. They usually work, but not always because deer are phenomenal jumpers.
You can see the incredible jumping ability of deer in this clip from Nature’s The Private Life of Deer– a hugely enlightening film about these secretive animals.
Deer don’t like surprises. Often while taking a walk in the woods, I’ll hear sudden huffing sounds from an invisible deer resting in the shade. If I turn suddenly, it’s gone.
In the garden, the surprise factor can be evoked with motion-activated lights, especially if the deer are more curious than hungry. But if they know there is something they want, say, chard, it would take a motion-activated sprinkler to keep them away. Dogs are helpful, but mine tend to take too many naps to be as effective as a motion-activated sprinkler.
As for me, I’ve decided to join with the deer in celebrating an abundant apple year, because I basically like them. They don’t eat herbs or squash or tomatoes, and if they didn’t eat the fallen apples I would have to pick them up.
Like I said, we’re working it out.