How to - Pests & Diseases

Deer-proof your garden

Laura Langston
Photography by
Mark Raycroft

Keep Bambi at bay--at least for a while

They were roses fit for a queen. Queen Elizabeth II to be precise. Before her 2002 visit to Canada, the roses in the garden at Government House in Victoria were ready and waiting, that is until the deer came and raided the garden.

Deer not only have an appetite for roses (along with many other flowers) but increasingly they are satisfying their appetites in our gardens.

Suburban Victoria is a favourite haunt, as is Winnipeg, where wildlife experts estimate there are three to four hundred of the animals within the city limits. Deer populations are even higher in the western half of Ottawa and neighbouring Lanark county. According to Christie Curley, area biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, about 18,000 deer roam that region, the highest number since the 1950s.

Regardless of rising or falling deer populations (reproduction cycles, weather and food patterns all affect the numbers), gardeners are encountering these beautiful creatures more frequently. “Our interaction with wildlife is increasing because of the expanding urban-rural fringe,” explains Bruce Hesselink, wildlife habitat technician with Agriculture Canada in Indian Head, Saskatchewan.

As we move further into deer habitat, they go searching for the nearest salad bar: our gardens. On average, a deer can eat two to 4.5 kilograms of vegetation in one day.

In spring, when they come out of their wintering areas, deer want young, tender grass or herbaceous greenery. In summer, they'll graze—roses, a bed of petunias, a few tomatoes perhaps. In winter, they'll munch on woody shrubs and trees, or hoist themselves up on their hind legs to check out the contents of the bird feeder.

These insatiable, easy-to-please dinner guests also tend to be adaptable, stubborn and creatures of habit. If they pay one visit to your garden, you'll probably end up on their regular route. Experts all agree that you need to give them the brush-off quickly and decisively. But how?

It's tricky, according to Christie. “Deer are clever and become accustomed to whatever you use to repel them,” she says. “That's what makes it so frustrating.”

There are probably as many suggested solutions as there are gardeners in Canada; here's what some had to say on the topic.

You could try growing deer-resistant plants (see “Close the kitchen”). The problem with that, says Louise McCann, a potter who gardens in Dundas, Ontario, is “the deer haven't read the list.” When it's cold and deer are starving, they become desperate and less picky about the menu, says Louise. It's a sentiment echoed by Sheryl McFarlane, a children's author who gardens on Denman Island, British Columbia. “Deer aren't supposed to like heather, but they trashed mine,” she says.

To complicate matters, Bambi's taste varies from region to region. What works in Dundas might not work on Denman. Check to see what's untouched in your neighbour's yard.

Deer repellents have limited success as deterrents. Area repellents are applied on or near plants and repel by smell, while contact repellents, considered somewhat more effective, are applied directly onto plants and repel by taste. Most contain natural ingredients such as rotten egg solids or dried blood to discourage the animals. Generally, they don't harm plants, although one gardener did report minor shrub damage from using them. All repellents should be applied early in the season before deer get into the habit of visiting your yard. Most products will need to be reapplied to take into account weather and new growth. Always follow manufacturer's directions.

A peaceful co-existence
Take a tip from the gardeners at the herb garden in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park. Seeing that the deer were munching their way through a variety of plants, the gardeners decided to ring the garden with ‘Osaka' kale. “[The deer] ate it and left the herb garden alone,” says Anne Jackson. “It looked pretty and it worked so well, we'll try it again this year.”

Brenda Sutherland, who gardens at Earth Bound Perennials and Herbs on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, has learned to co-exist with a host of wildlife, including deer. “We purposely leave large piles of compost on the outer boundaries of the land, which lets them feed and discourages them from coming into our developed garden area.” She also plants sacrificial offerings such as calendula and clover along the perimeter of the garden, where deer can graze without being harassed by her dogs.

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