Not In My Backyard
Dispatches from the front line of suburban deer control.
By Sarah RossbachWhen I first spied a graceful doe in our backyard, I was charmed and felt blessed as I watched it wander on our lawn and then leap over the neighbor’s five-foot fence. This enchantment didn’t last long. Deer—emblems of good fortune to the Chinese, messengers to the Gods to the Japanese and gentle creatures of the forest to Disney—are the scourge of suburban New Jersey gardens.
As a lover of roses, dahlias, lilies and tulips (all tasty treats to the local deer population), my horticulturalist heart has been broken numerous times as one day’s promise of a fragrant tea rose or Star Gazer lily becomes a munched-on stem by dawn after a herd has enjoyed a midnight feast snacking on buds about to bloom. An active member of my local Garden Club, I sought to root out strategies to deter deer from destroying my trees and plants. After all, nothing is more discouraging to a Garden Club member than having a deer snap up a perfect blue ribbon-worthy bloom right before a flower show.
Feeling a bit like a rose-growing, deer-fighting version of Elmer Fudd, I asked for suggestions from a curator at the New York Botanical Garden—which, due to its urban setting in the Bronx, doesn’t have to deal with deer. He said that deer, like vampires, avoid garlic and advised attaching garlic clips ordered from Gempler’s to the stems of my plants. The deer were deterred for a week or two, but then must have decided that they like a little garlic with their roses. I tried planting a mini hedge of rosemary and lavender in front of the tasty plants and the deer daintily stepped over it on their way to the main course. Another source mentioned cut human hair, which worked briefly. Yet another suggested human urine, which is a double-edged “sword” that also might kill the plants you want to protect. An acquaintance in a neighboring town heard that coyote urine was a good deterrent. She still has a deer problem and, I suspect, may soon have a coyote problem, too.
In 2015, I attended a talk by Chris Markham, owner of New Jersey Deer Control, on “Deer in the Suburban Environment and their impact on people and the Environment.” Markham, a wildlife scientist with a degree in Resource Management from Rutgers, discussed deer overpopulation, deer habits and the damage they cause. It was discouraging to hear that 1) deer are the largest herbivore in New Jersey; 2) that they are built so athletically that they can jump an eight-foot fence (meaning fences need to be a prison-like nine feet or higher); 3) that they are a fecund and randy breed and their 200,000 plus New Jersey population is multiplying; and 4) that they have no natural predator, besides hunters, cars and large attack dogs.
The Good Old Days
Back around 1900, New Jersey had no white-tailed deer. They had been hunted out of existence in the state. The ones that plague suburban gardeners today are descendants of herds imported from Michigan to stock New Jersey hunting estates. So you might say we brought it on ourselves.
One obvious strategy to keep a garden intact is to avoid planting material that the deer fancy. According to Markham, the deer love everything from shrubs (arborvitae, azalea, burning bush, holly, hydrangea, lilac, mountain laurel, red twigged dogwood, rhododendron, rose of Sharon, viburnum, yew) to flowers (aster, astilbe, bee balm, cardinal flower, coneflower, daylily, gayfeather, geranium, hosta, impatiens, sedum, sunflowers, tulips). I suppose I shouldn’t complain. The deer that frequent the salad bar outside my kitchen window can be picky. They ignore viburnum, bee balm, asters, rose of Sharon, lilac, hydrangea, yew, azalea and hosta. They head instead straight to phlox, roses and dahlias. And they do seem to avoid the so-called deer-resistant plants (no plant can entirely be guaranteed to be deer resistant), including herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano and lavender, and toxic plants that give them indigestion, such as poppies, hellebores, daffodils, digitalis, bleeding hearts, columbine, campanula, coreopsis, gallardia, coral bells, lupine, rudbeckia. Certain leaf texture also can deter deer: Lamb’s ear, yarrow, lady’s mantle and spirea all have fuzzy, bristly foliage. Also, deer overlook thick, fibrous or leathery leaves of peonies, pachysandra and iris. Your local plant nursery can help you select relatively deer-proof material. Also, White Flower Farm catalogue, based in Connecticut, advertises a $103 collection of “Tough as Nails Deer-Resistant” plants, consisting of 13 types of vegetation that are unappetizing to deer.
DIY DEER CONTROL
This is my neighbor Louisa’s recipe to deter deer on a one-acre lot…
• In a gallon plastic container, place a Spice Packet: a cheese cloth pouch filled with 10 smashed garlic, 5-7 habanero or ghost peppers, cut in half, and 2 tablespoons of red pepper flakes; and closed with a tie of twine or rubber band. (Make several packets in April to last the entire growing season.)
• In a blender, make the Liquid Repellent: Mix 5 raw eggs, 2 teaspoons of dish soap, 1 cup of milk, 2 tablespoons rosemary oil (she purchased hers through Amazon) and 10-12 dashes of hot pepper sauce.
• Add the Liquid Repellent to the plastic container and fill the container ¾ full with water. Close the container tightly and place in the sun for 3-5 days to “ripen.” Shake daily to allow the spice packet to flavor the liquid repellent.
• Pour the mixture into a hand or pump-style sprayer. (Make sure that no solids enter the sprayer to clog it.) Spray your plants when you don’t expect rain for a few days and when it’s calm and non-windy. Repeat every three weeks. —SR
Short of open season on hungry deer and expanding the venison market, Markham and his business, New Jersey Deer Control, offers “guaranteed” strategies to control deer damage. The deer’s sense of smell is five times more sensitive than human’s, so every three weeks they come and spray a concoction mixed a few hours before applying. Their spray, while off-putting to deer, is nearly odorless to humans. The company alters the spray formula every so often so that the deer don’t grow complacent and immune to its noxious scent. At $110 (the cost is determined by how large an area they need to spray) for each application in the garden around our house, I figured I’d try it for a season. The good news is the first application was a 90% improvement. The deer did get bolder as the summer progressed and the company responded, for a price, when I called about damage. Would I use New Jersey Deer Control again? Probably, yes.
However, another option for the chemically minded owner of a deer-infested property is to make your own disgusting deer deterrent spray. When I mentioned the deer control service to my neighbor Louisa, a super do-it-yourselfer who mows her lawn, grows vegetables and cuts down dead trees with a chainsaw, she looked up a recipe online. Unlike Markham’s freshly made deer deterrent, Louisa left her brew to marinate, rot, gurgle and fester for several weeks into a revolting concoction before spraying it on her plants.
To my nose, it reeked more than New Jersey Deer Control, but knowing the deer would hate the acidic rosemary scent was strangely reassuring.