How to keep deer from eating your garden plants

A common saying among gardeners is “right plant, right place.” The same philosophy applies to protecting plants from deer: “right fence, right features.” The plant value, age, location, and attractiveness to deer should all factor into the amount of time, money, and energy put into protecting it.

Last spring, after I sheet mulched part of my lawn in my quest to convert it to a native garden, I planted several bareroot shrubs from the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District, as well as a few larger specimen shrubs from a local nursery. I chose plants that are said to be deer-resistant as part of my defense strategy against our frequent deer visitors. However, the bare-root shrubs were little more than twigs, so I tried several methods to protect them from hungry wildlife, errant string trimmers, and rambunctious children. I can report on the success and failure of my fencing defenses in the last year.

For red osier dogwood and Eastern redbud in the front yard, I zip-tied hardware cloth to bright snowplow stakes. These are easy to lift up for occasional weeding around the plant and then put back. The bright colors of the stakes also alert children running to avoid the area. It is a hassle to cut hardware cloth and it’s ugly, but all of these plants survived and thrived. Although hardware cloth can be pricey, I always seem to have a roll of it in the garage. Chicken wire or other metal fencing would work too. It’s also a convenient place to hang a label so you can remember what stick you planted where. Grade: B+

Another method I tried was putting tomato cages around the red osier dogwood in a less accessible planting bed, as well as some pawpaw trees in the front. Determined deer could stick their heads in to snack, but it was enough to keep them away from less appealing plants. I tied a bit of old caution tape to the cages to remind kids and myself of their presence. A year later, the dogwoods are doing fine, but a couple of the pawpaw trees are mysteriously snapped in half, which is a bummer. Grade: C

I planted three chokeberry bushes last spring, which had a “deer-resistant” symbol on the nursery tag, but by June the deer were nibbling all the tender new growth. Perhaps the shrubs will be able to withstand deer browsing when they are fully grown, but until then I’m taking defensive measures. First, I draped deer netting over the bushes and tacked it down with bricks and rocks, but one morning the netting had been neatly moved aside and the buds and branches had been nibbled back down to stubs. For my next level of defense, I pounded six-foot wooden garden stakes into the ground and zip-tied deer netting onto the stakes. The deer have tried to knock it over, but it is enough of a deterrent that they move on to something else (usually my hosts), and I pound the stakes back in when the ground is soft after a good rain. It’s relatively cheap, it’s easy to build and to lift the netting to weed occasionally, and it’s not terribly ugly. Grade: B+

The next step up in DIY deer proofing is pounding in metal T-posts and attaching plastic or metal rolled fencing. The advantages of this method are that it is semi-permanent and can enclose a large area. The disadvantages are that it is expensive, harder to install, and makes it difficult to access unless you also install a gate. I reserve this method for my prize specimen trees, such as the three apple trees we planted a few years ago, as well as my vegetable garden. Grade: A-

A note about fence height: deer are incredible jumpers but are unwilling to jump into a small enclosed area for fear of getting trapped, so I have been successful with four- to five-foot tall fences. A fence doesn’t have to be completely deer proof; It has to be just annoying enough that the deer moves onto something else. Like the poor hosts.

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