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Coping with deer in home landscapes

Beth Jarvis and David Bavero

Deer damage home landscapes by feeding on garden and landscape plants, rubbing their antlers against trees, or scraping the soil around trees.

In urban environments where native plants and alfalfa, corn and grains are not available, the home landscape may become the major source of food. In areas where deer are a problem, there are several options. You can reduce damage to the home landscape by growing plants which deer find unattractive, fencing the deer out, or using repellents.

It should be stressed that hungry deer will eat almost anything. Young, tender plants are generally more likely to be damaged than older, tougher plants. Don't mix plants deer prefer among those they dislike. They'll trample the plants they dislike to get to those they prefer.

Some information on which plants deer tend to browse has been gathered through the tree nursery industry where deer browsing is of economic importance. Limited information is available on which vegetables or flowers deer like or dislike.

The following lists attempt to ascribe preference ratings to some common landscape plants.

Generally preferred plants Sometimes eaten Generally disliked
Arborvitae/white cedar
Arrowwood Viburnum
Garden lilies
American Highbush Cranberry
Bush Honeysuckle/Diervilla
Douglas Fir
Mountain ash
Wayfaring Tree Viburnum
White Fir
White pine
Young fruit trees

Balsam Fir and other evergreens (except as noted)
Anthony Waterer spirea
Nannyberry Viburnum
Ural Falsespirea
More deer-resistant plants (126 K PDF)


Check with neighbors and friends for their experiences with specific plants. Experiment with different plants and keep records of which ones deer ignore. Plants they usually like may be grown in areas inaccessible to deer. Realize that environmental pressures may cause deer to browse plants they have previously ignored.

A gardener in upstate New York observed deer AVOIDED the following flowering annuals and perennials; deer in Minnesota may have different preferences.

Annuals Perennials
Castor Bean
Chinese Forget-Me-Not
Creeping Zinnia
Dusty Miller
French marigolds
Globe Amaranth
Mexican Tulip Poppy/ Golden Cup
Ornamental Pepper
Signet Marigold
Snow on the Mountain/
Euphorbia marginata*
Spider Flower/Cleome
Sweet Alyssum
Wax begonia

*Note: This is not the groundcover commonly sold in Minnesota as Snow on the Mountain.
Butterfly Weed
Gas Plant
Globe Thistle
Golden Marguerite
Lamb's Ears
Lily of the Valley
Oriental poppy
Plume poppy
Rose campion

Male deer, or bucks, damage young trees by rubbing and scraping against them during the mating season, in an attempt to show their dominance. Rubbing against trees removes the velvet that covers their antlers during the summer. Once this is accomplished, the buck will polish his antlers and continue to mark his territory by thrashing his antlers up and down against tree trunks and branches. This shreds and tears bark and may break branches or the trunk itself.

Small, smooth barked trees such as apples are more attractive to bucks as rubbing sites than larger trees and trees with rough bark. Individual trees can be protected against rubbing injury by pounding tall vertical barrier stakes into the soil around each, a foot or so from the trunk.

Bucks will also paw the soil around trees and urinate on the cleared area beneath an overhanging branch. The buck will chew and rub his scent on the branch, often breaking it. Pruning trees to remove any branches lower than six feet from the ground may help.


Fences can reduce the number of deer which enter an area, though they're not 100% effective. For a small garden patch, use a four foot high fence, or enclose the area with snow fence, as deer avoid small, penned-in sites.

For a larger lawn or garden, a fence made of wire, not wood, angled away from the yard creates both a psychological and physical barrier. Deer will hesitate to jump over something in which they fear becoming entangled. The fence should be six feet high and have a 30 degree angle to be effective. A fence angled toward the yard is no psychological barrier. Deer will jump a vertical fence eight feet high, particularly if it is made of wood.
Electric fencing has been used with some success in tree nurseries. Strips of aluminum foil smeared with peanut butter affixed to electric fencing lure deer to the fence where they lick the peanut butter and get a shock. Electric fences attached to a higher voltage charger can deter deer as they can hear the hum of the charge through the wires without touching them. However, electric fences may not be suitable for urban uses, especially when children are present.


Alarms or other auditory devices are not particularly effective for protecting the home landscape. They are more likely to be found irritating by homeowners and neighbors than by the deer. Auditory alarms and devices such as cannons have been used in tree nurseries to scare deer off, but they quickly become accustomed to the noise.


Two basic types of deer repellents are available. Contact repellents are applied to the plants, causing them to taste bad. Area repellents are placed in the problem area and repel due to their foul odor.

No scientific studies have been made of the following two techniques, but they are offered for the reader's consideration. Perhaps they're worth a try!

  1. Some people have had success with tying pieces of deodorant soap on the branches of trees. A large bar is cut into about six pieces and each piece is placed in a mesh bag and tied to the branches. Non-deodorant soap does not seem to work as well.
  2. Two eggs and a cup or two of cold water mixed in a high speed blender, added to a gallon of water and sprayed on the foliage has been effective in some cases. This egg mixture does not wash off the foliage easily but re-application two or three times a season may be needed. (For a larger quantity, blend a dozen eggs into 5 gallons of water.) This mix should be used a distance from the residence as it has an unpleasant odor. It is also thought to repel rabbits.


The authors wish to thank Dr. James B. Calkins, Horticulture extension instructor, and Dr. James R. Kitts, Forestry and Wildlife extension for their assistance in preparing this information.

Also, Chester R. Davis, Plants for the Deer-Infested Garden" Horticulture, The Magazine of American Gardening", Vol. LXIX Number 2, February 1991.


Reviewed 2000

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