Those darn deer! How to repel the garden gluttons

Mary Beth Breckenridge / Akron Beacon Journal /

Published May 7, 2013 at 05:00AM

The year my son graduated from high school, we planned a big summer party in our backyard. So of course, we wanted the yard to look its best.

A half dozen or so hostas grow near the back of our property, forming the deer version of a Golden Corral buffet. Most years I’m half-hearted at best in my efforts to protect them, but that spring I set out on a determined course to save the plants from the deer’s jaws.

I sprayed them religiously with a urine-based repellent, putting up with the stink for the sake of aesthetics. Luckily, heavy rains were rare that summer, so after a while, I was able to cut down on the spraying schedule. The hostas grew lush and beautiful.

About a week before the party, I admired my plants from my kitchen window and decided to apply one more round of repellent so the yard wouldn’t smell like an alley come party time.

I didn’t get to it right away. I must have gotten busy or distracted. So, of course, in full compliance with Murphy’s Law, it stormed that night.

The next day, I looked out the window again. Where my pampered hostas had been, there were stubby, gnawed-off stems.

That experience taught me that, short of fencing or sitting vigil with a .22, there is no sure-fire deer-proofing solution. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.

I’ve gathered a number of methods over the years. Probably none of them is a surprise to those of you who share my problem, but I offer them nonetheless:

• Hang bars of soap near trees or shrubs — the stronger the scent, the better. You often hear people recommend Irish Spring, because it’s especially aromatic. Some research shows deer like coconut oil, so avoid soap that contains it.

It’s best to enclose the bars in bags made of a material such as cheesecloth or netting, perhaps stapled to a wood stake. Don’t hang the bars directly on shrubs, because rodents might damage the branches when they try to eat the soap that drips on them.

• Gather human hair from a salon and hang it in bags near the plants you want to protect. Replace the hair monthly. This method tends to have spotty results. It’s less effective on deer that are used to human scent.

• Create a homemade repellent spray by mixing one part whole eggs to four parts water. (To avoid clogging your sprayer, remove the chalaza, the membranous white cord attached to the yolk.) Reapply every 30 days.

Researchers have found that egg-based repellents work well because they smell like rotting meat, which fools the deer into thinking there’s a predator in the area.

• Rotate repellents, either commercial or homemade. Apparently deer get accustomed to scents but dislike new things.

• Scare deer off with a motion-activated sprinkler designed to deter pets and wildlife. You can find the sprinklers at some garden and home centers, or order online.

• Drape deer netting over vulnerable plants, or attach it to posts to create a barrier.

• Plant things deer don’t like to eat. Garden centers and plant catalogs often label plants that are deer-resistant, or you can find lists of plants online. I can tell you from experience, however, that when deer are hungry enough, they’ll eat pretty much anything.

• Get a dog, but don’t expect it to be a deterrent unless you can give it 24-hour access to a yard enclosed by an invisible pet fence. If the dog is indoors or on a leash, the deer will quickly figure out that it can’t reach them.