Though pilfering is a problem in every season, spring is when deer are particularly destructive, devouring tasty new shoots with single-minded passion. "Not only is food at a minimum -- because the little that's green gets eaten quickly -- but the deer's energy requirements are also higher in the spring," says Bill Adler Jr., author of "Outwitting Deer" (Lyons Press, 1999). The does are either pregnant or are nursing fawns, and the bucks are growing antlers (about half an inch each day) and trying to regain lost weight. To winter-weary deer, your borders and beds in the spring are like salad bars, temptingly full of tender fresh produce.
"Keeping deer out of the garden and away from shrubs is as much a horticultural endeavor as is weeding or fertilizing," says Maine game warden and gardener Tim Spahr. Stocky mules, bulky blacktails, or graceful whitetails -- all types of the genus Odocoileus -- live near most all of us, whether we make our home in the country, the suburb or the city.
Just how many heavy herbivores are we talking about? Wildlife experts think there are close to 27 million deer in the United States today. That's 7 million more deer than when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. With fewer predators and less wilderness, the number of deer grazing in gardens has only increased. What, if anything, can be done to buck this discouraging and expensive trend?
The key to keeping deer away is understanding them. Deer are grazers whose daily survival depends on detecting, and then eluding, predators. "Everything a deer does, from the way it digests its food to the way it defines its territory, is designed to keep it from being devoured," says Rhonda Masingham Hart, author of "Deer Proofing Your Yard & amp; Garden" (Storey Communications, 1997). Deer rely heavily on scent to avoid and warn of danger; their keen sense of smell is a thousand times more powerful than ours. When frightened, a deer will give off a distinct odor that other deer will notice even hours later.
Deer are quick to bound away from trouble, and their long, graceful legs can propel them up to 40 miles per hour; yet they are also curious and adaptable mammals, as their success in our suburbs has shown. They are creatures of habit, and if they discover delicious things to munch in your garden, chances are good that they'll be back for seconds. Not only that, but their buddies will follow the path.
Deer are most comfortable feeding during the low-light hours -- dawn and dusk -- on the fringes of woods and in gardens that border dense trees. According to wildlife biologist Gerry Lavigne, deer are highly selective herbivores, concentrating on whatever plants or plant parts are currently most nutritious. Especially in the spring, deer view gardens as ways to replace nutrients lost over a winter of eating twigs. (In fact, deer lose weight when restricted to woody browse.)
Opting for variety over quantity, deer can taste several hundred species of plants in a year, yet they show distinct preferences. Plants that are soft to the touch with high water content (like hostas) are favorites; so are buds, roses and rhododendrons. Deer don't seem to like plants with coarse, bristly, fuzzy or spiny textures, nor do they enjoy those with intense aromas. That said, deer may be picky eaters, but if hungry enough, they'll eat anything.
High, strong fencing is the most effective method of keeping deer out," says Tim Spahr. "But large structures are costly and don't always fit into the scheme of garden design." You can, however, outsmart your neighborhood deer without erecting a 10-foot barricade. Springtime is the perfect time to tell Bambi and friends to dine elsewhere. Here are some tricky strategies, home remedies and drastic measures proven to keep the hungry herds at bay.
MAKE IT TOUGH
Bill Adler recommends cutting out what experts call the browse line. "Trim off the lower branches of your trees to make the trees less attractive to deer. No deer will want to waste its precious time picking through your scarce yard if there are lush shrubs next door."
USE SCARE TACTICS
"The best thing that I have found for deer is to put several metal poles 4 to 5 feet tall around and in the garden," says Bob Riddell of Robbins, N.C. "Attach a metal pie tin to the top of each pole with twine. The least bit of wind makes the pie tins strike the pole with a click-clack noise the deer don't like." Other gardeners have had success with wind chimes, lawn ornaments -- such as pink flamingos -- and music, although once the deer get used to them, they cease to be effective.
CLEAN UP YOUR ACT
Don't serve up a smorgasbord by leaving acorns, rotted fruit or leaves on your lawn; these tasty morsels are on open invitation to hungry deer.
SHELTER THE SMALL GUYS
Place small plants in the center of larger beds, giving them some protection against hungry marauders. Put strong-smelling plants that deer don't like around those they relish.
NET YOUR FIELD
Fabric netting can be a good deer deterrent. Simply drape the netting over plants, and (most) deer will stay clear.
USE COMMON SCENTS
A strong-smelling deodorant soap reminds deer of humans and will repel them -- at least until they figure it out. Place shavings or bars around the garden or shrubbery, or spray soapy water around plants. Repeat after a heavy rainfall.
LAUNCH AN ODOR OFFENSIVE
Predator urine and dung have proved to be effective scent repellents for deer. Several are available commercially. Deer-Off (deer-off.com) offers a safe, biodegradable repellent made from organic ingredients. "Predator dung works very well, at least on a small-garden level," says Spahr. "After all, it makes sense for a grazing animal to be repulsed by the scent of a large predator."
"I believe in the bow-and-arrow approach," says Nancy Brown of Pennsylvania. "I live near Valley Forge National Park and can count more than a hundred deer munching on clover in the fields. They find their way into my yard on a regular basis." If you aren't ready for such a drastic measure (or local laws prevent it), Brown suggests planting lantana or flowering vinca. "The deer won't eat them," she says.
CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE
"The concept of being tolerant of wildlife, including deer, involves taking management into your own hands," says Spahr. "If you can find a passive solution, this method can work." Some gardeners sacrifice plants that deer love (such as apples or alfalfa), hoping the rest of their garden will go untouched. Others dedicate certain rows to their four-legged visitors. After all, even Bambi needs to eat.