Preventing deer damage

Area gardeners offer a variety of suggestions to discourage
hungry pests from feasting on flowers, produce
Wednesday, August 6, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:05 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Parts of Brenda McGavock’s garden look like a war zone, all because of deer.

McGavock and her husband, Rob, live off of Missouri KK south of Columbia. Over the years they have noticed an increase in the number of deer on their property, and their garden has suffered.

“I work very hard on my flower beds, and the deer eat half of them,” McGavock said.

The deer population in mid-Missouri is rising, in part because of a lack of predators.

“Hunting is the primary way that we manage deer populations,” said Bill Heatherly, wildlife programs supervisor at the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Hunting regulations have been liberalized in response to the changing deer herd and hunter expectations, Heatherly said. This year during the firearm season, Missourians will be able to purchase additional bonus tags for antlerless deer.

“Theoretically, now there is no limit on the number of deer that a hunter may take during the season,” he said.

For area residents who aren’t such great shots or don’t wish to harm the deer, there are other ways to protect their gardens from the four-legged pests that treat the vegetable gardens like free salad bars.

McGavock and her husband have launched a counterattack against the deer on their property, using plastic netting to cover plants and trees and fencing in their tomato plants with chicken wire.

Two of their three pear trees are still alive, and are covered in plastic netting McGavock jokingly calls “hair nets” to protect them from the deer. Besides the hair nets and chicken wire, McGavock is out of ideas to help salvage the garden.

Phil Stewart, who sells his vegetables at the Columbia Farmers Market, said the only fool-proof method is an 8-foot woven-wire fence.

“Game farm people use that to keep deer in, and it sure keeps deer out,” he said.

Cass Sullivan of The Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City also suggested a 7- to 8-foot fence, as deer can’t jump this height.

Rick Goodman, a vegetable vendor at the Boone County Farmers Market, uses an electric fence to keep deer out, a method popular among the market farmers.

To construct this fence, Goodman starts with a two-wire electric fence, then strings squares of aluminum foil every 20 feet. Every two weeks he puts peanut butter on the tin foil squares to attract the deer. When the deer come to eat the peanut butter they get a small shock, which deters them from entering the garden.

“You have to get them to encounter the fence,” Goodman said. “They really don’t like it.”

Eight-foot fences and electric fences are good options for the market farmers, who, in general, have larger operations than Columbia’s average hobby gardener. These farmers also recommend smaller-scale ways that backyard gardeners can use to protect their gardens.

Almeda Curtis, a produce vendor at the Boone County market, recommends stringing pie tins together in a way that they will blow together and make noise, which will scare deer away.

Steven Sapp and his mother, Joyce Sapp, of Strawberry Hill Farms use fishing line to protect their flowers. They ring their flower beds with small posts, then tie the line between the posts, creating a small, makeshift fence.

“It seems to confuse the deer,” Joyce Sapp said, “like spider webs.”

Steven Sapp listed several flower varieties, including tithonia, cannas and vinca, as types that deer tend to avoid.

If these home-grown ideas don’t work well for local gardeners, there are products that can be purchased at local garden centers. Although he doesn’t use it himself, Goodman advises using blood meal, which can be found at hardware stores and garden centers. The meal can be sprinkled on plants the deer commonly eat, but it can be hard to wash off produce, he said.

Catherine Bay, an employee at Wilson’s Garden Center, said their most popular deer deterrent is a product called Liquid Fence. The all-organic spray is made up of spices which keep deer away. It won’t hurt the deer and is safe for kids and pets, she said.

If that doesn’t work, she said, “You can always get a dog.”

The McGavocks have four big dogs, but they aren’t the answer to their deer problems.

“The dogs have gotten so used to deer,” Brenda McGavock said, “they just wag their tails and go back to sleep.”

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