Each year gardeners call or visit Vermont Flower Farm and ask how we have fared with the deer population. Many are trying to make a decision. Should they make additional flower purchases to enhance their gardens or stick with what the deer have spared? Most all continue on but if the discussion is out here among the flowers, gardening ears always turn towards the conversation. Any new methods are worth listening to and gardeners do listen.
Vermont is one of the smaller states encompassing only 9250 square miles. It has a population of about 630,000 people and a current estimated deer population of 130,000-160,000. The people and deer populations have been fairly stable in recent years although the forest-to-open land ratios have gone in favor of forests. They are now estimated to cover about 78% of the state. That's about 24% more forest lands now than there were in 1948. Now there is less open public land and fewer hunters too. Solar farms are replacing dairy farms but deer don’t seem to care!
Deer populations and how they interact with their surroundings involve a number of variables. The fact is, if deer have become something you're tired of seeing around the house and in your gardens, then it's time to make some decisions. Just because you've been spared the opportunity to see a deer eating your favorite shrubs doesn't mean that will continue. Living within a town or city leaves little assurance that your gardens will be safe; in fact many urban areas have bigger deer problems than rural areas such as ours. Montpelier, Vermont for example, probably has one of the highest deer densities in the state and yet the State Capitol is in the middle of it.
We've been here in Marshfield since 1989. We consider this a rural area and yet the gardens around the house have hardly been bothered by deer until the past couple years. When you're growing this number of flowers and when your display gardens are as big as ours, you need a strategy and it has to be in place from spring through deep snow. Our strategy continues to evolve. It's been effective thus far and we're happy to share some thoughts with you.
What deer eat is a function of deer density, available food sources, the competition for that food and predators. If you begin to see signs that deer are eating your favorite flowers, shrubs or trees, it's a signal that you must watch more closely. Deer develop bad habits quickly and in short order can take out a large number of your favorites. Like some children, they need "guidance".
The Internet has plenty of methods but here are a few to consider. Think of yourself as if on a continuum relative to deer problems. As the surrounding deer population increases, your strategy must move from minor "reminders" to the deer to strong fences to physically block their access to your gardens. Cost is obviously relative to the sophistication of the method and what you are willing to tolerate.
When we arrived at our new home in 1989, two adjacent neighbors had a long history of flower and vegetable gardening. There were occasional "problems", but they were minor. We moved in with a couple extra acres of instant flowers but witnessed little change. We used various scents for several years which worked well. Pieces of 1" X 1" X 30" pine or spruce driven into the ground and topped with 8" strips of old towels stapled or nailed to the top was our first attempt at reminding the deer someone else lived here too. We sprinkled cheap after shave lotions, unpopular perfumes and soaps on the towel strips and the scent served as the necessary reminder. Changing fragrances once in a while was always sufficient to keep the deer away until fall. They always seemed to get to the last Brussels Sprouts or to pawing out the last carrots before we did anyway. Nonetheless it worked and was inexpensive!
After a couple years, some surrounding habitat changed due to some forest clear cutting on two corners of our land. We found some deer had reverted to using an old trail that passed through what was now new garden space. We used 20 pound test monofilament fishing line strung about 26" off the ground and that got us through several more years. Deer apparently have a sense for the unnatural and one touch of the line suggested an unknown danger. Whether these things will work for you or not depends on where you live, current densities of deer and what they have for available food. Everyone likes to start with the least restrictive and least costly solutions and these can work. If you use the monofilament idea, try to remember (which I did not!) where you have strung it. Kerplunk!!
As years passed, our gardens grew closer to the woodlands and surrounding areas changed dramatically. Eight housing changes within a mile's radius affected where the deer traveled and one neighbor chose to feed the deer prior to hunting seasons (no longer permitted). As deer numbers increased, the minor "reminders" no longer worked well enough. We had to move along the continuum to foliar sprays. If you do not have too high a density of deer or too extensive a collection of gardens, foliar sprays are a good deterrent for non-edible plants, shrubs and trees and possibly will work for you.
