Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dealing with Deer in the Garden: Which Vegetable Plants They Love (and Don't Love) to Eat

What do deer like to eat? Everything in this bed looks fine at first glance.

Realization of the Day:
Just when you think your plants are safe from the bugs, the dogs, the cold, the heat, the [fill in the blank with your latest garden problem here], the deer show up.

We have literally thousands of acres of forest and greenery surrounding us, and yet the deer want to eat in my little cultivated spot. What I want is an 8-foot high stone wall around my entire garden. It's the only thing that will keep out the deer (and the digging dogs), and I've always loved how they look. Of course it's probably never going to happen—who builds 8-foot high stone walls anymore?—but a girl can dream, can't she?

A few years ago my mother was staying with a cousin in Pennsylvania who told her that all he grows anymore is asparagus because it's the only thing the deer won't eat. I feel his pain—and I'm sure many of you do, too.

More below. . .

At least they left me a few baby leaves.

At first glance I didn't even notice that anything was wrong—the carrot tops  from my heirloom carrot growing experiment were nice and frilly, the Nero di Toscana cabbage (also called Tuscan kale and dinosaur kale) was looking good, the Swiss chard was still being choked out by the tall grass weeds. But then I realized the Swiss chard was gone. All of it. Those obnoxious deer had eaten around the weeds.

These Strawberry Plants Are Looking a Little Stemmy

Then I turned around and realized the strawberry bed had been decimated, though, surprisingly, they didn't eat the ripe fruit—but probably only because most of the berries had turtle slobber on them.

This was two mornings ago, and since I forgot to cover the beds with floating row cover that night (my memory is an amazingly elusive thing), naturally the deer returned the next night for a second serving.

There are all sorts of deer repelling tricks and methods out there, and I've tried a bunch of them: dog hair, human hair, bars of Irish Spring soap hanging from old nylon stockings, peeing in the garden. Yes, I used to go out and pee in the garden. I was desperate. Nothing has worked.

A few years ago I read somewhere that whenever deer leap over a fence, for some reason they seek out the highest spot—so if you make your 4-foot high fence several feet higher than that in just a few places, they deer won't jump over it at all. How cool is that? I thought. All of my deer problems are over! I stuck 7-foot bamboo stakes every few feet along the back fence, and all summer long I swear I could hear the deer laughing at me as they sailed over the shorter spots right in front of my eyes.

What's really embarrassing is that I have four dogs. Granted, the two big white ones—who will take off at top speed after a deer that is on the other side of a 15-acre field—spend nights down at the barn protecting their sheep. And twelve-year-old Robin is retired so she usually sleeps in the house. Lucky Buddy Bear will chase after a deer if I order him to, but after years of having them totally ignore him, his heart just isn't in it.

Other than building the stone walls, I don't have any solutions to offer, but I can say this: there are a lot of things growing either adjacent to or just a few steps away from the strawberries and Swiss chard that the deer didn't eat. That's not to say they won't move on to them after they've finished off their first choices (especially since I don't have that much floating row cover), but I figured it's worth making note of their preferences.

What the deer did eat:
—All the Swiss chard (both green and red varieties)
—Some bush bean plants
—Most of the strawberry bed (but not the fruit)

What the deer didn't eat:
—Nero di toscana cabbage (aka lacinato, tuscan, or dinosaur kale)
—Potato plants
—Spinach (mostly bolted)

Besides not eating everything in my garden, there are a few other bright spots to all of this. Swiss chard is a cut-and-come again vegetable, so the plants may actually grow back. And the green chard leaves were full of bug holes (more about this in a future post), so I wasn't all that excited about eating them. The strawberry bed will need to be cut back and 'refreshed' soon (more about this in a future post), and most of the work has already been done.

But I still want my 8-foot high wall.

How do you deal with deer? Any tips or tricks you've tried that actually work? Is there really such a thing as a deer proof vegetable—or deer proof vegetable garden?

Related posts:
How to Grow Swiss Chard from Seed and Why You Should
Growing and Thinning (and Weeding!) Heirloom Carrots
How to Grow Nero di Toscana Cabbage (aka Tuscan Kale, Cavalo Nero, Lacinato Kale, Dinosaur Kale) from Seed and What To Do with It
How To Grow Beets from Seed and Why You Should
Let's Trade: Your Purple Kohlrabi Growing Tips for My Best Kohlrabi Recipe Ever
Successfully Growing Strawberries
I Can't Live Without My Inexpensive Bamboo Stakes*

*A.M. Leonard's bamboo stake prices have gone up quite a bit since I wrote this post three years ago, but compared to the prices I've seen at garden centers, they're still a really good deal.

© Copyright 2009, the decidedly desperate foodie farm blog where I may just have to dig out the rolls of mesh deer netting leftover from my deer battles years ago at Windridge Farm that I know are still kicking around here somewhere.


  1. Have you tried peeing around the boundary of your garden after a big red meat dinner? Maybe after venison? I've read (I'm afraid I can't remember where) that doing so signals 'key meat-eating predator lives here' but I don't know if it works.

