Oh, deer, oh deer, oh deer (and rabbits and squirrels too)! And cats.


They’re everywhere! Or at least advice on how to repel them
is—and so is the persistent, if faint, smell from a box of organic repellants I
am planning to bring to a suburban friend to test.

Though deer have not yet invaded my city neighborhood, I
have had more problems with squirrels in recent years than ever before.
Several of my bulb beds are now bristling with wooden skewers, placed there on
advice (thank you) from commenter Elizabeth Stump, pointy side up. (I like a mechanical
solution.) Roaming cats are also a problem. But at least city living rules out
deer—so far.

There was talk of deer on the Timber Press website, which has
become almost as much a gardening resource as a way to promote and sell their
books. First, I noticed that they had a blog, and then, the other day—searching
for info on some orchid books—I saw a formidable series
of podcasts
by Timber authors Doug Tallamy and Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  Among other subjects, Tallamy discussed
how wildlife in the garden is not always such a great thing. Of course, he’s
talking about deer, woodchucks, and other destructive beasts that seem to be munching
their way through gardens everywhere.

Here’s a quote from Tallamy podcast #2 (of 5): I’m not
promoting that we have populations that are out of control … I’m not saying
that if we use native plants we can have 15 deer in our yard.  The deer problem has got to be
addressed. We’ve gotten rid of the predators so we have to become the predators
ourselves. … In the East, 10 here per square mile is at carrying capacity.
We’ve got 150.

I guess we all know what “becoming the predators”
requires. My friend and fellow garden writer Sally Cunningham advises solutions
many of you may be familiar with, but the underlying wisdom is this: keep it
weird (just like Austin). Deer dislike anything foreign or strange, like odd
smells, strips of carpeting, horse manure, human hair, predator urine, etc.,
and a changing palette of these preventatives should be in place at all times, preferably
before deer even appear on the scene, lest your yard becomes a habit they don’t
want to break.

But there is an inevitability about the deer problem that
seems so much larger than any of its solutions. Part of the reason we get
thousands of suburban visitors to Garden Walk every year is because many of
them have simply given up. If we do eradicate the deer from the suburbs, where
will they live? And how many communities really have the stomach to “become the
predators?” Can't say I like the idea of homeowners blasting away whenever they spot Bambi in the yard. Not with houses and other people within range.

Maybe my box of smelly stuff (which I can hardly wait to get rid of) will help my deer-plagued gardening friend. I'll keep you posted. 

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. We have flocks of deer moving through my country yard. Yet they stay out of my vegetable garden, I think because I have so many iron arches in it, they are baffled by its geography.

    I think the answer to the problem is simple…grass-fed meat right there that is not contributing to our greenhouse gas problem. I don’t understand why our freezers are not full of the little darlings…except that both my aunt and my husband, who’ve hunted deer, tell me it is very hard emotionally to shoot Bambi.

  2. We have deer living in a thicket twenty feet off our property, and had increasing problems until we sprayed monthly, April through October, with repellents. We used two different formulations on the theory that the deer wouldn’t get used to the scent or taste of one or the other.

    Since deer aren’t interested in many of the plants in the garden, the monthly spray of our acre plus garden took about half an hour, once a month. This year it was 100% effective. From my experience, and the ease of application, I trust the spray repellents rather than the many alternative methods.

    The chief concern with spray repellents that I hear is that they wash off in the rain, but in Virginia we had a rainy Spring, and I saw no evidence that the repellent washed off.

    Clearly, this is not a long term solution, and the situation in many areas demands a solution for the safety of humans and deer. We have created an artificial, unsustainable environment.

    I suspect that we’re not going to close down the suburbs and revert to wilderness, so we need serious discussion on remedies. Regardless of moral and safety concerns, targeted hunting is not a practical solution in many densely populated areas. And, the number of deer killed is miniscule when compared to the enormity of the problem.

    Because the problems are localized, area governments will need to react so that solutions are comprehensive, but they need guidance. Unfortunately, I have answers only for my small plot.

