Gardening with Deer

The deer population in Pennsylvania is on the rise. And as land development increases, deer are frequently found in areas densely populated by humans.

Deer control is now one of the biggest challenges for home gardeners. Deer are North America’s largest garden pest and they can wreak havoc in the garden. Deer feast on vegetable gardens, flowerbeds, shrubs, and trees. They will graze on leaves, grass, bark, acorns, fruits, nuts, berries, lichens, and fungi. On average, a single deer can consume 5 to 10 pounds of plant material a day. They are efficient and clever at accessing food sources. Some of their favorites include apples, yews, rhododendrons, roses, and hostas.

Deer tend to feed at night and usually remain awake until dawn. When confronted, deer will typically bolt if they sense danger. Yet, they can grow at ease with people, pets, and cars that appear as no threat.

Many gardeners resort to various methods to keep deer from decimating the garden. One effective way to keep deer from eating your harvest is to install a fence. Deer can sometimes jump over an eight-foot barrier, so non-electrified fences will need to be at least that high.

One product, developed by a veterinarian in 1996, is the Wireless Deer Fence®. This system uses posts that are placed around plants that deer like to eat. The deer are attracted by a sweet smell given off by the posts and when the deer touch the posts it delivers a harmless shock that frightens them and trains them never to return. It is a safe and non-toxic product.

Other products on the market include various deer repellent sprays and granules. The deer repellents available at most garden centers use natural ingredients that are offensive to the deer’s sense of smell and taste. They are often safe to use on shrubs and flowers when applied according to label instructions. For food crops, be sure to select and purchase a product that is labeled safe for use on fruits and vegetables. Many products claim to not wash off after rainstorms. Rotate the use of the various repellents for maximum protection.

Highly-scented deer-resistant plants, including boxwood, rosemary, and lemon thyme, can be planted among plants deer like. Other deterrents include a homemade spray made of a beaten egg, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, dish soap, and cooking oil mixed in water. The foliage of the plants must be sprayed every couple of weeks, and, if it rains, the substance must be reapplied.

There are always plants that deer generally do not eat. Try planting annuals such as marigolds, sweet alyssum, and salvia. Perennials that deer tend not to eat include: daffodils, hyacinths, columbine, ferns, epimedium, yarrow, monkshood, foxglove, lavender, peonies, and iris. Trees and shrubs that deer usually avoid include: bottlebrush buckeye, sweetshrub, Virginia sweetspire, Japanese kerria, and rugosa rose.

Of course, almost all flower and vegetable plants can fall prey to deer. Whether or not a particular plant species will be eaten depends on the deer’s previous experience, nutritional needs, plant palatability, seasonal factors, weather conditions, and the availability of alternative foods. Deer are creatures of habit and they have good memories and learn from each other. Their movement patterns and prior foraging can predict where damage may occur.

By carefully planning your garden, selecting those plants least desirable to deer and the use of physical deterrents, you can enjoy your garden along with the deer that inhabit the area.


This educational blog is a series of informative articles from the Penn State Master Gardeners volunteers plus news concerning the group and their activities. For more information, click here.