    I DO plant hostas (aka 'slug caviar') for the slugs, so they leave my veggies alone. It seems to work.

  2. I'm lucky; the way our area is laid out, it seems my garden & my next door neighbor's (the only one I can see from my property) are not within comfortable deer range. There's tree lines, but not forest-y areas.

    Bugs, on the other hand, are a serious issue. Ugh. Those horrid little (or big, triple ugh) green caterpillar things that eat my tomato plants AND MY TOMATOES need to GO. GO, I say.

  3. Oh no! Not the swiss chard! We have a serious deer problem too and the only things I've found work are a strong pellet gun and strawberry netting. They don't like getting tangled in the netting and won't come near it.

  4. I just blogged about my deer problem too. It was such a bummer to find my pampered, grown from seed, exotic tomato eaten down to stubbs. I sprayed Liquid Fence around the perimeter of my raised bed and haven't had them back. I think that stuff is made of mountain lion urine or something that resembles mountain lion urine.

  5. Now, it's not pretty and it is a pain in the rear to deal with, but laying chicken wire flat on the ground around the perimeter of the garden will do it!
    The deer do not/will not step on anything like the fencing and your garden will be safe for all of eternity.
    It works for cats and dogs too.

  6. Around here the deer prefer roses, but maybe they're just snobs.

    It's the slugs that get all the good stuff. Some nights I have dreams about sneaking out into the garden with a single salt-shaker...

  7. Well, I personally don't have issues with deer, because I live in the suburbs and we're sadly too clustered to get any wildlife beyond horrific possum and raccoons, but my mom gets them and the only thing she has been able to do is fully enclose her veg garden with 8 ft fencing.

    Sadly, she also has roses, which the deer LOVE, and she tries to keep "deer fencing" up around just the bushes, but I think they have long sneaky tongues because they will just get to those new buds somehow.

    Sorry they're chomping your vegs, Susan. That blows. I'd cry.

  8. We put up cattle panels, two high. That makes an eight foot fence. It was expensive, but so far no problems with the deer. This is the second year. One did get in through the open gate before I had planted anything and it knocked one of the panels down in it's desire to escape. Maybe it was traumatized and told all it's friends.

    We had problems with a groundhog though. We're going to go back and put chicken wire up at the bottom of cattle panels.

  9. After years of telling my son that peeing should only be done in the bathroom, he refuses to pee in my garden. Somehow I've failed as a mother. Oh well.

  10. I have deer problem too. I used to think the dogs will guard and protect the garden, now I know it is not true. Now, I'm thinking of getting the motion activated sprinkler, see the photos here

  11. I haven't tried this BUT I have heard it from two different 'pumpkin growers'. Run and electric wire around the garden. Hang aluminum pie plates (from a wire hanger) smeared with peanut butter on the electric fence. Turn on the charger. The deer are attracted to the peanut butter, lick it , their tongue makes contact with the electrfied pie plate. No more deer. Sound very simple and maybe too good to be true. But worth a try. I'd be interested to know if it works.

  12. On another blog...sorry can't find which one at the moment....the gardener swore by cayenne pepper liberally sprinkled over everything at risk.

  13. I live in a city, so the biggest animals I deal with are woodchucks, raccoons, and the chocolate labs down the block. Oh, those darn deer! I suppose the hose-as-mock-snake won't fool them, either.

  14. Deer eat everything in sight at my place in WI, too. The only way I can guarantee keeping the deer out of my garden is with a fence. I have 8 foot poles sunk into the ground 3 feet so there is 5 feet exposed. I have 4 foot chicken wire fencing around the bottom to keep out the marauding rabbits. I also ran wire along the top of the poles and did a zigzag between the top wire and the chicken wire. The only time this setup has failed is in winter when the snow is deep.

    I also use liquid fence on my non-edible-garden plants. It works well when used according to the directions, but I never remember to spray it regularly, so the deer get those plants sometimes.

    Bite the bullet and put up a fence.

  15. I have heard from gardeners when I lived in Alaska that Marigolds keep the moose and deer away. Just plant them around the perimeter of the garden. I have not tried this because I live in the city and have a small garden (plus I don't like the smell, maybe I'm part deer!) but it might be worth a shot.

  16. Oh yes. One more tip if deer are making a meal of your garden. I've always read that they will avoid plants that have a heavy odor. Many people here in the the Pacific Northwest plant lavender around their gardens for that reason. I do have some lavender, marigolds, various mints(in pots)growing around the edge of the garden. But rabbits? "Hah! I spit on your feeble botanical attempts to keep me (and all my relatives) from our rightful place at your garden table!"

  17. After losing an entire bed of lovely beets to the dreaded Ozark deer this spring, I've tried this trick and so far it's worked:

    Apparently deer are upset by running into something they can't see. So you put in some corner t-posts or rebar, and run a strand of heavy weight (I use 50lb test) fishing line about knee height around your garden. It's even better to move it around every few weeks to keep them guessing.

