By: Garden Gate staff
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Know the enemy
There’s nothing more frustrating than having the hard work and expense you put into your garden nibbled to the ground by deer. Since deer don’t have upper incisors, they tear instead of bite, causing the ragged edges you see on this hosta (Hosta hybrid).
While no repellent is 100-percent effective, using one helps. The keys are to start using the repellent early — before damage actually shows up — and to rotate products so deer don’t get used to the smell or taste. Here are a couple of repellents that research and our experience have proven successful in the fight against deer.
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Here’s a home remedy that doesn’t require any mixing and smells pretty good, too. Get a bar of soap that contains tallow, which is an animal-based fat. Irish Spring® is one that’s often suggested, but the brand doesn’t matter. (Avoid soap with coconut oil, though, as that seems to attract deer.) Place the soap in a cheese cloth or plastic mesh bag then hang it from a stake within 3 ft. of the plant you want to protect. Keep the soap out of the tree to prevent rodents that may be attracted to the tallow from nibbling your plants.
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Commercial repellents are more costly but have the advantages of a consistent formula with a long shelf life, additives that help them stay on the foliage longer and a mix that works well in a sprayer without clogging. Trials of deer repellents by the USDA National Wildlife Research Center found that those with the sulfurous odor of rotten eggs are most effective. Bobbex™, Liquid Fence® and Deer Away® have all done well in various trials and contain rotten eggs. We’ve had good results with all three in the parts of our test garden that aren’t fenced. Apply repellent liberally even if there’s been damage, then again after new growth emerges. Also, make sure to reapply whenever plants are producing new leaves that will grow past the well-coated mature foliage. For a repellent that smells nice to people but not to deer, try Deer Out® or Deer Stopper®, which use mint. You’ll find products with predator urine, too, but it’s been inconsistent in trials, and many people find the collection process from animals on fur farms to be objectionable.
Whichever product you use, follow label directions carefully — not all of them can be used on edibles. While it’s a good idea to spray year round, repellents aren’t as effective when temperatures are above 85 and below 32 degrees F. In summer, spray early in the morning, and in winter switch to a granular form of repellent.