Deer-Proofing the Garden

There are all kinds of deer-proofing strategies we never bothered to pursue. For example, we’d heard that deer soon learn that cakes of soap and bags of human hair hung in tree branches are no threat at all; overnight, they’ll also realize an old fur coat rolled up to look like a bear is just an old fur coat rolled up to look like a bear.

Even at that, we underestimated their cunning – and their impertinence. While deer are well aware that a big dog is bad news, they’re also able to estimate the length of his chain down to the last centimetre. They know just how far to tip the bedsheets I’ve slung under the plum tree so the fruit will roll into their mouths instead of ours; they know exactly how long we’ll be indoors for dinner so they can claim our greenhouse for their own. They’ve no reservations whatever about barging right up onto our porch to take care of the potted geraniums while we’re sound asleep.

We didn’t even know our yard was part of their home range until my pricey Rembrandt tulips lost their heads. That was the day I was reminded that flowers are loaded with sugars and that deer have a sweet tooth, in fact, a whole mouthful of them. Not to be deprived of tulips, I retaliated by switching to the little species types that fit so well into hanging baskets.

I raised those baskets even higher after I spotted our buck balanced on his hind legs to prune our peach tree. It proved just as easy later on for him to kneel down and reach the onions under the netted frames that we thought would protect them. Nor was he above prostrating himself entirely to roll under the unsecured netting around our peas.

Even when we pegged down the netting we found it of doubtful value in deterring our browsers. The fishnet variety accommodates slender muzzles easily and ours stretched conveniently right over to the new graft on the apple tree. Rigid plastic netting solved that problem till the day it succumbed to the ultraviolet component of sunlight and the deer discovered that the netting would flake away like fine pastry in the breeze.

Sturdy fences are, of course, the answer. But not cattle fencing; deer just love to scratch their itchy backs on the wires on their way through those wide rectangles. I’ve also watched our resident runt pop through a 15-centimetre gap in the neighbours’ wooden fence where a board had fallen down.

Wooden fences are surely an attractive alternative to chain link, stucco mesh or chicken wire, but the notion that deer won’t leap over a fence they can’t see through is only wishful thinking. Ask those same neighbours who have hosted our buck in their swimming pool.

Height is of the essence, and a fence should be at least 2.4 metres high. However we’ve found that 1.5 metres will suffice if you set stakes one metre or longer in length at one- metre intervals inside the fence; deer won’t risk impaling themselves with a botched landing. A 1.5-metre fence is also high enough if you add extensions to the posts, angled outwards at 45 degrees and fortified with two strands of electric wire. We’d actually designed our fence this way to confound the raccoon as well.

We fence our vegetables and fruit trees but not our ornamentals, which we’ve protected over the years using three different sprays. The first brew I concocted consisted of three eggs beaten into four litres of water and allowed to putrefy, but the stench attracted every bluebottle in Sooke, and straining the mixture so it wouldn’t clog the sprayer required the fortitude of a saint. I moved on to one cup of fish fertilizer in two litres of water with a dash of liquid soap to make it stick, but this too required straining. Now I’ve replaced the fish fertilizer in this recipe with human urine, which hopefully will never need straining. With all of these solutions, I’ve found that they need to be reapplied after rain or the appearance of new growth.

The fastidious should be made aware that human urine is sterile when it exits the body. Our ornamentals have never been reminiscent of hydrogen sulphide, an old bait box or a latrine because the sprays are odourless when they dry. At least to us. I also congratulate myself on the fact that both fish fertilizer and urine offer the bonus of a foliar feed when used in a spray.

Through this combination of tactics, I think we finally prevailed in this battle of wits. The deer are still around, innocently devoting themselves to unsprayed pigweed, salmonberries and lamb’s quarters, and to decapitating sowthistles before they go to seed.

I know what they’re up to, though. They’re patiently waiting for the day I forget to spray after a night’s rain – or forget to close the garden gate.

They’ve gotten to know me too.

Barbara Chernick lives and gardens on an acre near Sooke, where for the last 11 years she has been writing a weekly garden column for the Sooke News Mirror.