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Keeping deer out of the garden with permaculture

Deer incursion routes

As much as I swear by Mark's deer deterrents, I'm coming to realize that they're a bandaid.  The ultimate solution to keeping deer out of our garden is going to require no electricity, because power outages have become our Achilles heel.

On the larger scale, I think the solution is hunting.  Unfortunately, the game laws (and local hunter ethic) in our area are stacked in the favor of increasing the deer population, so we're unlikely to be able to solve our own problem by shooting a few deer.

Instead, I think we need to prevent the deer damage at a medium scale by considering where the deer enter our garden.  When we first moved in, the deer came from all directions, but I've noticed that the mule and back gardens have shown absolutely no signs of deer damage for the last year and a half.  Instead, the deer are only entering at the three locations marked by arrows on the map above.  So what are we doing right in some places, and can we replicate it to save the beleaguered front garden?

Chicken moat

The reason the back and mule gardens are untouched is because they are moated in.  On the north side, chicken pastures and the barn form a barrier that's too uninteresting to deer to make it worth their while to cross.  I'm quite aware deer can easily leap a five foot fence if they want to, but since nothing in the chicken pasture looks interesting and since we're down there so often, they take the path of least resistance and stay away.  I've read permaculture books that call this strategy building a "chicken moat."

The west side of the back and front gardens is protected by an extremely steep slope.  Lucy has a path she sometimes takes down this escarpment when she's in a big hurry, but so far, the steepness has made a good barrier to deer.  Again, path of least resistance.

On the east side of our growing zones, the barn and another chicken pasture protect the majority of the boundary.  Three years ago, deer sometimes walked up the driveway and into our domain, but I think some combination of uninteresting food plants within the first few hundred feet combined with our frequent activity in that zone keeps the deer away.

So our only real problem now is to the south.  If we could prevent the deer from walking into that part of the garden, we would be protecting our entire perimeter without electricity.  But how?

Permaculture ways to keep deer out of the garden

Adding another chicken pasture to moat off the southeast corner is already on the drawing board, but I'm unwilling to pasture chickens within the watershed of the well.  As you can see in the aerial photo below, there's a little hill between the south pastures and the well, which protects the quality of our drinking water, but I'm leery of grazing chickens any closer.

Aerial photo

The jungle of weeds that has grown up around the mostly-torn-down old house definitely makes the deer feel safer when they come in from the south, so house removal is on the to do list as well.  But I think that even if the south border was mown to remove all deer shelter, the garden would still look enticing, especially since we don't walk up there very often.  Any ideas for a permaculture deer barrier that will protect the southwest quadrant?

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to rotate chickens through several chicken pastures.  Just put a five gallon bucket waterer in each pasture and skip watering for months.


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I'd go for fence. Yes, they can jump a 5 foot fence if they want to. But, they really need to want to to make it worth their while. I've had my garden fenced in, and I jump deer around it regularly, always outside the fence. They've never once been inside it.

I use the green metal fence posts (as they're the easiest to install) and 2x4 welded wire. I've got 4' fence in some places, and 5' in others. The important part is to get tall posts. I have 6 feet of post sticking out of the ground, so I run a piece of twine around the top of the fence perimeter, effectively giving a 6' fence. You probably could find something cheaper than the welded wire fence too, though I don't know. Maybe the plastic fencing is less? Something else? It doesn't really need to resist a deer running into it necessarily, just act as a deterrent.

Maybe this could work for you?

The other thought is to plant a thick hedgerow, but, that would take lots of time to wait for it to grow high and thick enough, and lots of $$ to get it started anyway.

Comment by Anonymous Thu Aug 11 08:38:28 2011
Fences would definitely work, but I hate to build hundreds of feet of fence (and the associated gates) for no purpose other than keeping deer out. That's what I love about the chicken moats --- we build fences...and get eggs! I'm hoping there are other permaculture solutions out there like that, but that are more compatible with the well's groundwater safety requirements.
Comment by anna Thu Aug 11 09:30:40 2011
have Mark "mark" the perimeter every 10 feet. The scene from "Dances with Wolves" comes to mind.
Comment by David L Thu Aug 11 09:33:34 2011

A good alternative to a fence would be a real moat; dig a 2-3 feet deep trench (save the grass turf), and deposit the soil on the inside as a dike, making the slope between the moat and the dike as steep as possible so the deer cannot just walk up it. You should probably stabilize the sides of the dike with grass turf. Of course this is best done with a digger if you want it done quickly.

