Q: Deer are a big problem at our house. Everyone says that nothing really works to deter them except a fence. True? And if I have to get a fence, what can I get that isn’t super-expensive or super-hideous? – E.D., Rye
A: I know a gardener who grates up dozens of bars of Irish Spring soap to sprinkle around her plants, and swears it keeps the deer from eating them. She also has three big dogs running around, which I’m betting are the real highly scented deterrent. There are foul-tasting concoctions you can spray on your plants after every rainfall, electronic devices that emit ultrasonic waves that deer don’t like, or that spray them with water. The Deerchaser, invented by garden writer Lee Reich, is an inexpensive motion detector that turns on a radio for short bursts to frighten them off. Talk radio works best, Lee told me, and Rush Limbaugh seems particularly scary. I’ve got a Deerchaser in my own, unfenced, garden and it appears to work, but the downside is that you’ll be dreamily weeding when a bird will fly by the thing and suddenly the air is full of some guy shrieking about Obamacare.
As everyone has told you, the only guaranteed deer deterrent is a fence. “The electronic stuff, sprays — all that crazy stuff doesn’t work,” says Steven Block, owner of Westchester Fences, who has been an “expert at keeping out deer” since 1988. “Some of the sprays will protect some vegetation, but it’s an ongoing process — spraying, spraying, spraying. What you need is a total enclosure. If you leave a one-foot gap, they’ll figure it out. They’re very smart.”
Most communities in Westchester permit a maximum fence height of six feet. “Even though deer can jump higher than that, six feet is effective because they normally don’t jump; they browse,” says Block. “They walk a certain path, and when their noses bump into something, they keep walking — they don’t look up. They’re kinda lazy. They’ll get on their knees and go under a fence faster than jump over. So it needs to be nice and tight at the bottom.”
The least expensive, most durable choice is black, plastic-coated, welded-steel-wire mesh. As for the super-hideous factor: “It’s minimally noticeable if you have any kind of background shrubs,” Block says. Black chain-link fencing is an even sturdier option for about the same cost. “People go, ‘Chain link? Oh, gross.’ But it’s only a little bit more noticeable.” Either of those, properly installed, are maintenance-free, barring storm damage from tree limbs.
In woodsy, shrubby areas, deer fencing may be almost invisible. But what about the front yard, which is usually more manicured? “If it’s out in the open, you’ll want a more decorative product, something architectural to go with the style of the house,” Block concedes. “But you may only need a small percentage that’s decorative.” If you enclose the front, you’ll also need a gate across the driveway, whether manual, or a fancier, automated one.
Block was reluctant to discuss prices, but allowed that steel-mesh deer fencing runs about $18 to $20 a foot. There are less expensive plastic and polypropylene meshes available, but he’s not a fan. “Plastic net fence is a waste of money — it doesn’t last,” he warns. “Decorative wood fencing can be quite expensive if you’ve got fancy lattice panels and arbors,” he adds. “But if you or your landscaper have put in thousands of dollars’ worth of plants, the deer can eat more on a weekend than the fence will cost you.”