It's a beautiful spring morning. The snow is melting, and your very first tulips can just be seen peeking out of the dark soil. All your hard work this fall paid off, you think to yourself and smile as you look over your garden with a steaming cup of coffee.
As you look around the yard, you notice that you have visitors. Two deer, mother, and baby are making their way across your yard.
How beautiful! What grace!
You hold your breath as they pass by your window. The baby is still clumsy, with big dewy eyes. Your smile deepens as you watch them pass. Nothing could mar the magic of this moment.
Until, of course, the adorable baby deer wanders over to your tulip sprouts, chews them to the ground as you watch in horror, digs out the bulbs with her mother's help, eats those too, poops on your lawn, then jaunts off into the woods without a care in the world.
If you're anything like me, your thoughts go from breathless wonder to venison the second you see the damage from a deer attack. A shrub that took careful pampering and coaxing for years to grow can be destroyed in minutes, and end up looking like you pruned it with a blindfold and a machete.
The War Begins
After my first mauling, I turned to the All-Mighty Internet and found that there are a nearly infinite number of ways to repel deer from a yard. In the end, all advice dead-ended with three guaranteed, fail-proof tactics for making sure that I would not have a problem with deer in my garden. In order of effectiveness, they are as follows:
- Do not have a garden
- Do not have any deer living in your area
- Build a fence that would make the Mongol Hordes tremble, topped with festive loops of razor wire and electric fencing. Also repels aesthetics, house guests, and a welcoming atmosphere. Non-effective against door-to-door evangelists and/or relatives.
That was it. I could give up and be content with a weed-infested lawn with requisite ratty ornamental evergreens like everyone else on the block. Or move to a more urban area with no deer, but then that would probably also eliminate the opportunity for gardening.
Which leaves a fence. I hate fences. They're generally ugly, territorial at best. And expensive. I was a broke college kid living with five roommates, and frankly, our beer budget took priority over protecting my Hostas. Besides, we were renting. So the fence idea was out.
While cash flow tended toward the low side, the upside of college life was an enormous amount of free time. I used this time to test every homemade remedy, fix, "guaranteed" commercial deer repellant, and online remedy I could find. Through the course of two years, I experimented, trialed, refined, and came to an astonishing conclusion.
None of them worked. At least, none of them worked all the time, which led me to the method of deer repellant I use today and have detailed below, which actually does work. To this day, my system allows me a garden of Deer Candy, while my neighbors can only grow dirt.
I repel deer based on several principles. First, deer are not smart, but adapt quickly and constantly, so nothing that works well works forever. Second, some approaches work best at different times of the year and are a waste for the rest of the year. Third, a hungry deer will eat anything (they eat tree bark all winter, for God's sake. 'Deer resistant' plants are a crock, they just would prefer to eat other things if they're available). Lastly, as in home security and birth control, several forms of control are better than one alone.
The basic idea is a rotating combination of two or more repellants throughout the year, taking advantage of their strengths to use them when they are most effective.
Let's start with a tour through the basic flavors of deer deterrent and their uses.
Deer interpret their world and search for food through their sense of smell. Which means that if you want to send a big "GO AWAY" message to a deer, it needs to be through their nose. Any odd smell can cause a deer to avoid the area for a little while, but the most effective odors warn deer that a predator may be near. Here are the best options I've found.
- Homemade deer repellent: C+ — Easy and somewhat effective. Four eggs and six cups of water in a blender, then sprayed on foliage, fence posts, ground, tree trunks, etc. in the area you want to protect. The sulfurous smell of eggs mimics the smell of dead animals, and thus indicates to deer that a predator must be around. Not very resistant to being washed away by rain, so frequent application is a must. Also, smells like, well, rotten eggs.
- Commercial deer repellents: B+ — Bobbex, Deer Out, and a few other manufacturers make deer repellents commercially, and all guarantee their effectiveness. I've had seriously mixed results, thanks to the general adaptability of deer. They rely on fish-based, citrus-based, or peppermint-based odors to repel deer, and all are effective up to a point. While they all claim to be water resistant if allowed to dry, I found that their effectiveness wore off in a about a week (but then, this was tested in Seattle). Commercial repellents are made to make money, and are therefore more expensive than most other options, but counter that with an increase in effectiveness.
