Some plants keep deer out of garden


October 30, 2003


Victoria County Master Gardener


I am relatively new to the Victoria area, which has a somewhat different environment from the Austin Lakeway area where I recently lived, but I know deer to be a problem and a challenge to any yard bordering on natural habitat. Lakeway is on the western edge of development for the metro Austin area and conditions there attract many deer. Most of the deer in Lakeway are does with their offspring. The bucks appear primarily during the mating season. Most does have either a single or a twin birth of offspring or fawn(s) per year.


All deer belong to the state of Texas and a city or individual is not permitted to relocate, harm, or kill any deer without the approval or licensing from the state. In a community setting such as Lakeway, hunting is not an option, but in a more rural area such as around Victoria, hunting is required to keep the level of deer under control and is reflected in the relaxing - by Texas Parks and Wildlife - of the shooting restrictions of does with Managed Land Deer (MLD) permits. These conditions have intensified the population of deer in Lakeway and nearly any time you drive through the community you will see deer in some of the yards, many times eating and surviving on the landscape plants. They will also eat the lower branches of shrubs and trees. Deer will normally eat up to 3 1/2 feet high. But on occasion they will stand on their rear feet and reach for a tree branch 6 feet or higher.


For purpose of definition in this article, tame deer are those that live in close daily contact with humans and are on occasion fed in the presence of people. These deer are scared enough to run from you unless continually fed by humans so become even tame enough to feed from your hand. Wild deer are those that live in the brushlands and seldom have contact with humans.


There are a number of precautionary practices to protect your landscape from deer. Wild deer are not as bold and adventurous among humans and therefore tend to stay away from small yards. But if you or your neighbor hand feed the deer or even leave food out for them, the deer will quickly become familiar with your landscape and will begin sampling your landscape plants. The desire may be so great that they may return at night for a full meal.


Fences can be an excellent deterrent. A solid fence is better than one that deer can see through, such as one with mesh wire. Height is important, too. From a standing position deer can and will jump a 6-foot fence. Many wild game ranches will have 8-foot or higher fences to keep their deer within their property.


Many homeowners use electric fences, but they are often damaged by deer and require frequent repairs. Deer are usually jumping when going through the electric fence and do not get shocked unless they touch the ground while touching the fence. If plants are located close to a fence where a deer would stick its head through to eat, then the deer should get shocked and leave those plants.


You may ask, "Do repellents work?" Wild animal scents such as coyote urine, hair and sprays may work for wild deer but not tame deer. Dogs left in a fenced yard can be very effective, but the front yard is frequently left unprotected. Some deer have been known to even chase a dog.


Plant conditions can also influence deer eating habits. Deer will probably sample all new plants around a house. If plants are small, such as 4-inch or 1-gallon size, deer may pull them up due to their small root systems. So, the next morning replant them and cover with a bird netting. Besides eating or pulling up your plants, deer simply destroying plants by stepping on them and breaking them can be disheartening enough.


Deer may do so much damage that you may consider planting poisonous plants to deter them from your yard. Even poisonous plants may not be the answer as their digestive system may handle many of these plants. They will, however, leave oleanders alone. You would think thorny plants should be a solution, but they love tea roses. To tell you of their persistence, I have seen deer eat cactus and have thorns dangling from their nose. Smelly plants in some cases, such as rosemary or copper canyon daisy, do repel deer. But deer frequently eat Kidneywood, which stinks just as much. So smell alone does not deter deer.


Drinking water or plant moisture availability is a big factor influencing deer eating habits. Deer drink in early morning and late afternoon, and if water is available they will eat fewer green plants. During very dry and hot conditions deer will even eat deer resistant plants for their water content.


Besides eating your tender and small landscape plants or shrubs, small trees are subject to the rutting season in the fall. Deer will attempt to remove the velvet from their horns by rubbing them against a small tree. This removes the outer layer of the bark and if it totally encircles the tree it will at least kill the upper portion or possibly the entire tree.


Both the county extension office and local nurseries will have deer resistant plant lists. The plants listed are of help, but two identical plants may be placed on opposite sides of the yard and one may be eaten and the other left alone. If plants are close to a deer path, they will be closely surveyed and probably nibbled on. Also, deer have a preference for certain plants as we do in our eating preferences. Thus, the "hamburger" type plant may not get eaten if a "prime steak" is available. So surrounding plants will influence what a deer eats.


All these variables make very interesting discussions at garden club meetings. Each speaker thinks he or she has the deer solution but the many variables prevent this. So survey your conditions and plant accordingly. A deer resistant typical plant list that is segregated into very resistant, resistant and somewhat resistant plants can be very helpful depending on your local deer population, weather conditions and browse available. The late John Lipe, former professor and extension horticulturist of Fredericksburg, developed a list of deer resistant plants that also may be of value to us locally. It can be obtained at the Victoria County Extension office or is available at the Web site:  While there is no better example of Mother Nature as a doe with her fawn grazing on native browse, deer have to be deterred from thriving off a landscaped yard.