The most common question I get at talks—after I’ve waxed poetic for an hour about the wonder and glory of our native plants and animals—is something along the lines of, "That's all fine and good, but how can I keep deer from hoovering up my garden?"
Before answering that question, I like to point out that deer belong in Central Oregon, they were here long before us, and they’re really beautiful and interesting animals.
Deer browsing may drive some people crazy, but it’s one of the key roles deer play in the ecosystem. In fact, in one study of white-tailed deer, browsed plant communities were 24% more diverse and 22% richer.
The bottom line is that we need to learn to live with our fellow animals—instead of seeing them as encroachers, villains, vermin, interlopers, or destroyers of all that is good in our human-centric world.
The person who asked the question is usually frowning at this point, certain I do not fully appreciate the anguish of having a newly planted garden swallowed whole by a herd of hungry hooved heathens.
That’s when I assure the questioner that I really do understand—and have a pretty simple solution: fencing.
The Deer-Proof Garden
If you really want a deer-proof garden or backyard, install a big fence.
Or put smaller cages or fences around individual plants when they’re young, so they’ll have a chance to grow without having the shoots nibbled.
To protect young trees from being eaten or rubbed on, you can also purchase or make a wrap that goes around the trunk. That approach worked for me, after I saw a little deer damage the first autumn after the trees on my property were planted.
When your plants are well-established, you can usually remove the protections. Because they are browsers, deer don't kill a lot of mature plants—unless they’re extremely hungry or there are too many in a small area. Leave the protections in place if you’re really worried.
Seriously, that’s about it. The only foolproof solution to keeping deer out is a fence, cage, wrap, or similar barrier.
Okay, okay: I’ll mention a few more options.
A starving deer will eat, or at least take a bite out of, just about anything. Wouldn’t you? So there is no such thing as a deer-proof plant, but a few plants are a little less likely to be eaten.
In particular, deer tend to avoid smelly plants. At WinterCreek Nursery in east Bend, they recommend two wonderfully fragrant high-desert beauties that have shown themselves to be resistant to deer.
One is sagebrush (Artemisia spp.).
The other is purple sage (Salvia dorrii).
It’s also said that deer tend to avoid plants with thorns, like Oregon grape … but deer love to munch on thorny roses, so that hardly seems like a steadfast rule. In theory, deer will also avoid poisonous plants, but they might nibble on the plant before realizing their mistake, so that’s not a sure fix either.
OSU Extension offers a full list of supposedly deer-resistant plants, but many aren’t native, and again, it’s questionable whether deer will really avoid them. Probably it depends on just how peckish they are when they walk by.
A friend says that a local nonprofit tried fencing new plantings, but they didn’t like how it looked or how expensive and difficult the fencing was to maintain. So they moved to Option B: putting in extra plants so the deer would be able to eat their fill and the organization would still have some surviving plants each year.
If you have the money to do the same, why not? You’ll also find out which plants the deer prefer, and you can adjust your future plantings accordingly.
Another version of that accommodating strategy is to maintain a deer-friendly area where you plant species deer love in hopes that they’ll leave your prized plantings alone. I’m not at all convinced this will work, but you could give it a try. At the very least, you might enjoy telling folks at WinterCreek or another nursery that you want to purchase “deer-friendly” plants—I’m sure they don’t hear that every day.
Another interesting strategy relates to water: Deer browse when they’re thirsty as well as when they’re hungry because they can draw moisture from the plants. With that in mind, especially if you live in a dry area, you can provide a water source for deer (and other wildlife), so they’ll be less likely to “drink” your plants.
And then there are, of course, chemical sprays and other potentially harmful options. If you’re tempted by the quick-and-dirty nature of those, I understand … but please think of the damage those sprays do to insects and other species, and build a fence instead.
The Best Idea of All
If all else fails, here's what I suggest: Make a nice, cool drink for yourself and sit on your porch to watch your local deer walk by. See if you can learn to tell individuals apart. Which one is the mom and which ones are her does? Watch what they do, how they monitor for trouble, and what they eat.
Then take another drink, relax, and give thanks that we live in a place that still has such large and beautiful wild animals.