- Predator pee: A- — A study by Colorado State University showed that Coyote urine was extremely effective in deterring deer. However, unless you happen to own a coyote or make a habit of collecting their pee, this may not be usable. What works almost as well is dog pee. So if you have a canine companion, this is as simple as leading them to an area of the garden that you want to be protected, and let 'er rip. Leaving droppings in strategic places can have similar effects, within the boundaries of sanitation and good taste. This option is free (your dog will produce it anyway, might as well use it), easy, effective, and as long as you have a dog, frequent application isn't a problem. Just make sure to move them around, so they don't pee on the same place all the time.
- People pee: B+ — I know what you're thinking. But the fact of the matter is that if you eat meat, your urine has a lot of the signature odors that deer associate with predators, which means that every time you use a toilet, you're wasting precious deer repellant. Us males generally love peeing on things outside anyway, so I guarantee that if you ask your boyfriend/buddies/sons/brother/father to mark their territory on the petunias instead, they will be happy to pitch in.
- Now, for those that aren't familiar with the biology of urine production, remember that urine is completely sterile, thanks to your kidney's filtration system. Therefore, peeing on the garden will never cause a sanitation issue. That said, explaining to your friends that the salad they just ate has been repeatedly peed on probably won't go over well, so make sure that your male helper only "Hoses the Roses" (stick to ornamental plants and flowers only). Ladies, if you really want to get in on this game, I recommend employing a Lady J and/or a mason jar. One particularly memorable party kept the deer away from the house for a solid month and gave the flower beds a nice little fertilizer boost as well.
- Ivory soap: C- — This technique actually worked pretty well for me, but I give it lower marks for the fact that it makes you look like you've lost touch with the world. The idea is to take a bar of Ivory soap (NOTE: It must be Ivory brand! Other soap odors can actually attract deer!), attach it to a stick or a string, and hang it/stick it in your garden amongst the plants you wish to protect. The soapy odor (similar to the smell of decomposing fats) tends to drive deer away. Depending on rain frequency, the soap dissolves and has to be replaced in 1-3 months, and in the meantime looks odd, to say the least.
- Pet hair in a stocking: D — I've heard similar logic to the urine option applied to this idea, but frankly, this works about as well as putting a sign in the yard politely asking the deer to leave. If you still feel the need to shave Fluffy and try it out, be my guest, but don't make this your primary tactic.
Many of the above options double as foul flavors as well as odors (as you can imagine). Bad tastes are one of the main deterrents that plants use to discourage grazing in the wild. Harness this power to make deer regret their life choices and leave your plants in peace.
- Tabasco, peppers, and other spiciness: A — This one is a real winner. And for the sadist in you, it's a real scream to watch a deer wrestle with reality after a bite of this. For maximum effectiveness, mix tabasco extract or other extremely spicy extracts to odor-based repellants and spray it on your plants. You can also throw cut raw peppers or pepper flakes into your repellant to marinate for a few nights and infuse them with culinary pain. This option does no permanent damage to a deer, teaches them very quickly which plants to avoid, and doesn't carry any extra funky odors. On the downside, it has to be applied regularly just like all spray deterrents, can get a little expensive if you go too crazy, and you have to resign yourself to losing some plants to get the message across. Also, some deer can gradually get accustomed to spiciness, and the effectiveness diminishes as deer adjust their tastes from 1 star to 5 stars—still, a great option to incorporate in your arsenal.
- Peppermint extract: B —Equally effective, thanks to that lovely burning, cooling menthol sensation. Use as with pepper-based extracts, mixing with odor repellents and apply to plants. Downsides are that it makes your garden smell like Ben Gay (unless you like that sort of thing), and that peppermint extract can get very expensive.
This tends to be the most fun, again, if you have a minor sadistic streak. Our goal here is to startle deer if they come into the garden, and if it happens enough, keep them from wanting to enter the garden at all.
The major downfall of these tactics is that deer can adapt to them quickly when they realize that they aren't a real threat. Rotation is key for these techniques to work. Also, if you are a bit jumpy yourself, be prepared to fall victim to some of these tactics more than once. God knows I do.
