The Deer Departed

At least, that’s the plan

By Jan Leitschuh

I have chronicled the ravages of Southern white-tailed deer here at Cottage Garden Farm, as well as the myriad methods used to discourage our cloven-hoofed neighbors from ravaging not only the vegetable garden but stripping out the tasty pansies, roses, zinnias, daylilies, sunflowers, hostas and more.

Last summer, it got so bad I actually considered giving up growing vegetables. The magnitude of that discouragement still stings. Vegetable gardening is something I’ve done since childhood when my parents, retaining a Victory Garden habit from the war years, taught me the pleasures of coaxing edible life from the soil. I can imagine few more graceful pursuits than the quiet peace of growing fresh, clean, delicious food.

But after following the call of spring last year, the largest horde of deer yet swooped in and savaged the entire garden. Before, it might be a ripe fruit taken here, an okra plant nipped there. Now, healthy cucumber, squash, sugar snap pea, pepper and tomato plants were taken to the ground. Laid waste. Little but rosemary was left standing.

I may have a solution. Call me hopeful, more hopeful than I have felt in years, thanks to a tip from a fellow plant enthusiast from Greensboro, garden educator Ellen Ashley.

You can’t blame the deer. They only do what deer do — smell out a good thing and eat it. With the efforts we have made to sweeten and enrich the garden’s soil, one could almost take it as a backhanded compliment. The deer equivalent of the cereal commercial: “Mikey likes it!”

We tried an electric fence wire. Nope, over they hopped. We hung the wire with little peanut butter-smeared foil “tags,” hoping to tempt the deer to lick them, and training them to stay away because of the mild electrical unpleasantness. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t work either (plus it was difficult to keep the wires from grounding out). The vegetables fattened happily on their parent plants, and just when you’d think “one more day to perfect ripeness,” the keen-nosed deer would make the same assessment, whisking in and making off with the season’s first tomato, flattening the okra or decimating the green bean patch — and ignoring the peanut butter.

Scent is key. Some studies have estimated that the white-tail deer’s ability to smell is about 10,000 times stronger than a human’s. In a deer, more brainpower is dedicated to analyzing odors than any other brain function. They have a secondary odor detector in the roof of their mouth. A buck can smell a doe over a mile away.

For deer, smell is the information highway, and a dinner menu.

Many anti-deer strategies try to use their sense of smell against them. I have tied pungent soaps in little hosiery bags around the garden — we should have bought stock in Irish Spring that year. Nope. I clipped the dog and sprinkled his winter fluff about the perimeter. No luck, although area bird nests that year had fluffy, soft, blond golden retriever linings. (The dog himself was useless, camping at night at the foot of our bed.) No dice with human hair collected from a hairdresser, either.

I casually suggested to my husband that he make his way to the perimeter of our secluded garden to kind of mark his territory in a sort of Y chromosome wilding activity. He was not amenable, noting that the toilet was much closer and less likely to get him arrested for indecent exposure.

Last year, taking a cue from Karyn Richardson of Eagles Nest Berry Farm, I invested in a tall, see-through plastic netting that blended nicely into the background. Deer can jump seven feet, so a fence must be high. Karyn has surrounded her blueberry acres with this fence and high poles, and from a distance, one can hardly see it. She did find the deer were sneaking underneath the fence, so she pinned the bottom.

I did the same, using bamboo poles to extend our stakes. The fence took tremendous effort to erect, was costly, a pain to weed-eat around and move wheelbarrows through, but what price peace in the garden?

It should have worked. Yet in the morning, there would be multiple deer inside our small garden and I’d lose my mind. In carelessly leaping out, the deer would tear down a whole netting wall. And the garden mess they left behind was heartbreaking. This winter we took the fence down completely. The deer were just too accustomed to visiting our flavorful patch. Was this the end of my love affair with garden veggies?

For years I had been protecting choice plants like pansies and hydrangeas with an expensive store-bought deer repellent spray. It did work — rather well, actually — but was too expensive to justify for a whole garden, even for a few fresh beans or young zucchini.

Which is why I sat up in my chair when Ashley spoke at Weymouth this April, at a public lecture sponsored by The Garden Club of the Sandhills, and declared she had a sure-fire deer repellent. “This will work! And I’ve tried everything!”

Ashley teaches regular gardening classes throughout the Triad on a number of topics like shade garden planting, cutting gardens, rock gardening, pruning, pest control, edible gardening, and more. It must have been fate that brought her to the Sandhills, and me to her lecture.

She noted that commercial sprays are effective and convenient if you only have a few plants in need of protection. “But they are expensive,” she said. “And I had 10 acres. And when you drove in, you’d see eight or nine deer on the driveway.”

Ashley’s challenge was to protect thousands of plants in more than nine different gardens, including woodland gardens, a “tropical garden,” a conifer garden, a rock garden, a cutting garden and an edible garden filled with fruit trees, berries, vegetables and herbs. “I used many things that were the solution,” she said.

Like me, she tried strategies like pungent soap in bags and human hair. She also tried mothballs, and 2-foot stakes with saturated cotton balls positioned every 15 feet around the garden. “It all worked until it didn’t.” 

She experimented with fox urine, also expensive. “You drip it around your garden and nothing is supposed to come near it. Including you. It was so nasty you never wanted to come near your garden.”

The commercial products “Deer Fence” and “I Must Garden” did work, but were still too expensive. “I noticed the common ingredient in these products was egg,” she said. “I added egg to my sprayer, but it kept gumming up the nozzle. So I separated the egg from the yolk, and just used the yolk. It worked beautifully.”

Ashley advised that the gardener should keep tabs on new growth. “The deer have such sensitive noses, they will know exactly which leaves you have not sprayed,” she said. “They will eat the five inches on top you have not sprayed. And if you don’t spray everything, they’ll just turn from their favorite to their second- or third-favorite plants.”

So I’ve taken the leap of faith. Yesterday, I mixed up a batch for a simple, inexpensive 1-gallon sprayer. I beat the egg yolk and peppermint oil together in a bowl with a bit of water and, innovating, added a small squirt of dish soap to help with the emulsifying and sticking. It did not smell bad at all, thanks to the peppermint.

I installed my tomato, squash, cukes, okra, eggplant, beans and pepper plants, and then liberally sprayed the still-surviving lilies, hostas, cosmos and pansies. Because, I must garden. 

Ellen Ashley’s Deer Repellent Recipe

Whip 3 egg yolks with 2 teaspoons of peppermint oil. Beat that into a gallon of water, and spray onto vulnerable plants. “It may smell funky to you, though it does seem to work while the eggs are fairly fresh,” says Ashley. “The stuff doesn’t go bad, it’s already bad. The longer it sits, the more pungent it becomes. I spray it when I’m about to go inside for the night. By the end of the next day you can hardly smell it.” Spray more frequently in spring, or after a hard rain.  PS

For lectures or courses, contact Ashley via her website, or email

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.

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