Backyard Wildlife

Backyard Wildlife: Who wins – the deer or your garden?

CorrespondentMay 30, 2014 

White-Tailed Deer-Cherokees

Deer have adapted to living near humans – and there are very few plants they won’t devour if they hang out in your yard.


  • May: Wildlife Watch

    White-tailed deer range throughout Canada, North America and as far south as Peru.

    What to look for: The coat ranges from tannish brown to gray. Most deer sport a white patch on their necks. They also have white circles around their eyes and muzzle, as well as white on the belly and the inside of the legs. Hooves have two toes. Male deer grow and shed antlers each year and may weigh up to 300 pounds. Females’ weight will typically top out at about 180 pounds.

    Where to look: Deer have adapted well to living near humans. They can be found in pine forests and other stands of trees, along creeks and river bottoms, as well as farmlands – any habitat that offers food, water and shelter.

    What they eat: Deer are attracted to acorns and other tree nuts, as well as fruit that has fallen to the ground. The white-tailed deer is herbivorous and enjoys tender new leaves of many types of green plants.

    Source: N.C.Wildlife Resources Commission

When I first told friends I’d be writing about wildlife and gardening, most responded with: “Great, I’d love to attract more wildlife.”

But, frankly, almost as many people offered a different retort, saying something about deer and rabbits, and then some words I’d rather not repeat in a family newspaper.

On the pro-all-animals side is Tiffany Galooly of Cary, who sent me a note via email:

“I DO like to include rabbits in my garden, and I often put out baby carrots for them,” she wrote. “When I had property that abutted federal game lands, I was the one at the garden stores asking about plants FOR my deer that came into my yard! Many of us appreciate ALL wildlife.”

On the other hand, Don Carter, of northern Wake County, has waged war on deer for nearly three decades after buying 10 acres of land, building a house and starting his garden.

“Every possible technique, gadget, chemical, sound device, deer-resistant plant, etc., were employed but nothing worked,” he says. “It became obvious that I was losing the war against deer. Then about three years ago it all came to a head when I drove into my driveway late one night and counted 32 deer bedding down in my yard. I immediately made the decision to implement the ultimate solution – build a 7 1/2 foot high fence around my property and install a 7 1/2 foot high automated driveway gate.

“It took six months to complete, but today my yard is deer-free and full of daylilies, azaleas, hostas and other deer-loving plants. I no longer have deer, deer odor or ticks to endure. I now conclude that a 7 1/2 high fence is the only solution to managing deer.”

In fact, Carter’s “ultimate solution” probably is the surest way to exclude deer from a garden. But many of us are neither willing nor able to enclose our gardens with a sturdy 7 1/2-foot fence.

So I had a chat with Ann Milam, a perennials expert at Durham Garden Center who teaches a class for gardeners on managing deer, about recommendations for less drastic – and less costly – measures.

“There are a variety of deer repellents that seem to work pretty well,” Milam said. “The problem is, you have to continue to reapply them because the effect wears off.”

For someone with a small garden in a fairly concentrated area, these products – such as I Must Garden Deer Repellent, Liquid Fence and Rabbit Out – can be the solution to discouraging deer, rabbits, squirrels and other critters that love to snack on hostas, impatiens and other favorite plants.

Be sure to read labels carefully to determine what goes into them before applying them to your flowers. But Milam says most repellents today employ natural substances, such as pepper, that do not harm domestic animals. They simply make plants less delectable to foraging animals.

Milam also notes, however, that droughts and other environmental conditions that reduce food supplies in nature may cause deer to ignore their taste buds and continue to munch away in our gardens no matter what we do to prevent it.

And if your garden is large and spread out, repeated spraying with animal repellents can be quite time-consuming, not to mention pricey.

Other home remedies that readers report using, with varying degrees of success, include distributing bags of human hair throughout the garden; hanging wind chimes or thin strips of metal to make noise where deer are foraging; applying urine from humans or deer predators to the garden; grating bars of deodorant soap over garden beds; and hanging bags of dried blood or blood meal.

If all that sounds a bit much, a more sensible solution may be to choose flowers, shrubs and grasses that animals prefer to avoid, Milam says.

Deer tend to avoid plants that are tough and thorny, poisonous, have sticky leaves or a bad flavor. If they have a choice, they’ll go for pliable leaves and tender shoots and flowers.

“There is a wide variety of grasses, for example, that grow large and are beautiful – and deer don’t tend to eat them,” she adds.

Others include the popular Buddleia davidii, or butterfly bush; Gelsemium sempervirens, also known as Carolina jasmine; and Cosmos bipinnatus, or cosmos – which come in a wide variety of colors.

For an extensive list of plants that will help – but not guarantee – that deer stay out of your garden, visit

A natural pest deterrent

Ladybugs and praying mantis egg cases: Ladybugs and praying mantises love to dine on aphids, caterpillars, beetles and other smaller insects that can be harmful to plants. These garden helpers are natural alternatives to pesticides and can be purchased at many garden centers, including Durham Garden Center, which has a cup of 1,500 ladybugs priced at $10.99.


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