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by Nanette Londeree, Master Rosarian

Deer silently tip-toeing through the forest may conjure up images of Bambi and other gentle critters, but watching them munch your prize-winning blooms may provoke a whole different response. As housing and commercial development squeeze these graceful marauders out of their native habitat, they’re likely to show up anywhere there’s vegetation and water – and that just may be your garden.

Mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus, and blacktailed deer, O. hemionus columbianus, are the two most common subspecies in California. Deer browse and graze leaves, stems, and buds of many woody plants including roses. Telltale signs of evidence are jagged leaf edges on the eaten plants, distinctive cloven hoof prints and bean-shaped droppings on the ground around the plants. And if decapitating your rose plants weren’t enough, they can also trample plants and damage young trees and shrubs by rubbing their antlers on trunks and limbs. In our climate, late summer through early spring is when deer are most in need of food and likely to be invading residential areas.

Effectively managing hungry deer relies primarily on mechanical and physical methods, though there are some chemical options to consider:

  • Cultural methods – roses are among the favored foods for deer and thorns don’t seem to be much of a deterrent. They appear to prefer tender new growth with its increased level of nutrients. As a class, rugosa roses seem to be somewhat less desirable to deer than other types.

  • Mechanical and physical methods -

  • The most reliable way to keep deer out of your garden is a fence. Deer are remarkable jumpers and can clear anything lower than 6 feet with relative ease. If the fence is angled away from the yard, it creates both a psychological and physical barrier. Deer will hesitate to jump over something in which they fear becoming entangled.

  • Fences can be constructed from any of a variety of materials including wood, field wire, chain link or plastic mesh. They should be at least 6 feet high and have a 30 degree angle to be effective. Deer will crawl under or through a fence if they can, so make sure you secure the fence close to the ground and repair any breaks.

  • Electric fencing lures a deer to a point where they lick it and get a shock. After a jolt or two deer will usually avoid this type of fence. The Wireless Deer Fence utilizes two-foot-high posts (no wires!) that contain a strong chemical attractant, and delivers a battery-powered startling but harmless shock when deer try to take a sniff.

  • Lights controlled by motion detectors, alarms and other auditory devices can frighten deer away though they may not be very effective and can be more irritating to homeowners and neighbors than to the deer. DeerShield Pro is an audio product that includes sounds of barking dogs, bleating fawns, hostile bucks and other threatening sounds.

  • Grid fencing on the ground is another option. Deer hate to walk on this unsure footing surface and can’t get close enough to the roses to eat them. Lay it on the ground around roses, with plants growing up through it.
  • Deer

  • Chemical methods - of control are predominantly repellants - things that have an offending or frightening smell or a nasty flavor. Area repellents are distributed in the problem space and repel deer due to their foul odor. Most repellents should be applied before damage occurs and must be reapplied frequently, especially after a rain, heavy dew, or sprinkler irrigation. Contact repellents, to remain effective, must be applied to new foliage as it develops.

  • Home-made area repellents include suspending strongly scented bars of soap or human hair in the vicinity of the target plants. Drill a hole through small, heavily perfumed, individually wrapped bars of soap and hang from stakes or plants around the perimeter of the area. The repellent is short-lived as deer become accustomed to fragrances.

  • Liquid Fence is a pungent blend of putrefied eggs and garlic; the smell is a likely deterrent to deer and the gardener. Havahart’s Deer Off adds capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, to the stinky egg mix - if the smell doesn’t keep the deer away, the pepper flavor / irritant factor is likely to. To make up a similar repellent, in a high speed blender, mix three eggs, three tablespoons red hot sauce, three tablespoons minced garlic, and some water. Add this to a gallon of water and spray on plants. This mixture doesn’t wash off the foliage easily but re-application multiple times in the season may be needed. Be forewarned – this is pretty smelly stuff and may not be something you want to use close to the house.

  • OMRI listed Shake-Away is a powder or granular form of coyote urine; it utilizes the predator – prey fear instinct to reduce or eliminate deer browsing. Their commercial blend includes fox and bobcat urine and reportedly protects against deer and squirrels, rabbits, opossums, skunks, gophers and domestic cats. Deer Scram from EPIC Inc., uses the same fear-based approach; it contains animal by-products that smell like death to deer but supposedly aren't offensive to humans. According to the manufacturer, deer reportedly don't get accustomed to the smell of Deer Scram, and one application is claimed to be effective for up to 90 days in the garden. Granules can be applied around trees, shrubs, flowers, vines and vegetables. The product is 12 percent nitrogen so it also serves as a fertilizer.

  • Swedish formulated Plantskydd, also OMRI listed, is a mixture of porcine and bovine blood meal. It provides flowers, ornamentals, shrubs, fruit trees, vegetable gardens and other food crops with up to six months of protection against browsing deer, rabbits, voles and squirrels.

  • Becker Underwood’s Tree Guard contains the active ingredient bitrex (denatonium benzoate), a Deer bitter compound that tastes terrible to deer. When dried, it leaves a clear sheen that resists wash-off from rain. It can be used on any non-food plant.
  • The effectiveness of any deterrent comes down to how hungry the deer are and how many there are. You may want to experiment with a variety of controls to determine what works best in keeping the marauders out of your roses.

    Photos of deer in the author's garden courtesy of Diane Luboff.

    Author’s disclaimer: Inclusion of a product in this series of articles does not constitute endorsement either by the author or the Marin Rose Society. Products are included for informational and descriptive purposes only.

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    Last Modified: 08/06/2013