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Hungry deer need not be a blight on your garden

Deer can be very destructive to gardens, orchards and landscaped areas, particularly in foothill and coastal districts where nearby woodlands provide cover.
Deer can be very destructive to gardens, orchards and landscaped areas, particularly in foothill and coastal districts where nearby woodlands provide cover.

Q: I’m having problems with deer damaging my garden. What can I do?

— Patty Seery, Arroyo Grande

A: The sight of deer walking through a forest brings pleasant thoughts of Bambi. The sight of a deer walking through one’s garden is more likely to bring thoughts of venison sausage. Deer may be cute, but the damage they do in the garden is definitely not.  They eat most kinds of ornamentals, fruits and vegetables, trample plants and damage trees by destroying bark with their antlers.

The late summer and fall shortage of food brings deer down from the hills into populated areas, and makes protecting our gardens a major challenge. Though deer do most of their feeding at night and in the early morning hours, it is easy to detect their presence in your garden. If the distinctive hoof prints and bean-shaped droppings don’t provide a clue, the massive bites taken out of succulent tomatoes and tender shrubs are a definite sign.

Trapping and poisoning the deer are illegal. It is possible to get a permit to shoot them, but let’s get serious. Most gardeners are animal lovers as well, and prefer to coexist with deer rather than eradicate them. Realistic management plans include three basic approaches:

  • Repel the deer.
  • Use deer-resistant plants.
  • Use appropriate fencing for the whole garden or individual plants.

Many gardeners have tried repellents that produce objectionable or frightening odors or smell of humans — some examples are bars of soap or clumps of hair tied to plants, or mountain lion urine. Various chemical repellents are commercially available. In truth, none of these work well or for very long. Water sprayers with motion sensors sometimes work, and a good guard dog can be invaluable.

Although a really hungry deer will eat almost anything, certain plants tend to be unattractive to them, especially those that are thorny, poisonous, pungent or have milky sap. There are many published lists of deer-resistant plants, such as the one in the Sunset Western Gardens Book.

Good fencing is the most reliable method of garden protection. Fences must be 8 to 10 feet high, sturdy, and reach clear to the ground to prevent the deer from crawling underneath. Some types of electric fences can be helpful.

An excellent Master Gardeners Pest Note can be found at www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74117.html.

And, as always, the Master Gardeners are happy to answer your questions.

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