The deer is a creature of habit. Once it finds a good feeding ground, it’ll keep on returning. For that reason, it’s best to find out how to keep deer away from trees before you introduce them to your garden.
Numerous techniques can be used to deter deer but very few offer a 100% damage reduction.
The only way to create a 100% deer-proof garden is by fencing. Deer-resistant plants are only unpleasant to deer. When any wildlife is hungry, they’ll eat whatever they can, with the exception of poisonous plants.
1 – Fencing Deer Out
A proper fence to keep deer out your garden should feel more like you’re fencing yourself in. The height your fence needs to be depends on if deer have the space to get a running jump over your fence.
If there’s enough clearance to run, deer can leap 8-feet easily. In built-up neighborhoods where they need to jump from a stand still position, they’ll be lucky to clear a 7-foot fence.
The most expensive fencing type is an electric fence. There’s a good chance you won’t want an 8-foot-high electrified fence around your garden so the next best thing is the woven wire fence.
Woven wire fences are effective barriers, but since they don’t hide your garden, they’re effectively daring deer to jump it. They will see food through the fence so if they’re hungry enough, they will attempt to jump it. This type of fence needs to be 8-feet at least.
If you don’t want to have an 8-feet tall fence around your yard, another solution is to double your fence.
Did you know that deer have 20/40 vision? Their depth perception is ridiculously low. For that reason, you don’t need to go as high as 8-feet with a fence. Two 4-feet fences are just as effective.
Deer may be able to jump high but they’ll rarely risk trying a long jump over a double fence. The risk of being trapped between the two fences is a chance they’re unlikely to risk.
To make it work though, you need about 4 to 5 feet of space between the two fences.
Stockade fencing panels can be lower heights because deer don’t jump over any obstacle unless there’s a clear landing zone in sight. For that reason, stockade fencing panels that block the view of your garden are effective at heights taller than a deer.
Generally, solid 6-foot stockade fence panels will be enough to prevent deer making the leap.
2 – The Next Alternative to Fencing is Rocks
Understanding the structure of the deer foot can help you design ground cover that’s difficult for them to walk on.
The foot of a deer has two elongated toes, and behind those are phalanges, each capped by the same material we have on our fingernails – keratin.
These help them move around swiftly on solid terrain and marshy land, but they struggle to walk on rocky surfaces. It’s not that they can’t, it’s just that it’s going to be extremely uncomfortable.
For that reason, a wide rock bed around a tree, such as this one (#8 on the list) works. The trick to using rocks to deter deer is to vary the size so that there’s next to no flat surfaces for deer to balance their footing.
You can either surround trees with rock beds or install a rock garden behind a fence so that there’s no level surface for deer to land on if they do jump the fence.
3 – Protecting the Bark on Trees from Antler Damage
Deer netting is particularly effective in gardens plagued by male deer. Males use the bark of trees to rub their antlers. The damage is extreme.
The only way to protect the bark of trees is to block access. The cheapest way to do that, without restricting light or increasing moisture, is to use deer netting.
Plastic tree guards are often sold with promises that they will protect trees from deer damage. The caveat though is they can also swap one problem for another, such as too much moisture resulting in bark disease that will kill the tree. Just like this.
Deer netting is the safer solution that allows for sufficient ventilation, and aeration, and also prevents insects from nesting between a solid plastic guard and trees. To fit them, use steaks to surround the perimeter up to a height of 5 to 6 feet.
Keep in mind that deer can grow to heights of 5 feet, and throughout the summer, their antlers will reach heights higher than that. Here’s an interesting timeline of the whitetail deer antler growth.
Generally, July to October is when antlers are more prominent. This is when you’re more likely to experience damaged tree bark from male deer rubbing the velvet off their antlers using your trees.
Older deer will be taller and develop larger antlers so the height you install deer netting around your trees will depend on the maturity of your deer population. If you live near an area that have active deer hunting groups, chances are, your deer population will be younger than 8-years old.
Areas that have restrictions on deer hunting will have more mature deer, in which case, you’d do better installing netting at a higher height – up to six feet.
4 – Deer-Repellents Can Work but Will be Short-Lived
There are a few types of deer repellents. Odor based repellents, taste-based repellents and combination varieties that use both. Taste-based products are best avoided because much like us, taste preferences differ. You could inadvertently find yourself feeding deer what becomes their favorite snack.
Odor-based deer repellents can be more effective, depending on the scent. The scent of decaying animals will always be more terrifying to any wildlife than the vibrant aroma of garlic or spicy herbs that’s mainly just unpleasant.
If a deer is hungry enough, it’ll push past unpleasantness fast, but it’ll stop for pause before entering an area with a pungent scent of decaying animals.
There’s nothing quite like the smell of death to deter wildlife away.
The simplest odor-based repellent is rotten eggs. Commercial products dress the term up labeling it as putrescent egg. Same thing, but it’s mixed with other unpleasant odors that aren’t as strong to humans but are to deer and other wildlife.
The only way to make deer-repellents work is with consistency!
Take advantage of the fact that deer are creatures of habit. Train them to recognize your plants aren’t the best smelling or tasting and they’ll eventually go elsewhere for a nibble.
The best deer repellents are a blend of odor and taste repellents. They’ll smell bad to deter wildlife from trying them, but if they’re hungry enough, the taste should be foul enough to deter them from trying it again. Once they do it often enough, they’ll learn to leave your trees and shrubs alone.
5 – Motion Activated Sprinklers are the Way to Go for Individual Trees
Of all the deer frightening devices there are on the market, motion activated sprinklers are the most viable and effective in smaller gardens, or for protecting individual areas, such as one or a few trees.
The best will have infrared sensors and be battery-powered. Solar powered units are available but they have less power so there’s less water pressure.
The only downside you’ll find with these is that they need a garden hose for them to work. In the winter, that can be a problem as the water in the hose can freeze, rendering your sprinkler useless.
6 – Deer Resistant Plants in the Garden
No plant is deer-proof. If a deer is hungry enough, it’ll eat whatever it finds. Fawns, on the other hand, will eat everything they see as they’re young and curious exploring their likes and dislikes.
Rather than browsing around and choosing plants based on another gardener’s experience, choose plants you know deer will have hard time eating. That’s woody shrubs and trees with branches thicker than 1-inch in diameter.
The reason for that is because deer don’t have upper incisors. It makes it hard to chop through thick branches.
Instead, what they usually browse are the leaves, tips, twigs, and buds at the end of tree branches. If you’re using spray repellents, those are the areas to concentrate the spray around. Not the entire plant, but the parts of the plants most susceptible to browsing.
7 – Use Bud Caps on Immature Trees
Growing trees need additional winter protection to prevent deer browsing removing terminal buds. Once terminal buds are damaged, trees struggle to grow, and any growth they do get, will be unnatural.
For that reason, terminal buds need to be protected. Generally, this should be done in the winter when they’re dormant. To cap the buds, you only need small bits of paper and a stapler.
The paper is wrapped around the tip of branches (like this video shows) with buds on them stapled in place to secure it. The paper stays on over the winter, then you remove in the spring as the tree comes out of its dormancy phase.
Something to note about bud capping is that you should only do it on trees taller than 1.5 feet and that have strong enough branches to support the weight of wet bud caps. The heavier the material you use, the higher the likelihood is of damaging the tree.
To keep deer away from trees, you can either fence them out with a single fence between 6 and 8 feet in height, lay a rock garden wide enough to prevent deer walking on them, install tree guards, or use motion activated water sprinklers.
To protect young trees that are still growing, the tips can be capped to prevent deer from eating terminal buds that will stop the tree from growing.
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.