North American deer are voracious herbivores with a wide and varied diet. Most likely, there is something in your landscape that will serve as an attractive appetizer or full course meal for them. From bushes and twigs to fruits, nuts and grasses, deer find desirable food sources almost everywhere they travel. Keeping them away from your precious plants requires diligence, some creativity and a lot of perseverance.
Because deer have individual personalities, your deer deterrence plans must be adaptable. What serves as a useful deterrent for one young buck may actually entice his sister or brother to come over and eat. On the other hand, deer are hungriest in the spring -- when does are nursing -- and looking for protein-rich food sources such as nuts and beans. Deer also get about a third of their water from high-moisture plants. Knowing your nimble nibblers may help you understand when you and your gardens are most likely to be under attack. Particularly hungry and less discriminating in the spring, deer tend to be more picky in the summer when getting their fill is easier.
If you live in an area densely populated by deer, plan your garden strategically by avoiding plants they love to eat and planting those they’re less fond of in general. Among the many plants deer like are arborvitae (Thuja orientalis); ash (Fraxinus Americana); azalea (Rhododendron Pentanthera); red cedar (Juniperus virginiana); dogwood (Cornus florida); maple (Acer); rhododendron; yew (Taxus); and most fruit trees. The foliage deer tend to avoid may depend on your region, but some plants considered deer resistant are: American holly (Ilex opaca); aster (Asteraceae); butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii); boxwood (Buxus sempervirens); clematis; Colorado spruce (Picea pungens); European beech (Fagus sylvatica); hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis); lilac (Syringa); white birch (Betula papyrifera); white spruce (Picea glauca); and wisteria (Wisteria sinensis). U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones are 2 to 6 for white spruce; 2 to 7 for white birch and Colorado spruce; 2 to 9 for red cedar; 3 to 7 for azalea; 3 to 8 for maple; 3 to 9 for ash and aster; 4 to 7 for arborvitae and beech; 4 to 9 for hyacinths; 5 to 8 for boxwood and rhododendron; 5 to 9 for butterfly bush and dogwood; 6 to 8 for wisteria; and 6 to 10 for yew. Deer avoid prickly and pungent bushes and foliage that tastes bad to them. Check with your local nursery to find out just what the deer in your area like to eat.
Although some deer become so comfortable with humans that they’d willingly hop on your porch for a few dropped acorns, most are quite skittish. Planting your most prized plants close to your home and other areas people frequent or using motion-activated lights may help startle away deer. Wind chimes and similar ornaments can have the same effect. If you have a dog, send it out once or twice when the deer are near and your pretty pests may think twice before making a return visit.
There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence suggesting that deer avoid smells they find repugnant. Because they naturally fear humans, putting the scent -- in the form of human hair -- around your plants might ward them away from the area. Likewise, some gardeners use sprays made from hot peppers or hang bars of pungent smelling soap and find that deer will steer clear.