Another solution is to build a woven hedge in the english style, using plants that the deer don't like. Of course that will take probably several years to grow big enough and twine. It will probably cost you relatively little effort.

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Aug 11 10:38:46 2011
Fencing is probably the most reliable, permanent solution to keeping deer where you want them (out of the garden!). I'm trying to think like a deer, and the best Permaculture solution I can think of is planting dense blackberry patch along the south side of the farm and allow it to act as a natural fence, I've noticed deer tend to avoid brambles. Another idea is maybe you could plant a large enough plot of a perennials (like strawberries) on the south side that would keep them happy enough they'd never need to intrude further north into the garden? If you don't mind the cost, you could get an automatic deer feeder and get them used to eating in corn in a spot of your choosing, that would also come in handy for hunting season- think of it as adding a Permaculture deer ranch ;)
Comment by Phil Thu Aug 11 12:17:04 2011

Hi there. I'm up here in Alaska, so I really have no experience with deer. Just moose. And moose don't jump, so fences work well. Anyhow, that being said, I do have a couple thoughts on your deer issue.

I would launch a two (or three) pronged attack.

First of all, it appears that the deer are hitting your southern gardens closest to cover and a quick getaway. Why not give them an alternate food source? Make it easier to get to, and tailor it for the deer. It looks like a great big field of clover would do fine either back in the trees by the well or just on the edge of the trees surrounding your property. Clover has three qualities at least. 1. Bees love it - would help your beekeeping endeavors. 2. It's edible, and 3. it's low maintenance. If you really wanted to get ambitious, you could even add a deer feeder at one end of the clover patch.

Second, you already mentioned hunting. A little venison in the freezer never hurts. However, you also mention that the deer in that area are "managed" by fish and game to provide for sustainability or even growth of the population. This is where the third prong of the attack comes in. If you and Mark cannot cull enough deer from the local population by yourself, why don't you enlist some help? You could contact your local traditional archery club and invite one or two of their members (that you approve of, of course) to hunt your clover patch during deer season. Trad archers are, in general, very ethical and respectful of land ownership. Bows are quiet, so you don't have to worry about gunshots at all hours of the day, and an average shot for a hunter with a recurve or longbow is about 20 - 25 yards as opposed to modern compound bows with a much longer range. You would also endear yourself with the local hunting community - and probably get some additional venison for your freezer with no work.

These are just ideas, and I am by no means an expert. Instead of looking at deer as pests, turn it around and look at them as a resource. If I'm not mistaken, that is the essence of permaculture.

Comment by Colin Thu Aug 11 13:57:55 2011
What about a dog that stays out and roams the property? I would think that would deter the deer. The barking and presents of a dog should keep them away.
Comment by Rosann Thu Aug 11 14:26:57 2011

Everybody --- I was considering posting this on Mark's deer blog, where it's more relevant, but I decided to put it here instead in hopes of getting some good advice. I'm so glad I did! Those are some very thought-provoking suggestions.

Here's my take on your ideas, listed from the ones I like the least to the ones I like the most:

Human Pee I've poured so much pee around the perimeter that you'd think the weeds would die. Human urine seems to have absolutely no repelling properties in our neck of the woods. :-/

Dog We have a dog, and she does a good job of keeping predators out of our homestead. However, our experience with dogs (which involves talking to lots of other people around here who have tried to use dogs to keep deer out of the garden) is that dogs will be vigilant for a little while, then realize that deer are neither easy to catch nor likely to harm them. Unless you're willing to get an additional dog every six months or year, dogs won't keep the deer out of your garden.

Local Hunters I so wish this idea worked. :-) We've tried letting various people hunt on our land, and the unfortunate truth is that people around here are sport-hunters who aren't very interested in those does I really want gone. I have to put up with people in my personal space (yes, the whole 58 acres is my personal space :-) ) for a week or two, and the hunters almost never get a deer.

That said, I think Colin is spot on with his comment that the permaculture approach to deer is not to consider them pests, but to find out how they're an asset. And the obvious way they're an asset is by providing meat. Which means I just need to become a better hunter!

