Deer-proofing the yard

Preventives: You can fence, or you can try other means to keep the critters away.


More unwelcome than Goldilocks at the Three Bears' house and wreaking much more havoc, deer have become a major headache for many suburban gardeners.

These graceful and proverbially shy creatures have become champions at adapting to man's presence. Wherever a green corridor exists as a connection with the countryside, deer have made it a highway to dining. This, coupled with widespread limitations on hunting, has led to a deer population explosion.

All this, of course, causes mighty laments among homeowners and gardeners.

"We hear it every day," says Rosemary Easley at Garlands Gardens in Catonsville. " 'What can we do to keep them out? Is there anything we can plant that deer won't eat?' Everyone with any yard at all seems to be having problems."

What can people do in the face of the invasion?

Up until now, a common strategy has been the use of quickly installed physical barriers. But if we don't want to end up with yards that look like armed camps, passive resistance begins to seem an attractive option. So repellents or deterrents are rapidly becoming the strategy of choice for many gardeners.

"It's become a huge industry," says Chris Travers of Watson's Garden Center in Lutherville. "There are dozens of dealers selling deterrents at the trade shows."

"Predator urine has been very effective for some people," he says. "They regularly walk out of here with one or two bottles every week or so."

Travers says that coyote urine and a formula called BobbX, based on egg solids, are the most requested items. And one customer swears by an organic lawn fertilizer called Milorganite, derived from composted sewage sludge.

Hinder, which also repels rabbits, can be used on edible plantings and was recommended by Anne Pomykala, the owner of Gramercy, an estate and popular wedding reception site in Greenspring Valley. "We prefer to do things organically," she says.

She likes Hinder for its ease of application as a spray on edibles and ornamentals, and because it can be washed off edibles easily with water. It does not have a discernible scent to humans when dry.

Deer-Away is another widely available product that gets high marks, though it is for use on ornamentals only. It is based on a non-chemical formula made up primarily of putrescent whole egg solids. It can be applied by spray or dust, and when dry is not generally noticeable to humans.

All repellents rely on thorough coverage and must be reapplied at close intervals, on new growth and after each rain. Some will repel human as well as animal visitors. It is important to read labels carefully.

On the other side of the passive-resistance front, Easley says, are plants that do not appeal to deer.

Although a very hungry deer will try almost anything, deer tend to stay away from poisonous plants and those that are very prickly, fuzzy or tough.

The optimum time to use this method is when you are replacing plantings or planning new ones. Keep a list of such plants with your garden catalogs, and take it with you to your garden center when shopping.

Another option for discouraging deer, short of permanent fencing, is the use of lightweight fine plastic mesh. Anti-bird netting of the type sold for fruit trees is a top-notch foiler. It is excellent for use in limited areas or for specific plantings of things deer do like to eat, such as tulips or vegetables.

The netting is very inexpensive and comes in large sections (typically 12 by 14 feet). These can be hung on 6- or 8-foot metal garden stakes and anchored at the bottom with sod staples for a fence, or simply draped over plant stakes at the corners of a planting bed. They are nearly invisible to both homeowner and deer.

For those ready to embrace physical barriers, recommendations run from simple single-strand electrified wire to 8-foot-high barricades.

If you have a large area to protect, say an acre or more, you may want to check out electrified wire fencing. This is strung in single or double strands set about 30 inches high on insulators attached to metal stakes.

Timers can be installed on this system so that you do not have to worry about turning it on at twilight and off a little after sunrise. The electrical charge is not enough to injure a person or deer, but it can give a nasty jolt, especially if you run into it when the grass is wet or your feet are bare.

A daily perimeter check is strongly suggested, as deer have a habit of dashing forward and bursting through the wire the first time they run into it. These breaks must be repaired (while the electricity is off) for the fence to carry current and function. Tying strips of brightly colored cloth at intervals along the wire will alert both deer and people to the wire's location.

Most Southern States stores and some hardware centers carry all the supplies needed for this type of fencing. Call ahead to make sure they have stock available. An electrician is recommended to install the electrical box, ground it and connect it to your electrical service safely.

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