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Don’t try to understand the deer (and how to keep them from eating your garden)


Deer are odd creatures. They don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to what they feel like eating on any given day. They stand in front of cars and stare at the passengers. They will stand in a yard just feet away from a house with a pair of dogs going absolutely berserk barking at them without looking like they have a care in the world.

I guess it’s time I finally give up on trying to predict what our neighborhood deer are going to do next. The other day I caught one staring at me reading the newspaper on the deck from the ferns. It casually turned and disappeared, sort of like the baseball players in “Field of Dreams.” I suspect that’s how they view my garden: I built it and they have come.

For years, the first plants they would hit in the garden were the hydrangeas and the lilies. Then they’d come nip the occasional petunia in a pot in the garden or sample a rose. And because I am obviously a slow learner, I usually never did anything about preventing them until they’d already started sampling. The same bad habit holds for this year, but for some reason I thought they were going to skip my house this year. Do not ask what sort delusional thinking allowed me to entertain that idea for even a nanosecond but suffice to say, I was wrong.

The hydrangeas look fine. Even the Annabelle hydrangea, which apparently has proven to be very tasty in the past, remains untouched. I have lilies blooming that I have surprised me with their color; I’ve never seen them bloom before because the deer always nipped off their buds. Nope, this year, the deer went straight for the hosts. For whatever reason, they’ve never done a lot of hosta sampling in my yard before, even though I know many other gardeners have experienced the sinking feeling of looking around the garden and finding only stems standing where just a day before were gorgeous bold leaves.

I could show you dozens more pictures just like this, but you get the idea. In the case of poor ‘Fat Cat,’ they actually ripped it right out of the ground (I recently planted it). Any not-fully grown hosta (which is most of them) has been reduced to stems. They didn’t care what color they were or where they were growing, they just mowed them down.

Ultimately, it’s my own fault. After 10 years of living a quarter-mile from a state park with a very healthy deer population (I wish they would just stay in the park), I ought to know that the deer are going to eat SOMETHING in my garden. It might not be the lilies or the hydrangeas or the petunias, but it will be something.

In case you’re wondering how I fend them off, at least when I’m smart enough to do it, I’ve tried just about everything you can imagine to keep them away and everything seems to work for a little while. But the least expensive option seems to work the best, so long as I’m thorough about using it and reapply it after a good rain (not a problem this year). This core of this recipe was given to me by my mother who got it from someone else, but I’ve added a few extras to it that I think help (and they certainly don’t hurt).

Homemade deer repellent

4 eggs
1 tablespoon of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
A couple drops of dishwashing detergent (to help it stick to leaves)
Whole garlic cloves, crushed or smashed (I probably throw 6 in but just put in whatever you have)

Put all the ingredients in a rinsed out gallon milk jug and fill the rest with water. Shake thoroughly. Then set it out in the sun for a few days. You want it to get good and nasty. After it has “fermented” a bit, dilute it about 4:1 and sprinkle it all over everything. I think it’s especially helpful to make a “perimeter” around the garden as well as being sure to thoroughly coat any prized or particularly tasty plants. It can create some discoloration on leaves, particularly on blue hostas, but discolored leaves are better than no leaves, right? 

25 Responses

  1. I’ve had some luck (fingers crossed) with an infrared sprinkler. I move it around my yard every couple of days so the deer don’t get too used to it. So far I’ve seen a few tracks but they’ve not touched my hostas since I got the sprinkler.
    I’m worried about early spring when it’s too cold to have the sprinkler.

  2. I’ll give an egg recipe a try. I just recently read that it also helped fight certain fungus on apple trees ect. Double duty maybe. Everyone complains of respraying and I bet the egg really helps it stick on plants longer. I have several bushes and trees that need planting this year.

  3. Hi Erin,
    Interesting tips! We do a little gardening and a lot of deer (a small farm). )) So when we let them close to the house it’s often a small disaster afterwards, unless we use netting to protect plants. But recently we’ve started using a simple spray of yolk and baking soda mixed in water. And it helps!
    Now birds and fruits and berries that’s yet another battle!
    I wonder if the garlic in your mix is non-essential because our deer love garlic.

  4. Thanks Erin! I was listening to your conversation on the Root Simple podcast awhile back and shared your experience with Messina Deer Stopper II with my mom as an option in her gardens. Let us know how it continues to go and if you come up with any other options, particularly a tried and true that is completely safe around vegetables.

  5. I have a very bad problem with squirrels and lizards,on top of my dog runs through my tomatoes,corn watermelon every thing trying to get them. It would be good if my dog kelly didn't killed more plants then lizards. Today i was outside tieing down some tomatoes plants. My God their was two holes and purr prints .The lizards and squirrels eating on everything in my Garden. I will try your homemade sprays
    Okay last question sorry for being so long my watermelon will not get full size. Some have black spots on the tail end of it. then it would either rotten are the root would die I have tried everything no success some watermelons that I would love to have some idea about making it easier to produce bigger watermelon. One more how long do it take for muscadines produce. That's alot.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful recipe! I tried collecting human hair from a beauty salon and put it in netting…hung it on my peach tree like Christmas ornaments, lol. It worked perfectly all season, until the evening I decided to pick peaches the following day. That night, the deer ate every peach on the tree! Other deer repellents use animal urine….from caged animals. Not good. We have rescued hens so can use their eggs for this recipe. Thanks for posting.

