They’re beautiful creatures, but if you have a garden, you already know that they’re all too happy to turn your carefully tended greenery into nubs and stalks. These days, there’s a more alarming concern—white-tailed deer in particular carry the ticks that spread Lyme disease and other illnesses.

Often, you’ll get a summer respite—deer are busy giving birth and raising young. But they’ll return in force in fall, winter, and especially in early spring, when wild food is scarcer and gardens helpfully provide new growth. If deer are hungry enough, they’ll eat almost anything, even “deer-resistant” plants.

So let’s keep deer and their ticks out of your yard and garden. Here are the best methods to discourage them from coming into your yard—plus one sure-fire (but expensive) approach that will keep deer out of your property entirely.

Home Deer Remedies: What Works

If your deer problem isn’t severe, start with one or more of these low-tech deterrents. To save money, you may want to start with these home-made ones first to see if they work. Tip: For the smelly and bad-tasting ones, remember that a good rain rinses them away, so you’ll have to reapply. Here are a few…

  • Human hair. Any hair salon should oblige you with bags of its sweepings. Stuff the hair into mesh bags or pantyhose, and hang throughout the yard on or near deer’s favorite plants.
  • Soap. Some swear by Irish Spring, others favor Lava. Just a pick a soap with a very strong scent. Loop twine around the middle of the bar, and hang at intervals in the yard like eccentric Christmas ornaments.
  • Pepper spray. Deer dislike spicy flavors. Coat entire plants or leaves in reach. Spray or dribble on a dry, windless day. (Be careful not to get any in your eyes!) Make your own, or buy a product called Havahart Deer Off (see deer repellents, below). (Do not use those small, expensive self-defense pepper spray products.) It’s safe for plants, but if you are growing fruits or vegetables, you may want to skip them—or be willing to scrub or rinse them off before eating them.
  • Radio. A battery-operated radio or boom box (sealed in a plastic bag to protect it from dampness or rain) tuned to a talk radio station or loud rock music may fool deer into thinking you are in the yard. Run it in the early morning and at dusk, when deer are most actively seeking food.

Some relatively inexpensive approaches…

  • Lights. Place motion-activated lights as close to the garden area as you can (solar lights tend to be too dim). When the deer sneak into your yard under cover of darkness, this will spook them.
  • Water sprinklers. A number of manufacturers make motion-activated sprinklers specifically to deter deer and other animals. One popular product has the heartening name of “Yard Enforcer”—it attaches to a standard garden hose, senses motion 35 or more feet away (depending on which one you buy) and fires off a blast of water. You can set it to blast at intervals or blast when motion is detected. If a deer wanders into range, it will be treated to multiple blasts.
  • Deer-repellent products. These cost more than, say, soap or hair but are worth a try if low-tech approaches don’t work. Plenty of research has gone into developing these repellents. Always follow label instructions about amounts and timing. The products come as pellets or premixed spray. Active ingredients (such as rotten egg solids, ammonia, garlic or hot pepper) repel by taste and odor. Some even claim to “trigger a natural flight response.” While many users sing the praises of these products, remember that if deer are hungry enough, they will still come. You will have to find out what works for your situation.

Fence Them Out

If you’ve exhausted the above options and deer damage hasn’t been reduced to a tolerable level, a barrier is your last—and best—resort. In fact, a “deer fence” is widely acknowledged to be the only thing that completely keeps them out of your yard and garden.

But not just any fence. A deer fence is not any standard wooden or chain-link fence. While it might be made of such materials, it must be substantial and sturdy. It’s more expensive than standard fences, too. Two key factors…

  • Height. Deer are great jumpers, and when motivated, they can clear barriers of six or more feet high. Something as high as 10 to 12 feet is safest.
  • Strength. Deer hooves can kick in or make holes in light wire. When in doubt, choose the heavier-duty material. Discuss your choice with the place you buy the materials from.

Another approach is to erect a double fence, that is, two parallel fences close together (three or four feet apart). The reason is that deer don’t broad-jump. Such fences can be shorter (eight to 10 feet high) and still be effective.)

If you have a severe deer problem, consider setting a fence at a 45-degree angle —it doesn’t matter whether it’s facing toward your yard or away from it. Lay some or all of it on the ground—deer don’t like to get their hooves snagged. They will check it out gingerly and decide it’s not worth a try. Both options look odd, but this is war!

Last but not least, you can install the electric fencing systems that farmers and orchardists use. These are available in farm-supply stores and online. You can hire someone to set it up for you.

Final tip: No matter what kind of fence you decide to install, it’s smart to set it up early in the fall or early in the gardening year—before damage happens and before the deer are certain there’s good food inside.

A Word About Deterring Ticks

Even if you don’t ban deer from your property entirely, you can minimize your tick risk by making your yard less hospitable to ticks themselves. Ticks prefer cool, damp, shady spots such as the edges of woods, brushy areas, woodpiles and tall grass. Their least favorite habitats are sunny open areas. Best defense: Keep your lawn mowed, and prune or clear out your yard to let in light and air.

One plant in particular has been identified as a haven for deer ticks—Japanese barberry. It’s planted for hedges, and thanks to birds spreading the berries, it has become invasive in parks, vacant lots, and wooded areas. If you have any in or near your yard, get rid of it.

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