Q: I had great plans for my vegetable garden last year, but it was overrun with deer. They nibbled my seedlings down to the ground and ate my tomatoes. What can I plant this year that these varmints won’t eat?
A: Unfortunately, the answer to your question is “nothing.” Although there are ways to make your garden less attractive, none are truly foolproof. Here are a few ways to deter deer looking for a free lunch.
Deer-resistant plants. There are many lists of plants less appetizing to deer. Remember, though, that a plant’s lack of appeal is a function of weather, availability of preferred foods, and the need to compete with other foraging deer. A deer eats seven to 12 pounds of food per day; competition with many other hungry deer leads them to consume even the least palatable plants available.
Garden location and maintenance. Locate gardens away from woodlands and known deer trails to reduce deer snacking. Keep your vegetable garden, brambles, and fruit trees tidy. Uncollected fruit or vegetables on the ground will attract hungry animals.
Repellents and deterrents. Horticultural history includes a wide range of tactics to discourage deer. Dogs, ultrasound, sudden noise, sprinklers, and scarecrows have all been tried and found wanting for different reasons.
Repellents with a foul taste or smell, while not perfect, may deter deer and are most effective in areas with low to moderate deer populations. Be sure to check labels of repellents that you’re thinking of using with plants for human consumption.
Fencing. Deer can jump over even a 10-foot fence, but they like to see where they will land. They are less likely to jump over a fence into a garden that has raised beds or those that have row covers or support structures such as tomato cages.
Some homeowners have found that a fence composed of metal stakes with deer netting or other plastic or wire mesh strung securely along the garden perimeter is a workable and inexpensive solution. Other gardeners have found that they need a more substantial and higher fence. You’ll need to experiment with what works for you (and not for your deer).
Groundhogs, rabbits, and chipmunks can burrow under fencing flush with the ground, so plan to bury your fence six to 12 inches below ground.
Although there is no perfect solution to deterring deer, a combination of these options will reduce the damage in your garden.
For more information, see the University of Maryland Extension Bulletin, Managing Deer Damage in Maryland.
By Mollie Moran, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener. This article was published originally in the Montgomery County MG newsletter, The Seed, February 2019.