Real Moat Roland --- Your moat as envisioned doesn't fit the multi-use goal, but it did spark some related ideas while I was weeding this morning. If the terrain was a bit more amenable to it, I love the idea of a pond as a deer barrier since we could use it to grow fish and soak mushroom logs. Too bad that part of the yard is the worst spot for a pond.

Food Plot I've always been leery of the food plot idea, so it's the one mainstream anti-deer measure I've never tried. My gut says that putting yummy deer food anywhere near my garden would just tempt the deer to hang out here more often and thus make inroads into the plants I care about. That said, I did notice last fall that the oat cover crop that I planted on the troubled southern border got nibbled but the deer didn't come in any further. I thought of the oats more as a "trap crop" for deer (well, in addition to being a cover crop), hoping that if the deer only entered the garden briefly, they'd eat those leaves instead of my precious strawberry leaves. The idea merits more pondering. Perhaps a trap crop used in combination with some other sort of deterrent?

Edible Hedge I've been intrigued by hedges for a while, but haven't come up with any plants that are both impenetrable to deer and provide useful human food. There are some marginal plants like roses (hips are edible but not delicious), blackberries (tasty fruits, but deer can get through the patches), etc. But this is one of my favorite ideas, so I may need to do some research and see if there are some good anti-deer, pro-human hedge plants.

Human Presence The truth is that the south portion of our homestead is neglected --- even the blueberries planted there need more love --- which is probably the real reason the deer feel so safe there. We've been considering building a summer kitchen/porch on the back side of the trailer so that it's not so terrible to cook inside in the peak heat, and it occurred to me that putting the summer kitchen on the south border would kill three birds with one stone. First, it could be under the trees, so would be even cooler than on the shady side of the trailer. Next, the building would form an impenetrable barrier over part of the problem area. And, finally, I'd be up there a lot more often, which would keep the deer at bay. Hmmm....

Comment by anna Thu Aug 11 15:17:34 2011

You have the right idea. Path of least resistance. This is how hunters move deer to get them in close. Block paths you don't want deer going down with brush and limbs, then funnel them towards your hunting location. Food plots and feeders are for bringing in more deer, by supplying these your population will increase and cause you more grief.

Fencing is best. Don't need gates. Just by boxing in areas, it causes deer to think twice. They don't like not having an escape route. Parallel fencing along both sides of a drive works almost as good as a gate.

Think farther away. Your deer don't seem to be targeting you, just happen by for a snack. As a hunter we try to think of where deer are coming from and going to: food, bedding areas. Then try to funnel them toward us. You can do the opposite.

Comment by Erich Thu Aug 11 15:22:09 2011

Erich --- You are exactly the kind of hunter I wish I had going after deer on our land! (Actually, I wouldn't mind being an apprentice to a hunter like you also. :-) ) Your analyses of the deer psyche seem spot on!

I see what you mean about not needing gates --- in essence, that big opening on the west side of our homestead is a gateless gate, making the deer have to walk between two impenetrable areas (the barn and the chicken pasture) to get to the food. That makes so much sense!

I'm glad to hear someone with so much experience mirroring my gut reaction about food plots. I'll take them off the table for good.

I also love your point about thinking further away. There is a regular deer path that goes up the southwest side of our homestead --- no wonder the deer drop by from time to time to nibble. It sounds like Mark's gut reaction --- to make a chicken pasture go across that path --- would be very helpful.

Okay, back to the drawing board!!

Comment by anna Thu Aug 11 16:31:10 2011

We have some deer that visit our area year after year, but since we are now in city limits hunting isn't an option. In our flower beds, we have been careful to chose varieties that deer are not interested in. They will still eat the tulips in early Spring, but I think that it is because the others haven't grown up and distracted them with different smells. Deer have strong habits and will come back to the same areas once they know that they can find a good food source year after year. The key is to break that cycle or prevent them from establishing it in the first place.