    1. I'm encouraged to hear that the hair worked a bit. That homemade recipe does a good job. My only frustration with it is the inability to put it through a pump sprayer. I have so many plants to cover that just dumping it on with the watering can gets pretty tedious.

      Last year I used Messina Deer Stopper II. I can apply it with a pump sprayer and it is said to be safe to use "around" fruits and vegetables. No animal urine, which is good. It also smells fantastic. It's not inexpensive, but I was happy enough with it last year to buy another gallon of concentrate for this year. Here's an affiliate link in case you're interested:

      I'm so sorry the deer got your beautiful peaches. I would have cried!

      1. I used my own – very similar – recipe for a couple of years to protect a few hydrangea and a potted hibiscus the deer particularly liked. It’s hard to stomach, but I strained the mixture through an old dish towel and then poured it into a spray bottle. Otherwise the garlic and onion powder and cayenne pepper I used would clog up the sprayer. Never thought of adding dish soap!

  7. Bloodmeal, in a garden duster works for me. I apply it to all leaf surfaces. Deer, being vegetarians, find it offensive. Personally, I can't smell it. It has to be reapplied after it rains.

  8. Thanks for the deer repellant recipe…I will give it a try as I too live across the road from a nature preserve and between two woods and creek…they have eaten my white pine trees down to white pine min bushes! I have saved a couple by of all things…hanging IRISH SPRING bars of soap in the trees. Sounds odd but they leave those trees alone…I let the bars of soap unwrapped to harden up then place in either old pantyhose or one tree I spiked it onto wire foot long prongs and let it hang down tree…maybe this too spooked or spoked ! the deers but whatever they haven't eaten or rubbed the tree raw with their antlers. I also have problem with either possum or skunk burrowing under a garden shed….until I found if you place USED cat litter yup. poop and all in the burrowed holes..and yes you may have to repeat once or twice but they too cant stand the stench either…put moth balls there too for extra precaution!!

  9. do you have any recommendations on keep squirrels from eating plants? I've done just cayenne pepper in the past but it seems to take longer for the squirrels to "Stay away" since I have to reapply it every day.

  10. do you have any recommendations on keep squirrels from eating plants? I've done just cayenne pepper in the past but it seems to take longer for the squirrels to "Stay away" since I have to reapply it every day.

  11. Deer are one critter we don't have — yet! Yesterday little birds were flapping their wings while they tried to pick bugs out of the window screens. I stood on the other side of the window not moving to watch this strange behavior. Guess everybody is really hungry with this dry weather.

  12. Don't have deer problems, just raccoons. They seem to like everything that deer like including my newly plated and much anticipated rose. Heading down to the back of the garden a few weeks ago, camera in hand to shoot the first bloom on my new rose bush, I was devastated to see the one and only bud completely sheered off. Same thing for the hydrangea and the raspberries. The raccoons love my raspberries that were also just planted. I've yet to taste one.

  13. I've never had a problem with the deer coming right up to the patio, but this year they did, and they mowed down all the hostas! They skipped everything else, even in my raised beds. The hostas look so sad now!

    1. Well I have made this stank nasty recipe many times now and I do believe that it works to deter those voracious pests. I make sure to use an old flour sack towel folded a few times and placed in a metal sieve to strain the concoction and it doesn’t clog my sprayer that way. I rinse off the towel in a bucket and throw it out, but then slosh the rinse water around the beds as well. I do sub out red pepper flakes for the cayenne, since it’s so much easier to strain out. Thanks for saving me a whole lot of money, Erin!

    2. The deer mowed mine down to ground last year across my front porch. This year hostas barely sprouting up they have eat them already. I have used Irish spring soap it worked on my tulips,think I’ll try it.

  14. I've never had a problem with the deer coming right up to the patio, but this year they did, and they mowed down all the hostas! They skipped everything else, even in my raised beds. The hostas look so sad now!

  15. I have learned to plant only deer resistant. The petunias are up high and I have a nice big planter with a hydrangea tucked in a great spot on my porch, because they will also come onto the porch. I live out in the country and there are lots of berries, etc. to eat so they don't come and eat my roses until October. I had to have the roses, no matter what.
    I so wanted hydrangeas and hostas in my yard, but learned that the deer like them too much!!! They were actually munching the top of my droopy japanese maple once; I put dog hair on top of it, they left it alone. I actually have had a heck of a time with some new perennials, but it was with jackrabbits. I put little chickenwire cages around those, until they can "grow up."

  16. A very timely post!!! Just this week my hydrangeas, lillies, monkey grass and impatiens were mowed down by deer. I got some commercial repellent but it's about $8 a bottle and it takes a whole bottle just to coat the perimeter of my front yard. I will be making your recipe pronto!!


  17. My grandmother used to fuss about deer in he garden. Luckily that is one problem we don't have in suburbia. My plants only menace (now that those stupid beetles have vamoosed) is a basset hound that will not stop digging nests in my mulch. He killed my emerald jewel last week!

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