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Sunday, November 13, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bambi Got You Down? Strategies For Deterring Deer In Your Garden

The Hartford Courant

Your back yard has become a buffet for white-tailed deer. You want to do something about it, but you're not sure what.

Join the crowd.

Gardeners across the country are trying to fend off the food-foraging trespasses of an ever-growing deer population.

Many a gardener has seen a season's work gnawed to a stubble. Weekend gardener Carl Salsedo, an educator in horticulture, planted 4,000 tulips one season and lost all within a year.

Marauding deer are not just a problem in the hinterlands. Even suburbia echoes with the beat of their hooves. Dana Olcott of Geldhill Nurseries in West Hartford, Conn., says nearly 40 percent of her clients ask what they can do to discourage feeding deer.

The problem is most acute in winter, but the animals can be a nuisance year-round.

"I've also known people who have given up gardening. They just can't deal with the frustration," says garden supplier Mary Ann McGourty, whose own gardens have been deer-free since the installation of an electrified fence.

Others aren't quite sure what to do. "We've thought about building watchtowers and getting napalm," says Barbara Garcia, who is planting a series of shrub borders she hopes will prove to be a barrier to the deer that maraud her garden.

Others attempt more drastic solutions. One angry gardener built a backyard treehouse and used a bow and arrow to pick off more than 20 deer one season.

It's a tricky business

Most gardeners fall somewhere between the sniper and the sobbers, and with a little diligence can develop a successful strategy for deterring deer. But be forewarned: It's a tricky business. What works in one area might not work in another. And what foils the deer today might not do much tomorrow. Chances are you're going to have to experiment.

Herewith is a variety of remedies for deer-plagued gardeners. Experts, perhaps hoping for some synergistic, double-whammy effect, suggest a multipronged attack.

First, remember that deer are creatures of habit. If they're accustomed to grazing in your yard, it will be that much harder to discourage them from coming back.

Dogs are definitely a gardener's best friend when it comes to keeping deer away. A hound out in the yard, even if confined to a run, is likely to scare away most would-be foragers. If yours is an indoor pet, walk it around the garden and allow it to mark its territory.

If you don't have a hound, try planting things deer don't like. Lilacs, pieris, boxwood and holly are a lot less likely to be eaten than delights such as tea roses, yew and arborvitae. Deer might demolish your tulips, but they won't touch daffodils.

Rose-loving gardeners might opt for thornier species - rugosas or Sir Thomas Liptons - instead of more benign tea roses. Try pungently fragrant herbs to protect other plants.

Garcia says wormwood planted near her roses and hosta has kept deer away. Chances are that they'll never turn to toxic but beautiful flowering plants such as foxglove or monkshood.

Many gardening centers can provide lists detailing which plants deer are less likely to eat.

Deer-resistant plants may not be a long-term answer. If the population continues to grow, hungry deer might turn to plants they would not ordinarily eat.

Scents are another option

Using scents to deter deer is another strategy, and one more useful to gardeners who already cultivate a selection of deer-savory plants.

Many gardeners festoon their shrubbery or plants with pieces of soap. Deodorant soaps were once thought best, but growers have discovered that any soap will do. Cut a bar into a couple of pieces, drill a hole into each one, run a string through it and hang on a branch within range of grazing deer.

Experiment to see how closely you should hang each piece to its neighbor. Heavy infestation may mean you'll have to string soap from every bush. Rain, of course, will eventually wash the soap away.

Human hair is another popular deterrent. Some people collect hair from a barber shop, stuff it into, say, a used stocking, and hang it as they would bars of soap. Hair works best if the owner didn't shampoo just before getting a haircut.

Commercial scent repellents marketed under names such as Hinder and Ro-pel are reported to work well. They are sprayed onto foliage.

Some gardeners are even using urine from predators.

"Bobcat urine has been quite useful," says Tom Rathier, a soil scientist with State Agricultural Experiment Station in Windsor, Conn. Collecting it, however, could be challenging.

Coyote urine is much easier to come by, thanks to a Maine company that sells bottles of the stuff.

Deer-battling Maine gardener Ron Valente says, "We tried everything - mothballs, hanging soap, noise, human garments, hair, posting a dog. Nothing worked."

Until he discovered coyote urine. Now his gardens are deer-free. And the stuff - DG-100, produced by Johnson & Company Wilderness Products in Bangor, Maine - is easy to use, he says.

Some fertilizers repel

Another solution may be using milorganite, a high-nitrogen fertilizer made from sewage sludge. You can't just sprinkle it about, though; users suggest surrounding planting beds with a mound of the stuff 2 or 3 inches wide and a half-inch deep.

The biggest problem with scent deterrents is that they are temporary. Rain sooner or later washes even the strongest-smelling substances away. As an alternative, some homeowners recommend noise-making gizmos.

One resourceful artist-gardener linked noisemaking kinetic sculptures to a motion detector. Whenever the detectors were engaged, the sculptures started banging and clanking. For good measure, he also linked the system to a radio that played loud rock music.

Other gardeners link motion detectors to bright lights. It's far from foolproof - deer eventually realize there's no real threat.

The ultimate deterrent might be a tall, electrified fence. The jolt is far from fatal, but does discourage deer from returning.

Fencing is always the most effective barrier against deer. Although you can easily protect a small area with almost invisible netting, enclosing a large garden with a sturdy 8-foot fence can be expensive and unsightly.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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