    It's worked great EXCEPT where I ran it too close to the raised beds and they just leaned over and ate the edges. Now I spray the Liquid Fence (based on rotten eggs) or what we call Stinky Fish Sauce (see below) around the edges and it's all working.

    I've also found deer hate the smell of fish you get from the smelly fish/kelp natural plant foods. If you mix it into a dilute foliar spray, they won't touch those plants - and it feeds your washes off in the rain.

  18. I have had major deer problems. Liquid fence (putridfied eggs) does work. But they might nibble but then won't eat. Some say they become immune. Have no problems with it myself. They will step around stuff
    they don't like so it is not a deterent. But I did see a beautiful veggie garden that was done with a 6 foot fence. Woven wire. But on the outside she placed two
    rows of very thick deer resistant shrub. It was the most beautiful veggie garden I have ever seen. She had deer in all of her flower gardens but not in this
    veggie garden. The best part the entrance had wide arbor with two garden benches. So you could take a rest in the shade. She got to the point with her flowers that she planted only deer resistant plants.

  19. I use fencing and bird netting to keep the deer out of my veggie gardens and away from my fruit trees. They also don't like the big lavender bush that grows in the middle of my herb garden, so they don't nibble much in there.

    I've used marigolds planted nearby, and also sprayed cayenne (hot sauce mixed with water and a little liquid soap) on the plants to keep the bugs away from my leafy greens. I also plant the leafys in between garlic rows or chili pepper rows, that helps deter the bugs as well.

  20. I'm so sorry about your deer! I have a bloodhound, and she will chase the deer off of the property (she is a hunting dog) so I haven't had too much trouble. My boyfriend actually refuses to pee in the bathroom and only uses Mother Nature, so I know we're covered there, much to my chagrin (I also heard that helps with raccoons). If deer don't like fishy smells, you might try Organicide, which has a fish oil base and is an organic insecticide as well! I've used it with moderate results, just as long as you apply it in the evening and not in the middle of a hot sunny day. The oil will cook your veggies!

  21. Sounds to me like you have a great excuse to get a fifth dog! Our German Shepherd does an excellent job keeping the deer at bay in exchange for belly rubs. After a good chase, she always looks back at the house to see if anyone was watching.

  22. Some animals ate my swiss chard down to the ground to the point where it looked like someone came by with a knife... and it still grew back. Sorry about the deer! How annoying.

  23. Bravo, This really a great and excellent blog. Thanks for posting.

  24. Kevin In AlaskaJune 24, 2009 11:43 AM

    I'm here to tell you that no solution other than a high wall really ever works every time. Last night, for example, a moose ate 45 brassica plants (out of 48 planted) of mixed variety from my garden in Alaska, despite the liberal planting of marigolds all around, the application of cayene, and a good deal of netting. I now find myself wondering where I can find a purveyor of quality wolf urine (which is admittedly a question I never thought I would be faced with until I moved to Alaska and thought to myself - "Hey, let's try to garden")

  25. Frustrating, isn't it? I love deer, but I don't love 'em eating my tomato plants! My precious fava beans, my green beans and shell peas have also been ravaged. We used Deer Off (predator urine) but all the rain has made it too difficult to keep the smell strong. Applying the stuff is very unpleasant, besides. Adding to this problem is a new crop of babies who seem to have learned that our garden is not dangerous.

    I finally put deer netting (a plastic mesh) over the plants using plant stakes to hold the over the garden beds. Insects, rain and sun can still get in. Rabbits can, too, but it doesn't seem they have. I also haven't seen birds on the covered gardens either.

  26. Not sure of the structure of your property but if you have room next year plant the deer their own garden near the wood line. Then in your own garden take an old tshirt wear it a few times rip it up and tie the pieces of it around your real garden. Then plant known deer resistant plants around the edge of your garden ( like bee balm )the keep a small radio on out in the garden ( on low ) and it should deter them. The other funny thing you can do is hook up a canned air horn to pull strings and when the deer pull the string it sounds the horn and they want no part of it.. kind of funny too. obviously string the string to the trigger and to a garden pole to the slightest tug makes it go off.

  27. Everyone warned us not to put in a garden without a fence since there are lots of deer in our area. On the recommendation of one neighbor we put in a raised garden with a fence. The fence is about 4 feet but the post are over 5 feet. My husband strung twine all around the perimeter around the posts three times and we looped blank CD's through the twine all ariund the perimeter. Now the height is 5 feet with glimmering CD's which startle the deer. Aluminum pie tins should also work. The deer stay away and my 16 x 16 foot garden is thriving !

  28. We play a radio 24/7 and they stay away.


March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

Welcome to! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. While I'm not always able to reply to every comment, I receive and enjoy reading them all.

Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and I especially love to hear about what's going on in your own garden. I know, too, that other readers also delight in reading about your garden successes, failures, helpful tips, and lessons learned. Feel free to leave comments on older posts!

I try my best to answer all questions, but sometimes it takes me a few days to get to them. And sometimes, I'm sorry to say, they fall through the cracks, and for that I sincerely apologize.

I look forward to hearing from you and hope you enjoy your visits to my kitchen garden!