- Noise-making scarers: B+ —Sudden, unexpected loud noises are as startling to deer as they are to anything. Any loud noise can work, such as a recording of a predator, an air cannon, booming (especially in areas where they are hunted) or screeching noises, or these really cool devices called exploders (which violate basically every noise ordinance ever written and will have the cops at your door. Not for use in residential areas...). Pie pans hung from trees and allowed to bang together are a good low-budget option. Ultrasonic noisemakers produce a noise inaudible to humans when something breaks the beam, much better for urban use.
- Any noisemaker should be set to go off at random intervals around dawn and dusk, when deer are most active. Unfortunately, these have a tendency to scare or annoy all animals if done well, including pets, you, your family, neighbors, etc. In my case, it caused several mini heart attacks, and one of my friends got so convinced that there was a coyote running around in my yard after my recording played, he refused to walk to his car without escort. Deer can quickly get used to these gimmicks, so frequent rotation helps.
- Motion scarers: A — Great stuff. These are most effective when paired with noisemakers. A coyote recording is a lot more convincing if there's something moving in the bushes while it's playing. There are several wind-driven options, such as mylar strips, pie pans, "Scare Eye" balloons, strobe lights, and, my personal favorite, motion-activated sprinklers (some good ones are Smart Crow Motion-Activated Sprinkler, Contac Scarecrow Motion Detector Sprinkler and Spray Away Motion Activated Water Repellent). The special advantage of motion-activated ideas is that deer can't get used to them as easily, since they follow no schedule except the deer. Downsides are once again that they are just as likely to get you if you forget to deactivate them, and the sprinklers are often expensive. Deer will also acclimate quickly to these tactics, so switch it up as often as you would auditory scarers.
- Electric fencing: C- — Not my favorite option, but will definitely work. The idea is to bait an electrical wire with peanut butter or similar and wait for the deer to give it a taste test, at which point it gets a harmless but startling zap. It works, but my main objection is that other animals are just as likely to investigate the peanut butter, and that deer's ability to acclimate can make this expensive option obsolete with weeks. They will simply go around, over, under, or through the fence, and you're right back where you started.
- Physical presence: A+ — The whole point of a garden is to enjoy it. Hopefully, that means this one is a no-brainer. The more time you spend enjoying your garden in person, the less time deer will be comfortable spending in your yard. Especially if you are willing to chase the deer like a madman, throw dirt, tennis balls, or frisbees to drive them off. Given that many people choose to be employed and occasionally sleep or live in a house, this isn't always a 24-7 practicality.
What is often a better solution is to call once again on man's best friend to do something to earn their rent. An invisible fence and collar quickly trains your dog to stay in the confines of your yard while giving them free rein to patrol for hoofed miscreants. Deer quickly learn the limits of a dog on a leash, and will work just outside the perimeter your dog can reach, while your dog goes insane nearby. A dog who likes to chase will keep the yard clear, and the deer will never get accustomed to it. Downsides are that dogs are just as likely to bark at neighbors as deer sometimes, and will sometimes pick fights with animals that know how to defend themselves better than deer (skunks, porcupines, coyotes, raccoons, badgers, mailmen). Nevertheless, this is by far the best option, both because it keeps the dog happy and healthy, and your garden deer-free. Also automatically contributes to urine deterrent option.
Putting It All Together
As I said before, the biggest problem people have with deer is that they adapt rapidly to anything you throw at them. That is a good thing from their perspective, and is why they've been able to hold on in areas where their habitat is all but gone.
What this means to you is that one approach simply won't work. Your best chance of getting deer out of your garden is before they realize it is a great source of food and program it in their mental buffet line. Just because you don't have deer now doesn't mean they aren't in the area, and once they're used to swinging by for a munch on the tomatoes, they're infinitely harder to get rid of.
So your approach is simple: rotate your deterrents often enough to keep deer on their toes (hooves?), and always have more than one deterrent active. Some approaches have advantages that are better utilized during certain parts of the year, and you should play to these strengths. For example...
- Scent-based deterrents are less useful in winter, as cold inhibits scent dispersal. Also, frequent rains and snows make reapplication annoying and a waste of time. Summer use may not be the best, since that is when you are the most likely to spend time in the garden, and nobody wants to hang out in a garden that smells like rotting meat/farts/pee.