  3. The deer problem is much bigger than gardens in southern Michigan. The deer pop. in southern michigan has grown from 100,000 to 700,000 in 20 years; and 90% of southern Michigan is privately owned -so fewer areas allow hunting.
    We live in 200 acres of woods that is about 80 years old. There is no longer any understory in those 200 acres. There will be no succession in 50 years except for junk trees; that is an ecological catastrophe in my view and there is no recognition of the problem.

  4. Last week a visiting artist from Helena was in town, and talked about her garden and the deer problem there. She hasn’t had them in her yard, perhaps because they can’t see any egress. However, there are so many in town that they’ve had to start an eradication program. She said the mule deer are territorial, so that where they are born are where they stay. One paperboy had to hide under a car until daybreak to escape a deer defending its territory during mating season (she said it was in the paper). I’ve also heard of programs where deer so collected are butchered and delivered to food banks and poor. It is a ready source of food, and in these times, how necessary.

  5. I live in coal mining country. Strip minig. In the late ’70’s Ohio passed mining reclaimation laws. (I remember my high school biology teacher taking us around to put vote yes flyers on car windshields. We had the Amish part of the county. Interesting putting flyers on buggies.)

    Anyways. The reclaimed strip mined lands make the perfect habitat for deer. So we have more. Lots more. A nonprofit group takes the meat hunters don’t want and donate it to food banks.

    There is also the concern of “Mad cow disease” transfering from the wild deer to domesticated lifestock. I think this is a real problem in some Michigan counties. England had to slaughter thousands of farm animals when they had an outbreak.

  6. Michelle D is right: nothing works except fencing. Nothing. If I sat on my deck with a shotgun from sunup to sundown, 365 days a year, killing every deer I saw, I still would make only a tiny dent in the deer population here in the metro DC area. And those I didn’t shoot during daylight hours would come around all night and eat whatever they want. I have a fantasy wherein armed militias are empowered to cull the herds around here and use the meat to make all those McDonald’s burgers down the street. A locavore’s dream come true.

  7. Ok, so maybe a little more ‘splaining is required.
    A six foot fence is commonly used here in the west for deer deterrent. It works.
    Where the grade is working against you , a 6 foot fence along with some very dense shrubberies will fend off the deer.
    You see this strategy used throughout Napa and Sonoma Valley’s where the viticulture industry is big.

    Two four foot fencing spaced at a 4 foot distance apart from one another is another successful fencing solution.
    I lived with this fencing solution when I was a horticultural intern at Filoli and lived with salvia expert Betsy Clebsch. She has an one hundred acre parcel in heavily populated deer country and a small area surrounding the house is enclosed with this double fence.
    The deer do not jump it due to the spacing.
    This double fence and its effectiveness has been documented in lectures, books and seminars, and as someone who lived with it for about a year, I can say it worked successfully.
    But for my money and or my client’s money, its a six foot fence along with some strategically placed thorny shurbberies.

  8. ‘Round here, having deer eat your horticultural endeavors is not the only issue. All of the predators are not gone from this area. If the deer are in your backyard, the mountain lions & coyotes will soon be too. Ome folks actually put out corn for the critters or landscape with plants the deer like. Several foothills communities have begun fining people caught feeding wild deer, to help keep predators away & to prevent deer-on-human attacks (mating season, want the food you have, etc), and to reduce deer-vehicle collisions (three just this a.m., one fatal to the driver).

  9. I only have a four-foot fence around my garden. But it works, I think because there is no clear runway for the deer–I have arches over the paths and also dwarf cherry trees growing in there.

  10. I am also from southeast Michigan and the only thing that has worked for us is an 8 foot tall electric fence. Sometimes Bitrex or Deer Away works, sometimes they don’t. During a hard winter the deer will eat anything (they once ate Irish Spring soap off the trees).

    I’m a vegetarian, but I’m all for controlled hunts of whitetail deer.