There are many sprays on the market. All are available by mail order and many are available locally at garden shops, larger nurseries and farm and garden type stores. Here is a list of easily available ones, many of which have websites. Some are organic and some have eggs, fish, slaughterhouse or ocean byproducts included for some less-than-popular aromas. Each has its following. Prices vary from "not too good" to downright expensive but you have to keep the price in context: If you're an avid gardener, $25 isn't much to make you happy for a gardening season.
Consider these: Bobbex, Chewnot, Deer Away, Deer Off, Deer Out, Deer Scram, Deer Stopper, Deervik, Hinder, Liquid Fence, Not Tonight Deer, Plantskydd, Ropel and Yard Guard Deer Repellant.
When foliar sprays just aren't working, you have to go the fence route. This solution usually works but is expensive in time and money. A double strand electric fence is one choice. That involves parallel fences, 5-6 feet apart with the interior fence slightly higher than the exterior. Vertical fencing, three strands high is another possibility. The options in fence components, including fence posts or poles, and battery, solar or 110V current deserve some research as there is a big cost spread. Again, give this some thought.
The final option on the fencing involves polypropylene mesh-grid fencing. From our +12 year experience, Tenax is the best. It is readily available from a number of online sources and is available in different weights and heights.
Metal fence posts in the 10 foot range are the best bet for most installations so that 1.5-2 feet of pole can be sunk in the ground for stability. These usually have to be special ordered either from farm or fencing stores. If you can't find these, you can improvise with shorter metal fence posts joined with electrical conduit or 1/2" rebar to get the height. By using zip ties you can put the two together to gain the support for the fencing. Deer can easily go under fences so you also have to properly anchor everything to the ground and pay attention to dips and gullies.
At our new nursery location we were at a disadvantage from the beginning and went straight to fencing. Our neighbor there had fed deer during the days when it was legal so there was an established following and well- trodden deer trails crossing down the neighbor’s property and across the Winooski River. To make the fencing decision even easier, the last farmer to cut hay on our land had seeded it all with clover which is known to bring out the gourmet in deer. Knowing the number of deer I had seen there over the years and their preference for clover, there was no smarter choice if we were going to grow five acres of flowers. I went directly to pressure treated 10 foot tall 4 X 4's cemented into the ground 2 feet. It was an expense and a chore but has worked very well. The exception to the "works very well" is spring and fall when moose are on the move. In fall deer come down off mountains to spend time at lower elevations. In contrast, moose go higher for their preferred winter food source. During periods of transition, moose walk right through this fence and keep going. Fortunately it's not a regular event but you have to prepare yourself for the inevitable if you live here.
Just talking about deer control seems endless as we write away, sharing thoughts and trying to be helpful. Here's our last idea and it's a good one.......but only for a select few gardeners who have land apart from their garden areas and crave spending money, conducting experiments and soil tests and hiring tractor-mounted rototillers. Remember when I began rambling, I mentioned that what deer eat is a function of deer density, available food sources and the competition for that food? If you have a deer concentration but have some open land away from your gardens, you can create a food supply that will offer deer and other wildlife the food crops they prefer to eat instead of your gardens. By preparing some open areas, conducting a soil test and amending the soil appropriately, there are matching crops that will likely draw deer away from your gardens. There are no guarantees, but there's a good chance you'll like the outcome.
On a final note, there is a better reason to keep deer away from your gardens and it involves your health. Vermont has the highest per capita incidence of Lyme Disease and here the disease involves the white footed deer mouse and white tailed deer. Lyme is serious whether you live in Vermont or in any of the Continental US states so read up on it and take it seriously. This is especially true if you have children or pets that frequent the outdoors.
In summary, whether you try non-traditional deer control ideas, foliar sprays, strong fences or food plots, spend a little time thinking about our environment and the competition we share with each other. Questions? Stop by, give us a call or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org We don't always have the answer, but we always try to help.