Best seasons: Spring and Fall
- Repellant flavors make sense only when there is something to put it on that the deer will eat. Generally winter is not the right time.
Best seasons: Spring, summer, fall
- Scarers are useful all year long, and important to keep up even in winter. Remember, don't give deer a chance to form a habit that will be hard to correct come spring. With that in mind, a surprise blast of icy water when it's cold out is a good way to ruin a day, so it might be better to save the sprinkler until summer when a quick spray might actually be welcome.
Best seasons: Year-round (sprinklers in summer only)
A great comprehensive defensive strategy might look something like this:
Sample Deer Deterrent Schedule
Homemade Deer Repellant
Booming Noise Recording
Scare Eyes Balloon
K-9 Patrol & Presence
This might look complicated, but remember that you don't have to do all of these to be effective, just more than one at all times. The more you change it up, the more successful the deterrent. Change times, change flavors, change dogs. Continually force them to adapt, and the deer will simply choose to find somewhere to feed that is less of a hassle.
Finally, while I certainly entertained violent thoughts/ideas when I saw my strawberries reduced to stubble, you will notice that none of the tactics above cause any permanent physical harm to the deer. If you live in a rural area where hunting is legal, regular hunting pressure can make deer very wary as well, but that's not my preference. The presence of deer in the general area is a nice thing, and after all, they were here first, so injuring or killing the deer is a pretty heavy-handed way to do things, in my view.
Nonetheless, the only surefire way of keeping deer out, as I pointed out earlier, is a very tall fence. If you feel as I feel, however, that a fence is either too expensive, impractical, an eyesore, or all of the above, these strategies should give you a good bag of tricks to keep your garden safe from harm. Let me know how it goes, and the results of any tinkering you might do.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to pee on my roses...
Questions & Answers
Question: If I use Irish spring soap as a deer repellent do I have to remove the soap before it rains? Will the soap damage my roses?
Answer: I wouldn't use Irish Spring, I just haven't had good luck with that brand. For whatever reason, Ivory seems to be the real key soap brand. I wouldn't put them directly on the roses, but on a stake or string in the vicinity of the roses. You don't have to remove it for rain, but it will gradually dissolve over time. With sensitive plants, I'll often put a bucket or some kind of catch underneath the soap to prevent it from running off into the soil, but I've never noticed a problem with roses in particular.
Question: Can vinegar ward of deer?
Answer: Well, as in all cases, it can for a while if you use it in rotation with other methods. However, I would urge some serious caution in terms of what plant you put it on, as vinegar is very acidic, and can kill plants or alter the soil pH. I would stick to other strong-smelling things that are less likely to directly damage the plant.
Question: Hi do you have suggestions for squirrels that tease pet dogs, causing barking and running?
Answer: Hmm well squirrels are trickier. It's easier to keep them away from a small location (like a bird feeder) than exclude them from a yard completely, given how well they can climb. Sorry to say it, but squirrels are generally too numerous, agile, and persistent to do anything about, short of ultra-heavy-handed methods like shooting them (my grandfather's preferred method) or cutting down all the trees in an area.
© 2013 CS Drexel
Tony Balogna on June 20, 2020:
I use a device I made I call an IED. Improvised explosive device. If you live in an area that sells fireworks such as a Indian reservation you can build one too. My trigger device is a 3/8" steel bolt 7 inches long with a hole drilled in it. The hole is for a piece of steel wire that has an apple attached so that when the deer eats the apple the bolt will drop and make a micro switch which will then detonate the fuse and boom. Trust me the deer don't like it. I used an M-80 once but it woke up the whole neighborhood. I regularly used zebra firecrackers and hope to buy some Whistler pete's this summer. The deer don't adapt to loud noises. One problem is waterproofing the firecrackers. I use the fingers off of a rubber glove to wrap them in. This does keep the firecrackers from getting wet.
