Bid Bambi bye-bye: handling this most vexing-and hungry-garden visitor.
By Nancy L.Claus
Okay, the moles and voles, slugs and snails are annoying. But deer, as gardening pests, are in a category all their own. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that there are between 750,000 and 1.25 million deer in the state today, many of them munching down gardens from the Rivertowns east to the Connecticut border. Here’s how to fight back.
The Mug Shot
Yeah, yeah, we know they’re cute. Big doe eyes, majestic antlers, adorable spots on fawns. They may be truly gorgeous creatures, but they are unrelenting in their mission to seek, eat, and destroy.
Their Dastardly Deeds
Each year, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 deer-related accidents occur on New York State roads. The Cornell Cooperative Extension estimates that white-tailed deer are responsible for $600 million in annual property damage in the Northeast alone. Deer also alter the ecosystem in forests, making them less hospitable to other species. A recent study by the USDA Forest Service in northwestern Pennsylvania found that, in a 10-year period, deer ate the saplings of prized species of trees in four 1,600-acre enclosures, clearing the way for less desirable species, like ferns and striped maples. And, of course, deer carry the ticks that transmit Lyme disease, among other diseases. According to the Westchester County Department of Health, 729 people contracted a tick-borne disease in 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available, 104 more than in 2003 (625), and more than double the number of cases in 2002 (240).
Choose Your Weapons
Planting Deer-Resistant Species
The key word here is resistant—nothing is ever deer-proof. “Every year there are fewer and fewer plants that the deer won’t eat,” says Mary Ann Amodio of Amodio’s Garden Center in White Plains. “Prickly plants, like cotoneaster and pyracantha, and big-leaf holly, are still good choices.” Typically, deer don’t like plants with strong aromas (they particularly dislike lemon, mint, and sage), and those with fuzzy hairs are hard for deer to swallow, but the sharp stuff, like thorns, doesn’t stop them.
Foolproof factor: Deer’s tastes change over time (white-tails used to turn up their noses at rhododendrons and azaleas—but no more!), and if food is in short supply, they will (and do) eat almost anything. Herds can have distinct food preferences: one herd’s feast may be another’s phobia. So, the fact that your mother-in-law can grow hydrangeas in Bedford doesn’t guarantee that your blossoms in Bedford Hills won’t be breakfast for your local herd.
Aesthetics: Choices are limited. Asking a gardener to plant a garden of deer-resistant species is like asking an artist to paint only in one color.
Bottom line: If you don’t mind a limited palette and are prepared for a little heartbreak when a previously “resistant” plant becomes the meal du jour, it’s worth a try. One tip: watch to see what deer avoid in your garden and plant other plants from that family—they are likely to also rate low on the deer’s menu.
First, it’s pricey. Fencing a one-acre property can cost around $20,000, according to Phil Thomas of Bedford Iron Works, who has designed fences for menswear designer Joseph Abboud and singer Mariah Carey. Installing an automatic gate makes it even more costly, with prices that start at around $18,000 and, Thomas says, “go all the way to ridiculous. People have spent close to one million dollars to enclose their property around here.”
Foolproof Factor: Deer can jump as high as 10 feet, and local ordinances vary on how high you can build. Thomas notes that in Pound Ridge, for example, entire properties cannot be fenced—there must be open corridors for animals to pass through. Besides, deer have been known to dig underneath fences. “The deer are clever,” Thomas says. “They are just as likely to go under as over. Or they will just run it down. I put one mile of fencing around Mariah’s property, and the very first night they ran down a couple hundred feet of it.” Perimeters must be regularly monitored for damage or openings.
Aesthetics: “You don’t want to feel imprisoned in your own yard,” says Jan Axel of Delphinium Design (see “Green Giants,” page TK). “It’s possible to fence in parts of your yard without it being visible. And the fencing can be hidden in the woods or the shrub line.” In addition, says Axel, “cattle grates can be used rather than gates for a more open look.”
Bottom line: Effective, often unattractive, and incredibly expensive.
For plants that need to be protected only in winter, deer netting or burlap often does the trick, either draped around the plants or secured to stakes.
Foolproof Factor: Heavy snow can pull the netting off; deer can chew through it, jump over the barrier, and feed from within or nose under the netting to feed on lower branches.
