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On defending your garden against deer

Deer - A nibble a day keeps your garden at bay

by : Feb 4, 2016

Short version: Put up a game fence eight feet high and keep it tight. Longer version follows.

Deer are fine creatures. They are quiet, non-threatening, vegetarian, enjoy the company of cats, tolerate the presence of people, and come and go as they please. They have a regular routine that varies a little but not much, wearing paths through the forest that follow easy gradients up hill and down dale. They browse this and that, either nibbling carefully with front teeth or grabbing a branch and giving it a severe jerk to bring tastier morsels within easier reach. They don't take much, just a little here and there, moving on at leisure. The forest survives their browsing since the impact is small, perhaps due to the humdrum monotony of the food choices. Once a tree survives to reach above a certain height, the upper branches become safe from damage and have a chance to grow into specimens of their species.

Then along comes a gardener, keen to plant low growing things that the deer have not seen before. As we like to spend time in our garden, so do the deer. They soon find by exploring the new addition to the forest that there is a more varied and particularly succulent choice of food available. They adjust their routine to regularly check out this new patch. Because the new food is particularly interesting and easily accessed they spend a bit more time than usual in this location and can eat the good stuff down to the stump. Gardeners are not very happy about this.

I can remember when I first started my garden plot, and how over a few short weeks the deer discovered my bean patch, ate all the beans down to stumps and then continued to visit my garden and casually ate everything else. Yelling and dancing does nothing to frighten them. They move on, wait, and revisit next time they are passing by. Half hearted attempts with wire and hair and bonemeal at keeping their noses out fail, since they have time to experiment with this and that means of defeating the protection. Eventually they get in and eat it all anyway. They learn to time their visits for when you are not around. You arrive in the garden to find their hoof marks here there and everywhere, planted in the late evening or very early morning.

Perhaps you read that deer don't like, for example, elderberry bushes because the branches of the elder contain some poison that they have learned to avoid. So you plant elders, and then discover that the article you read did not allow that deer can nibble very delicately at new growth which has not had time to build up its defences. If the elders can develop to the point that they have mostly old wood then the deer are not interested. However any new growth from the old wood is a tasty treat. If the new shoots are constantly nibbled then overall the shrub makes no progress, persistently putting out new shoots but eventually exhausted by very small degrees.

So you lose your beans. Then you lose the foliage of the strawberries. Your newly planted apple trees suddenly develop bite marks on twigs, vigorous shoots become a shattered mess and overall the trees make no progress at all. You find that the deer really appreciate your open ground and much enjoy browsing on weeds such as lamb's quarters that grow amonst the squash shoots; and even though they don't relish chewing on squash shoots, damage will occur either from trampling or casual nibbling when the tastier lamb's quarters does not come back fast enough. For the deer, having made the trip it is a poor idea to go away empty handed.

The solution that works here is to get some free poles from the bush, stick them in the ground around the garden, and attach good strong game fence eight feet high. Unless a hedge is very thick and strong (such as a layered hedge) it will not prevent a deer from passing through. One interesting tip is to put a gateway in a corner of a rectangular protected area so that if a deer does manage to get inside, when you try to drive it out and it dives for a corner, it will quickly find the open gate.

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