  11. I agree with the sentiment of the commenters here that some deer control is necessary. There are so many deer in my in-town Austin neighborhood that they forage all day long, not to mention at night. (Do they take shifts?) They eat up the native understory of the greenbelts, attract coyotes, cause car accidents, destroy trees by rubbing the bark off in the fall, and (worst of all!) discourage people from gardening.

    I’ve read that suburban neighborhoods offer deer the perfect habitat: grassy, open areas with plenty to eat, with the protection of nearby woods. That combined with a general lack of predators means we have more deer in human-altered landscapes than there would be if the land were untouched by human development. In other words, we haven’t run deer out of their native habitats. We’ve given them protected places to live. Food for thought.

  12. I only have problems with the deer on my fruit trees and in the garden in spring. I suspect that living rurally where they are hunted keeps their numbers in check. I know they are huge problems in other states. Here, freezers are full of them. Not mine, though. I hate the taste unless it is well disguised. However, I don’t feel a bit of empathy for Bambi except when they are lying dead on the side of the highway.~~Dee

  13. I empathize with everyone. I live in Texas where we LOVE guns and using them…poorly. We also have lots of deer (but none like Michigan I gather since we are not heavily wooded in my area).

    We had a bunny issue and one of my neighbors addressed it…sorta like Elmer Fudd. I shudder to think about the bubbas upping the killing caliber to get the bigger beasts. All we need is to load them up with beer and buckshot and we will look like Beruit in the 80s.

  14. Since my lecture – Gardening with Bambi & Other Visitors – at March’s Philadelphia Flower Show, I have given a handful of talks, did a public TV show… but 3 steps work: 1. tell clients/readers to allow hunters on their property to kill (not, cull or harvest) does ONLY! 2. Turning hunters on to my mantra of “Girls Have Meat, Too!” and 3. getting homeowners to observe, with Square Mile Deer Management, their herd and NOT to fence off their ancient trails. Gardening with and for wildlife is what I promote — and a balanced population – age & sex ratios – of the herd must be balanced.

  15. Glad you could use my bamboo skewer trick to save your bulbs. Also works for protecting vegetable seedlings from deer & squirrels too. I can vouch for that, since I grew lots of them in my backyard without being chomped away (except a few by some naughty slugs). After I had one eggplant stripped by a deer, used larger leafless branches around my eggplants to keep them from getting eaten. Deer have poor eye sight and learn to try and eat your veggies results with a poke in the eye. Just don’t poke your own eye out when harvesting.

    For cats, try some plain old moth balls. I have a dead patch of lawn with soft dirt and until I can reseed, it’s the only way I can keep the cats from defecating on that spot. They hate the smell. Worked for my cat years ago when she found some soft dirt by the front door and wanted to use it as her own personal kitty litter box. Just put a few out. they will disappear after a few days, but you only need a few to keep them at bay – or until you can find a better solution.

  16. I am surprised no one has mentioned using PLANTSKYDD. It works on the moose here in Alaska and lasts for 6 months. I have suggested it to many lower 48 gardeners and they rave about it too!

  17. No one mentioned a nasty dog to chase out the deer, but I don’t like dogs. Fencing is the one thing that works on deer in far northern Calif. We have 8 ft wire fence on the east and west. A running jump is hard from the forest (east) side. On the street (south) side is a 7.5 ft cedar lattice top fence they can’t see through and ostentatious-looking iron gates with those spikes, but our personal fave is the 7,000 volt electric fence along the creek (our north boundary). If we forget to turn it on, they wriggle thru and do the strolling salad bar. Most of the time it’s turned on, they touch it and we see their skid tracks down the snowy bank, and they don’t push in. Electric fencing is cheap, easy to set up, keeps out dogs off the leash who want to take a dump on our lawn. Now I wish I could keep raccoons from climbing the grape arbor; they ate about 75% this fall. Pls respond to ost9@att.net about repelling raccoons. I’m thinking about buying a trap, I went on cooks.com to check out raccoon recipes.

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