How I Protect my Garden from Deer (and Rabbits and Groundhogs)

The area where I live is perfect habitat for deer: lush fields alternating with tracts of trees and brush. And so they thrive and multiply here, and it’s hard to begrudge them that. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a doe and her fawns pick carefully across a dew-covered lawn in the slanting morning light? Nevertheless, it can be hard to fully enjoy the company of these splendid animals if you’re worried that, at any moment, they’ll turn from eating grass to devouring your carefully tended vegetable patch.

Everyone who’s been gardening for very long has their own preferred method of protecting their prized plants against marauders, and what works for one person with one set of circumstances may not work for another. But it’s always worth trading ideas, and in that spirit, I’m going to tell you a little about how I currently keep the critters at bay.

In an earlier incarnation, my garden had a fence around it, but I quickly learned that a fence is nigh useless for protecting against deer, whom I’ve caught happily chomping away on the wrong side of a 6-foot-high wire mesh. In my experience, the only thing that will without fail protect against deer is wire mesh or bird netting around individual plants or groups of plants. And so, although this requires a little extra work at the beginning of each season, the peace of mind is well worth it.

Each type of plant requires a slightly different way of setting up the wire or netting, so I’m including below photos and descriptions of each of the methods used in my garden.

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These watermelon plants are germinating in safety!

For low-growing, spreading plants like strawberries, melons, and vining squash, I simply spread plastic bird netting over the plants, anchoring the corners with sticks collected from the nearby woods. The netting I buy at my local hardware store in 7′ x 100′ rolls that cost about $30. That may sound expensive, but I need less than 2 rolls for my entire 1300-square-foot garden, and it lasts for about 5 years before it needs replacing.

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Foreground: the butternut squash patch / Background: pole beans

One thing that it’s important to be careful of when applying the netting, however, is that you don’t leave areas where the netting is bunched up or where it’s more than one layer thick for a large stretch. Snakes–harmless black snakes who do a great deal to keep our ecosystems healthy–will often crawl through the holes in such netting, and if there are too many layers present, they can easily become tangled. In my early years of using this netting, I had to kill more than one snake who got itself so deeply tangled that there was no way of freeing it. For this reason, it’s also important that, when you fold and store your bird netting in the winter, you store it in a place where snakes will not find it. (I fold mine and store it in a well-sealed garbage can in my shed.)

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Potomac pole beans will soon be climbing on these!

Bird netting is also useful for protecting plants that grow upright. Every year, I grow a 12′ x 12′ patch of pole beans, and the only way to keep the deer from eating them down to the nubs is to wrap the outside of the entire 12′ x 12′ patch in bird netting. Thankfully, it’s not hard to do. The edge of the bird netting slips easily over the tops of the support poles I use, and I simply anchor the bottom edge to the ground with small sticks. And of course I have to have a way to get inside, to hoe and to harvest, so where two pieces of netting come together, I use a stick woven through the two edges at once to keep it closed except when I need to get inside, when I just slip the stick out and voilà: instant doorway!

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Amish Paste Tomato

For my tomatoes, I have a slightly different system. I tie the plants to stick teepees for support, and then to protect them from the animals, I put a wire cage around them, 3 or 4 feet in diameter. The wire cage you see in the picture is made from some old wire fencing given to me by a friend when she dismantled her dog run. (Thanks, Carolyn!) Chicken wire also works fine, although it tends to rust after seven or eight years, and it’s a little less sturdy and a little more susceptible to being blown about by high winds. When I use chicken wire, I usually anchor it on at least one side by weaving a stick through the bottom nine inches or so of the mesh and then sinking the end of the stick into the ground.

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Front: turnips / Back left: Egyptian walking onions / Back center: leaf lettuce / Back right: radishes

One place I routinely use chicken wire is over my lettuce plants. These have to be very carefully covered. I often use a 3-foot wide piece that I bend in half to “tent” over my rows of lettuce. It’s very important to secure the ends of the rows as well, because rabbits have no trouble figuring out the one unprotected corner and wiggling in to devour an entire line of lettuce.

Finally, there are a few plants that I never seem to have to protect from the animals. I can grow turnips and radishes with no cover at all, and they won’t be touched. This is great, because I love to grow long rows of turnips in the fall to give my chickens greens through the winter. The wild animals also don’t seem a bit interested in my onions, garlic, or any of my herbs. The taste, I imagine, is just too strong to be palatable to them!

So that’s how I defend my garden against the wild animals. Now I’d love to hear about some of your strategies. Please feel free to tell us about them in the comments section below. Happy gardening to all!

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