CF on July 19, 2018:
Hi, I just bought a house and recently moved in. I noticed there were quiet a few deer (like 6 to 10 of them) traipsing through my yard, like clockwork, at the same exact time each evening and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I discovered the guy next door FEEDs them in his backyard! They bed down in his yard and hang out there all evening and then they tried to do the same in mine, until I introduced them to my 3/4 inch garden hose on full blast. I made a homemade hot pepper and vinegar spray to apply to the $1000 worth of new plantings in my gardens they’ve also started to destroy. To make matters worse, this deer feeding nonsense has also attracted the attention of a black bear, so I am limited to what smelly food-type stuff I can apply to my plants. I don’t want Mr. Bear thinking he has an open invitation to come to my place and help himself. Am thinking a nice strong cedar stockade fence and a dog may be in my future now.
Sara on March 19, 2018:
I am going to try a few of the above deer deterrents. I went out last weekend in TN to do some weeding and trimming and almost fell over at the damage the deer had done to my perennials. Stripped leaves bare, ate other plants to below ground level. Waiting to see what will survive the onslaught before digging up and replanting. Before I moved to the woods/lake areas near Nashville I thought deer and rabbits were adorable (still do) but now I consider them adorable pests. Thanks for the ideas.
IHateDeer on August 28, 2017:
Too many types of coyote urine (lucrative biz helping wild animals pee I guess) on Amazon...any verified or trusted brands? Any pee would stink...how do u know it's really from a coyote.
Dayle on August 27, 2017:
Well I tried the irishspring soap to try to keep the deer away from my hibiscus bush and it's not helped...they got it twice before I hung the soap in the bush and now it's been three times...
joyce on August 05, 2017:
My husband and I were hysterical as I read this aloud!! My hostas and hydrangeas were decimated!! Too late to try this season but will definitely try some of these ideas next spring/summer. Thanks!!!!
Battered Gardener on July 15, 2017:
Oh how I'm so at that stage of kill on site lol but no that's very mean and I couldn't actually do it, someone told me to use fishing line and cans... String the line around the garden with multiple cans (vegetable, tuna, cat food, etc) you can have five gallon buckets to sit the cans on but when the deer walk into the line, the cans fall off and it scares them, I haven't tried it yet but I'm going to this week, I'll let you know... Very funny article though
Celtic Steve from Loomis, CA on May 01, 2017:
Great article! You missed my ole favorite, an invisible fence made with fishing line and some mylar strips. The deer freak out when they rustle in the breeze or reflect light, and even better when they walk into the line.
Mspeach on April 28, 2017:
I live in the city but we have deer coming into our yard. I found a product called Invisible Fence. I spray it around my plants. It stinks for awhile but the smell dissipates. I have not had any problems since I started using it. I tried other methods, like the ivory soap and it didn't help. I have roses, squash, red and green peppers and tomatoes and so far everything is fine.
Lynn Anne Miller on April 08, 2017:
Best, entertaining article ever on keeping deer out. I have tried many things, have gone from Snow White Bambi syndrome to I'm gonna kill them on site. My neighbors laugh at me; and, they are waiting for the miracle defense I discover. I should have peed on their roses.
Living in the Boonies on March 17, 2017:
Omg....thanks for the laugh out loud read for my lunch break! At one point I was actually in tears. On a more serious note thank you for the comprehensive overview. You suggest a few things that I have not yet tried. Hope springs eternal!
garden on February 13, 2017:
I fenced my garden using 4' tall fence like concrete fence. I fence small area by small area like garden bed by garden bed. At the end, it looked like fence within fence, not pretty. but deer didn't jump in it at all last year and winter. They seem not to like fence with fence. It is not pretty but it work in my front and back yard.
BJ on August 06, 2016:
Our garden was mutilated by deer this year, they destroyed everything we planted and replanted until the season was too late to plant. We tried every thing anyone has mentioned and it did not work, they come in numbers morning and late evening. Its a shame that one cannot do anything about it without a threat of the law. I have never failed at having a garden until this year to can and freeze for the winter. What a shame.
Paula on July 29, 2016:
Try garden commander. It really works!
CS Drexel (author) from Earth on January 15, 2014:
Glad you liked it, thanks for the comment!
PracticalGardener on January 15, 2014:
Very entertaining. It makes me extra thankful not to have deer visiting my garden. Actually, I probably shouldn't write that. I used to say I was thankful not to have any moles, too, and then the moles moved in ...