Judy Paolini didn’t mind so much that she couldn’t plant tulips or lilies in her Long Island garden because the deer would soon scarf them down like an appetizer at a Portland restaurant.
But when they came after her blue hydrangeas, it “drove me over the edge.”
“They started eating those, and I said, ‘OK, this is war,’ ” recalled the designer and writer. “I gave up on all the other (deer repellents), and I totally fenced our yard, which was a big project. We were probably the second people on the island to do that.”
There’s nothing like spending hundreds of dollars on perennials in spring only to watch them disappear overnight as deer munch their way through your garden like it’s a free buffet.
Maybe you’ll see the decorative arbor vitae in front of your home chewed away over the winter, or wonder where all those vegetables you planted and nurtured over so many weeks disappeared to during the summer.
“When I’ve done surveys of people to find out what is bothering them in their gardens, you would think people would say insects or disease, but it’s usually wildlife, and the top wildlife is deer,” said Donna Coffin, an extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Dover-Foxcroft who has written about ways to keep deer out of gardens. “And that’s whether it’s a vegetable garden or a landscape situation.”
Deer damage can happen any time of year, and a garden doesn’t have to be in an area overpopulated with deer to be a target.
“It can happen anywhere,” said Scott Lindsay, regional biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in Gray. “It can happen even when you’re right in town. There will be three or four deer that may come out at night, and they’ll get into an arbor vitae in your front yard, and it will be gone.”
And the animals don’t have to be starving to have a hungry eye for your hostas.
“It would be similar to this: If you had a choice of going to a salad bar or a candy store, where would you go?” Lindsay said. “The deer see it the same way. They can meet their needs by feeding in the woods without a problem anywhere. But when they have something that’s a very high value to them, very palatable to them, they’re going to certainly be very selective on what they forage on.
“That’s what all wild animals do. They want to invest the least amount of time for the most potential benefit in calories.”
So how do you save your begonias and pansies and shasta daisies?
Most experts say fences are the best defense, followed by repellents and other forms of “aversive conditioning” such as using decoys and noisemakers, and plant selection.
With fencing, the effectiveness will depend on what kind of fence is used and how it’s placed. Paolini bought a 5-foot metal fence at a big-box store and put up a barrier that was about twice that height.
“You have to go about 8 feet, or they’re just going to jump right over it,” she said.
Another technique she found effective, and that Lindsay agreed works, is double fencing.
“You don’t have to go up quite as high, but a deer won’t jump over a fence if it doesn’t see a clear place to land,” Paolini said.
She added that after Long Island experienced a boom in its deer population a few years ago, every serious gardener on the island installed some kind of fence. “That’s the thing people really do,” she said.
Lindsay said if you use fencing, pick an open, woven type that you can see through, like an orchard fence. But electric fencing is most effective.
“I am a strong advocate for any type of electric fencing you can put up on your property,” Lindsay said. “There is nothing in our experience that works better, except for an 8-foot fence, which many people don’t want to have. They don’t want to have a big fence in their front yard. They don’t want to be in a fortress.”
If you use an electric fence, angle the top of it away from your garden, Coffin advises.
“The deer have a tendency to go under fences,” she said, “so when you do that orientation, they get zapped on the back, and they don’t like that.”
But like Lindsay, Coffin notes that a lot of people don’t want to put up a fence if it’s going to interfere with nice landscaping.
“An electric fence is kind of like you’re putting up a battlefield or something,” she said, laughing.
Another alternative is trying some of the repellents on the market that use ingredients that smell like rotten eggs and contain capsaicin, the substance that gives the heat to chile peppers.
According to Coffin, a Connecticut study found that “Deer Away,” made from putrescent whole egg solids, was 46 percent effective.
“You don’t want to be downwind of that when you spray (a repellent),” Paolini said. “It is awful. Usually once it dries, it’s fine, but then every time it rains, you’ve got to go spray it again.”
Forms of “aversive conditioning” can teach deer over time to stay away from your garden by making them uncomfortable. These techniques include screaming, throwing things at them or using cracker shells, airhorns or other noisemakers.
A coyote decoy can work too, Lindsay says.
“If you move that around on occasion, they probably will be less likely to come on your lands,” Lindsay said. “I wouldn’t just leave it out there like a lawn ornament. I’d move it around. Anything you can do to make it less attractive for them to come on your property, that’s what you want to do.”
Many people prefer the options of choosing deer-resistant plants to plant in spring. Deer will eat annuals, perennials, shrubs, bulbs, hedgerows — just about anything — so the trick is finding out which plants taste like a Snickers bar to them and avoid those if at all possible.
“People like (hosta) because it’s very shade tolerant, but if deer find it, they will heavily browse upon that,” Lindsay said. “The same with tulips, another plant that is generally pretty severely damaged by deer. Things like marigolds they’re much less likely to touch.”
If you want to put ground cover around a shade tree, Lindsay suggests using Pachysandra instead of hosta.
“They’re not going to touch that, and it does well in low-light conditions as well,” he said.
Diana Hibbard, home horticulture coordinator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension-Cumberland County, says deer tend not to like plants with fuzzy leaves or prickly foliage. They also turn up their noses at strong smells, such as the smell of herbs.
The experts at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, have published an extensive list of plants that deer do and do not like, and Maine experts recommend using it as a guide. You can find it at njaes.rutgers.edu/deerresistance.
Paolini and her husband eventually built a new house on their property and had to take their deer fence down.
She started her ornamental gardens over from scratch, and now fights the deer problem by planting things the animals don’t like.
“I just decided I’m not going to plant stuff they eat,” she said. “It’s not worth it.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: