Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Guest Rants

The Fortress Look in Deer Fencing

Guest Rant by Wendy Kiang-Spray

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I mean, I get it…but I don’t really get it. The lawn is meticulously manicured, the stonework beautiful, and within the lovely iron garden gate (topped by an additional 4 feet of deer netting), the lilies are tall and happy, the shrubs lush and green. However, I’m thinking that if there needs to be so much pest protection around it – it kind of takes away from the beauty of the plants.  I try not to be too judgmental. I’ve written several blog posts now about how gardening is a subjective art.  Still, I’m always taken aback when I see gardens in full bloom, confined by that layer of black netting.  Passersby simply cannot enjoy gardens while they’re behind the veils of deer netting!  Isn’t there another way?

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I run past this sunken shade garden often.  It’s really, really pretty. Really.  This hidden gem is in a particularly wooded section of the neighborhood and we do have lots of deer. I’m sure there are issues and I’m sure the gardener was fed up with her garden being constantly nibbled down to nubs. But ugh…the netting…

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This netted container belongs to my friend Grace, who has converted her entire front and side yards to perennial gardens.  As you can imagine, her place has become the all-night smorgasbord.  Last week, the deer topped her lilies, phlox, and quite a few lettuces and beets too.  She was devastated.  She covered half the garden in netting as an emergency measure.  She’s going to try to use her deer spray more often but if that doesn’t work, she’s already priced the cost to surround her garden with a deer fence.  She asked me – Thoughts? Suggestions? I told her I hoped it would be a very last resort.  I wouldn’t want to see a mesh fortress around her garden.  She replied that gardening is such an important part of who she is, that even if it’s not pleasant for passersby, she’d rather garden within a fortress than not garden at all.

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One look at my hostas and you can see that I obviously have no solutions.  In fact, I have a few ‘Bela Lugosi’ daylilies that have been in the ground for 3 years now and I’ve yet to see a bloom because of the deer.  I hear those daylilies sure are stunning.  What I have noticed is that my hellebores are intact and everything behind them is fine. I’ve read that deer will avoid crossing over plants they dislike, such as hellebores. Perhaps instead of a stake and netting barrier, it might be useful to try edging a garden with plants that deer are averse to.  Then again, the deer have become so brazen.

Still, there’s got to be a solution somewhere between the Fort Knox method and the open smorgasbord.  (And my dad’s method of planting tall stakes with bars of blue-green Zest soap hanging from them is not what I’m talking about!)

Wendy Kiang-Spray is a freelance garden writer and is working on her first book about growing and cooking Chinese vegetables.  She gardens in Rockville, Maryland and volunteers with the DC Master Gardeners.

Posted by on June 28, 2013 at 9:32 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Guest Rants.
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36 Responses to “The Fortress Look in Deer Fencing”

  1. Nina says:

    Until municipalities acknowledge that deer are essentially rats on hoofs & get serious about culling the herds, then you will see deer fencing. After a time, sprays do not work. Deer-resistant plants get eaten. To see your garden chomped when you have put time, love & $$ into making it beautiful calls for stern measures.

  2. John says:

    I live in a country setting on the edge of the city. Most of the yards are over an acre big and most of the neighbors have a garden. All of them turned up their noses at my 8 foot deer fence and all of them offered their advice on how to keep the local wildlife out of the crops. I used to use sprays; I used to have a large dog; I used to net and cage individual plants, eventually the deer figured my defenses out. The 8 foot wire mesh fence has done the trick. By completely excluding them from my yard they don’t even see it as an option. They walk around my place and limbo their way under the neighbors hot wire just outside the range of the sleeping dogs. Sometimes you just gotta do whatcha gotta do.

    • Wendy says:

      Love the way you describe this. is yours a larger piece of land? I know the cages of flowers on our little pieces of suburban plots look pretty silly. I’d imagine less so on a larger piece of land.

  3. John by the river says:

    I live in a rural area in northern California – I mean northern as in less than 100 miles to Oregon. Lots of deer and other of them varmints. They were here first in my opinion and we need to figure out how to make an “arrangement” with them. That attitude probably has to do with my biologist background.

    Deer do not like to jump over things when they cannot see what is on the other side. Makes sense when you think about it. Try growing tall hedges. You can even put some rambling roses in the mix. Who cares if they eat some as it will save you from all that trimming. They also do not like two fences close to each other as they cannot easily jump over the double hurdles. The height is not critical. I have had deer jump over my 8′ fence that is/was just hogwire and see-through. Deer will get use to anything you try = soap in a sock, human hair from the barber shop, garlic/sulfur sprays, etc. Try each of those for 2 weeks max then switch. I find that fish emulsion sprayed on the leaves deters them the best as it is incredibly bitter. It also stinks up the yard for a day, maybe two. Lasts until it rains.

    • Wendy says:

      great idea to switch it up. I do use fish emulsion for fertilizer. makes sense that that would deter the deer too. Between the odor of the fish emulsion and the coyote pee, someone’s going to be ranting about my garden soon!

  4. blair says:

    I suspect the netting also works well to keep cats out of the garden and doing their business there.

    • kermit says:

      Yes, but for cats-only you can put netting directly on the ground, under the plants. It is not very conspicuous that way, and easier to garden.

  5. Hi Wendy, You’ve brought up a very important gardening topic. In my neighborhood, where deer-families are as plentiful as people-families, I have a front garden that is planted with as many deer-resistant plants as I can tolerate. My backyard is surrounded by a 6 foot deer proof fence. It’s where I grow everything else.

    • Pam J. says:

      This is the path I’ve taken too. It’s like a mullet haircut: business in front, party in back. Nothing but a fence works in neighborhoods where deer outnumber humans. And even though they won’t eat hellebores, my deer will stomp them to death just to see what’s on the other side. My deer also walk up the steps to neighborhood front porches to dine on flowers in pots.

  6. Why not choose to plant what they don’t prefer? The plant palette for my zone 6 clients is large enough for year round interest. Do we have to plant everything just because it’s out there? Do we plant sun lovers in shade? It’s the same idea. Work with what you have and strive to make it as beautiful as you can.

    • Laura Bell says:

      Well, I don’t have the deer problem, but I’ve listened to my family in more rural areas talk about it often enough … why not plant what they don’t like, you ask ? Because sometimes you get something ‘guaranteed’ to turn them off – but they love it! Or they get really hungry & go for the unpalatable (to them) but non-poisonous shrubs you planted. Or you want some gosh-darn homegrown veggies. Or you get tired of the same old, same old. Gardening is more than just putting in a plant to fill a space – plants are heritage & community ties & antidepressants & food & beauty & happiness, among so many other things.

    • Chris Baswell says:

      Do your clients try to grow vegetables? I’ve lost whole beds of bush beans, strawberries, rows of currants, the list goes on. I fence without shame or apology, while the deer go into the middle of my mid-Hudson Valley village, mincing down the sidewalk in the pre-dawn to nosh on my exposed daylilies, as well as the supposedly deer-proof Bottlebrush Buckeye. Our failure to cull or hunt means many starve every winter (just go hiking in the scrub woods, you’ll see), even after they’ve eaten other “resistant” conifers.

    • Marla says:

      I second what Laura said.

      In my last house, I put only “deer-resist-this-stuff” plants in my front yard. Guess what? They destroyed a 7′ magnolia tree. If deer are hungry enough, they’ll try anything once. And if you have many hungry deer each taking a taste, soon your tree has no limbs left.

      The funniest was when a deer browsed on my pepper plants growing in a raised bed. Below each plant was a perfect pepper — dropped on the ground with just one bite taken out of it. Seems the deer didn’t like the spicy ones! And didn’t learn. This scene repeated every few weeks during growing season.

      There is deer fencing that from a distance melts into the background. Keeps the deer out and the view intact. We have ours attached mostly to trees with a few odd posts here and there to help. Half our property is fenced (my part) and the rest isn’t (the deer, coyote, wild turkey and foxes’ part). Note we did NOT fence them out of the creek, so although they don’t have my peppers, they do have water.

      Now if I only could keep the squirrels out of my strawberry patch.

  7. Lynn says:

    The fences are just a sign of the serious problem of deer overpopulation. Deer will eat ANYthing if hungry enough, and a Cornell scientist I recently interviewed recommends a 9-ft fence. We used to have maybe the only veg and perennial gardens in Tompkins County the deer didn’t bother, but my biggest worry wasn’t for the plants. It’s Lyme disease. Until there are more sensible hunting allowances and other measures, get used to cohabiting with deer.

    • Wendy says:

      That’s a very good point. I have known so many people and animals contract Lyme disease. It’s a real concern.

    • Marla says:

      We put deer fencing up about 5 years ago and the tick population in our yard has plummetted. Makes it much safer for people and pets to enjoy our outdoors…

    • Laura Bell says:

      That’s a good point! When I was younger, my siblings, cousins, neighbors & I ruled the woods & fields, running through the brush & brambles & tall grass like, well, a bunch of wild kids. No deer with any sense of self-preservation or desire for peace would’ve come near our rural neighborhood. And we rarely found ticks, despite being outside nearly constantly Spring through Fall. But now when I visit, perhaps because kids these days don’t play outside nearly so much as we did, or perhaps because there are simply fewer kids around, deer are coming back. They wander into my Mom’s hosta beds & nibble her magnolia. For the first time ever, my Dad has had to put up a fence around the vegetable patch & take measures to protect the fruit trees from hungry deer. And when the grandkids go outside, bug repellant is a must & you don’t go where the plants are close & could deposit ticks if you brush their leaves.

  8. Nancy Nielsen says:

    Deer, standing on their hind legs. have turned our apple trees into bonsai, our apples into premature applesauce, and veg they can reach to grow healthy young. And this with hunters, poachers, coyotes. But I almost dread the porcupines more. What they don’t eat they roll on, crush, overnight they convert barrels of annuals into compost. If I had a nickle for every bag of repellents, soaps, stinky stuff, well I might be able to afford one of those show gardens. Oh woe.

  9. Jeff Minnich says:

    I hear you. But when I walked down the hill one evening into my woodland garden, just as the lights were coming on at dusk, to stroll through the hydrangeas at their peak, and encountered a herd of seven deer munching away…I stopped as I saw two big bucks, part of the group. One of the bucks (absolutely gigantic) turned, snorted, and headed my way. I backed away and into the house quickly. Next morning, I called the deer fence people and had an 8′, black mesh fence put around my property. It is invisible in my woodland setting. Since I’m a landscape designer and use my garden as a sales tool, it is kind of nice to have some plants left to show my clients. The deer fence was worth every penny, and I see them sometimes staring through the fence sometimes, tongues hanging out as they consider the salad bar. As I say, though, the deer fence I have is practically invisible.

  10. Anne Wareham says:

    Do people garden for the benefit of those who are IN the garden, or passers by?
    Seems clear to me that if you secure your edges it can be possible to disguise/hide the fencing too. What stops us is the sheer expense. And the threat wild boar pose, which I don’t think deer fencing will sort…

  11. commonweeder says:

    Netting is not terribly attractive, but constant heartbreak can only be borne so long. In addition, the point has been well made that in suburban areas are more than a garden irritation, they are a health hazard and something needs to be done on a whole different level.

  12. Emily says:

    Great article and completely understand each side of the fence, so to speak. We don’t have deer (yet) probably because our development has tall brick enclosed yards, difficult to enter unless you have opposable thumbs. However, I’m crushed this summer by the damage from rabbits. Adios raised vegetable bed, scabiiosa, toad lilies and many other plantings. Rabbits hopped right over the hellebores, sundrops and more to get to their tasty preferences. And the holes in my beds! I used to think those little garden rabbits were a delightful find – not so much any more. A delightful find would be . . . my plants! I, too, however would prefer gardens without protective gear – yes, gardening is subjective and personal but it’s also nice to be able to share the fruits of one’s labors.

    • Wendy says:

      My vegetables have generally been safe. If I had a rabbit problem, I’d be REALLY upset! I think between the cat, the dog, and the family of raccoons who raid my trashcans every night, the rabbits stay away.

  13. Deborah B says:

    I garden on a big place in the northern foothills of the Catskills, where deer are a major problem. Deer overpopulation has made our woods a sad place, with no young saplings able to grow up to someday replace older trees, other than the aspens and beech that the deer won’t touch. They eat the native trillium and ladyslippers, and of course they come into my garden nightly to see if any of my cages around young trees have blown over. Locals treat coyote hunting as a sport, and the DEC talks of the deer herd as a commodity to be ‘managed’ at a high population level since hunting is a big business here. They grant very few hunting permits for does, so if the winter is mild, the population explodes, as is happening now. Don’t talk to me about how terrible deer fencing looks. I’m ready to start shooting them myself!

  14. Laurie says:

    For someone who lives in an area with a minimal deer population, netting stands out because it’s evidentally not the norm. There was no comment on the aesthetics of the iron fence. In my area deer netting is the norm and we’re accustomed to the way it looks in a garden. This particular fence is a lower budget solution and slightly less attractive but may allow a gardener to enjoy his or her garden until a permanent 8′ fence is installed. Many yards in the foothills in my region have permanent, high fencing. Grape vineyards, aka deer candy, are also common and heavily fenced. All young trees are fenced. Deer in my region regularly eat deer resistant plants including plants such as oleanders. Deer eat plants on decks and will browse close to people. Deer eat plants that have been sprayed with nasty substances. They obliterate orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens. The don’t just eat the leaves on a hosta, they eat the stems and often pull whole plants from the ground. They eat through netting that is loosely draped over plants. New plants are unable to get established in heavily populated deer areas without substantial protection. Deer are extremely destructive. The high numbers of deer in many local communities is not natural. I work in a nursery and can often tell where a person lives by the description they give of the deer damage in their yard. It’s the most common criteria of plant selection for most local areas and it’s not “is the plant deer resistant?”, it’s “how deer resistant is this plant?” and “how long will I need to protect it?”. There is no such thing as gardening without protection from deer in many communities.

  15. Nancy Nielsen says:

    Thanks to our Fish and Game dept, we now have the new “opportunity” for hunters. Turkeys. Not native here, just an insult to gardeners, a great new item for hunters to “harvest”. Gardeners: think a fortress with 10 foot walls. Flocks. The Air Force of garden pests. Like napalm for the flowers, fruits. Maybe they can solve the deer problem: there won’t be anything left.

  16. anne says:

    After 20+ years of operating a commercial orchard and vineyard, I have one word: fencing. It’s the only thing that comes close to being effective on a large property.

    As for my veggie garden, which is close to the house, our dog works wonders; we have no problem with deer in there, with him around (now, if only we could train him to go after insects…). But not everyone can have, or wants, a dog.

    I agree that there need to be more predators of deer to balance their numbers. However the deer herds that have established themselves in suburban areas can’t be culled by hunting (too close to people), and how many people would favor reintroduction of wolves or other predators so close to a human population (it’s controversial enough in rural areas). Creating wildlife corridors is an idea, but also problematic once you start to tell people where they can and can’t build and develop.

    I like the hedge idea, John By The River! It would mess with air flow and light exposure, but in the right setting it seems like a very attractive wildlife-friendly solution.

  17. I’ve found human urine about every fortnight to be an effective deterrent to deer. I’ll leave it to the gardener to decide how and when it gets into the garden.

    Doesn’t seem to repel rabbits, however.

    • Wendy says:

      But I have to work in there! Ack! I did used to know someone who would routinely do his business in the rain barrel. Maybe for this purpose.

  18. Diane says:

    As a professional gardener, I tell my clients deer fencing is a must in our area and should be beautiful or invisible. Deer are destroying our biodiversity. Deer eat the plants that birds and butterflies need to survive. These plants are in decline because of deer browsing and because people only want to garden with plants the deer do not eat. We are ending up with a suburban monoculture of ornamental grasses, mints and invasives like barberry because deer do not browse these few plants. The last refuge (oasis?) for many plants might be in the protected backyard. Fencing can be done so that becomes an attractive part of the garden or cannot be seen. Perimeter fencing is the best solution and it should be designed to go with the architecture of the house or be made invisible. If perimeter fencing is not possible, attractive fencing can be designed to create an enclosed courtyard or private garden on almost any scale.

    Plastic netting is not effective and other animals get tangled in it, especially when it is wrapped around individual plants and laid on the ground. I have seen chipmunks with netting stuck in their teeth so they cannot open their mouths and I assume they will starve. Snakes often get tangled in plastic netting and die a slow death. There is a metal wire fencing that is open enough to allow small animals to pass but not deer, and it is virtually invisible in the landscape. I find it to be the best solution when designed along with pretty gates and run along a tree line or with nice posts.

    A few notes based on many years of experience: Deer will pass over plants they don’t like to get to the ones they do like – just like humans at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Urine also gets a complete fail from me because deer are not afraid of humans and it basically makes a yard stink like a NYC subway. Deer sprays like Liquid Fence or Deer Off do work, but you have keep reapplying them and they can get expensive over time. The best solution would be population control of the deer, but no one seems to agree on how to do that as some people see them as charming and hunters want the populations to stay high for easy pickings. Also, most states do not have the money to any serious population control. For the sake of biodiversity and the sanity of gardeners I advocate for proper deer fencing. Check out fencing designs on sites like Pinterest for inspiration.

  19. Gail says:

    I live in a rural farming area with 5plus acres and extensive gardens to include 1/4 acre vegetable garden. No deer ever. In fact very few rabbits usually winter is the damage time for them. The cats get the chipmunks so I can have my strawberries. I know deer are around as we have some smaller trees buck rubbed on the wilder 2 acres parcel of our property. What is the difference that I have no deer you ask . There is a creek about 300 feet from our property so they stay close by. I do see deer crossing the road by the creek. The other is the fall deer hunt. Many deer stands are visible and that can take care of some. There are also patches of woods around between the fields. Works for me!

  20. [...] gardeners, including me, won’t resort to that. The “ranters” at Garden Rant had a post a week or two ago about creating “fortresses” in the garden while trying to keep deer [...]

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