Aesthetics: Not a great look, but quite common in the northern part of the county.
Bottom Line: Relatively inexpensive; better than nothing.
Scent- and taste-based deterrents
Some people swear by homemade concoctions: locks of human hair stuffed in old pantyhose, fragrant soaps interspersed in greenery, even dispensers filled with coyote urine (this product has been pulled from the market and it’s just as well—coyote urine is as expensive as it is revolting).
Home-grown solution: Here is a recipe that is said to deter deer as well as squirrels, rabbits, and a number of insects that has been passed on from gardener to gardener over the years: take one gallon of water and add two tablespoons each of vegetable oil, cayenne pepper or hot sauce, dishwashing liquid, raw egg, and spreader/sticker solution (available at garden centers). Spray the concoction on foliage. Repeat after rains. Why does it work? Apparently it tastes as bad as it smells.
Commercial brands: Rick Apgar of Mill River Supply in Bedford Hills says that the commercial brands, Bobbex and Deer Solutions, are bestsellers in his store. But, he notes, “all brands have a following.” He recommends sprinkling Milorganite or Deer Scram around the border of a garden bed, then spraying the foliage with your favorite spray. His top sellers are:
Bobbex—made with garlic oil, dried blood, cloves, onions, fish oil, and meal. Smell factor: nasty.
Milorganite—a processed human-waste product. Beware: it stinks—for a while.
Liquid Fence—a rotten egg-garlic combo. Unpleasant smell at first, but the scent to humans fades.
Chew Not—a.k.a. thiram, an environmentally controlled substance that is dangerous to humans. White, chalky substance, one spraying lasts all winter.
Deer Scram—used as border, organic substance similar to Milorganite. To deer, it smells like rotting venison, so the area feels unsafe to them. (To humans, it smells like a mild fertilizer.)
Deer Solutions—cinnamon-flavored taste deterrent.
Tree Guard—made with the same substance used in Bitrex, which is used to curb children’s nail biting. It is odorless but has a bitter taste.
Foolproof factor: Not for those looking for low maintenance. You need to be vigilant with this method, often spraying within 12 hours after every rainfall, though some require just one application. From April to July,
you need to spray every week to protect new growth. Also, you must rotate between scent and taste deterrents so deer don’t adapt.
Aesthetics: Often messy, some have a nasty odor (although it fades with time), and, if it contains human waste products or blood, it’s best not to use on fruit and vegetable plantings.
Bottom line: Very labor intensive, costs about $100/month; $25-$35 if you spray yourself.
Nature Technologies (www.naturetechnologies.com), a Pleasantville-based company, has created the newest tool in the battle against garden-destroyin Bambis, a system that uses ultrasonic waves to drive the deer away. Speakers installed at select locations throughout the property blast the sound at up to 110 decibels, deterring deer but remaining inaudible to humans, household pets, and songbirds. The sound incapacitates the deer’s predator-warning system, making them uneasy and anxious. As a result, deer are less likely to venture into the protected zones near the devices and even less likely to spend time browsing if they do. The sound cycles through 10 different frequencies, so the deer can’t adapt to the sound.
The company claims a 99 percent success rate over several years on more than 800 properties in the Northeast. “We’re the only company in the country dedicated to protecting homeowners’ property from deer damage,” says Trevor Price, company president. “It’s all we do. We treat each residence with a customized mix. We believe deer are such a problem in this area that you can’t take a hands-off approach. Our techs visit each property on a regular basis, make adjustments to the electronic devices, note any new deer activity, and then spray or spread Scram as an additional deterrent. If there’s a problem, we’re available twenty-four hours a day.” Installation is a one-time charge and averages around $1,000; a monthly service contract averages $100 a month.
Foolproof factor: The devices don’t work during power outages. It takes time to “train” the deer to avoid a property completely, so some browsing in the beginning is to be expected.
Aesthetics: The units resemble small flying saucers perched on rods in the garden, but a new smaller system is currently being tested. The R&D folks are working to redesign the entire package to make it less obtrusive and are also creating additional anti-deer devices.
Bottom line: You get the same level of protection as fencing for the cost of spraying.