We had problems with deer getting into the garden and chicken feed. Even putting our dog run next to the garden didn't help. (It is interesting how the dog will go crazy around strangers but ignore deer) What helped us was to install tall t-posts (8 foot) with inexpensive deer netting. The plastic netting is light-weight and tears, so the best effect is a visual deterrent. For the most part, you don't have to actually prevent a determined deer from getting through, you just need a visual cue that they can't easily jump over or get around. (They will break through a strong barrier if they are being chased or startled.) I have seen deer jump through small holes in fencing five feet in the air, so the visual deterrent needs to have openings small enough that they would perceive that they can't get through. I'm wondering if a tall fence posts strung with twine every few inches would make a difference. You could use it to train vines to grow up and provide an additional barrier.

Comment by David Thu Aug 11 18:03:22 2011

I really like David's comment about using twined posts for growing veg. If you went ahead and used chain link I have seen gorgeously enormous success with people vertically growing pumpkins, winter squash, hops, grapes, etc on the strong chain link. However, even just using the twine and growing lighter vine crops all along that barrier would be extremely useful, yet a barrier every year. It's certainly the option I'd go for if it was financially in reach.

As for useful, living borders, I found several interesting plants that were double-duty. The 'cranberry' viburnum was a very interesting one because their pretty red berries are very similar to cranberries and apparently make an excellent cranberry jam, so maybe that's an option. You could consider raspberry borders that run along as a fence, as well, instead of blackberries. The key, of course, is to not make the gaps through which the deer would risk coming. So if you put them up fence-style instead of sprawling patches, then you should achieve your goal and have lots of useful plants. A mixed bush border of blueberries, currants, rose, etc, would also provide edibles and a barrier all-in-one. This does bring up that fact that some choices will take longer to grow together than others, but considering your patience and efforts with deer up until now, another year or two may not, ultimately, matter.

Comment by Brandy Thu Aug 11 19:44:50 2011
As I mentioned above, just putting in fences doesn't make sense for us. Since our growing area sprawls out over perhaps half an acre or more, fencing it in for no purpose except keeping deer out is just too much time and money for too little reward. That's why we're looking into more permaculture solutions.
Comment by anna Thu Aug 11 19:47:07 2011
Brandy --- You've got a good point about living fences. That area's pretty shady, which limits what we could grow, but I would count it worth my while to put up a trellis and train kiwis or other shade-tolerant fruits along it. Assuming I made the trellis run the whole distance along one edge of the boundary, it would probably do a good job of at least making deer less inclined to pop in, which is all I'm going for. Probably doesn't even need to be a really intertwined hedge to limit movement....
Comment by anna Thu Aug 11 19:53:44 2011
It seems to me that when you were living with me you and Magie were able to put up a low cost "fence" around your garden that kept the deer out. Would something like that be possible using downed small trees for posts and then large downed branches for a 3-D effect. Just remember that here the rabbits and ground hogs got in!
Comment by Sheila Thu Aug 11 22:17:08 2011

I distinctly remember my spiderweb fence (and wish I'd taken a picture of it. :-) ) But what I remember is that it didn't work. Maybe that was just due to smaller critters coming in?

The fencing problem still remains the same, though. I was fencing in a little lettuce bed, which is several orders of magnitude smaller than our current area.

Comment by anna Fri Aug 12 07:32:52 2011

(links from notechmagazine)

Comment by Roland_Smith Fri Aug 12 12:04:46 2011

Excellent links! The first one reminded me of one non-edible hedgerow use --- producing fertility. If I had a hedgerow of black locust, I wouldn't want to walk under it, but its leaves would make very good mulch for the garden (plus producing blooms for the bees.) And since it's so thorny, the deer would steer clear. Hmmm....

That post also makes hedge-making sound like so much fun, I'm itching to try! I've always loved the idea of making a more permanent fence since I know that our chicken wire fences will eventually rust through. You might have won me over, at least for part of the deer damage area....

Comment by anna Fri Aug 12 13:18:14 2011
Yes, it was the rabbits and ground hogs that got in as you did not think they would be a problem. Wrong!! You might want to put a two foot fence of some sort, maybe some wire, to keep the smaller critters out.
Comment by Sheila Sat Aug 13 00:11:55 2011
Luckily, Lucy does her job with the small herbivores. I've only seen a rabbit in the garden once, and it was running so fast, zigzagging through the garden with Lucy right on its heels!! I don't think she got it, but it didn't come back.
Comment by anna Sat Aug 13 08:19:52 2011
I've been reading about Osage Orange trees, and apparently they were widely used to fence in livestock before barbed wire came about by palnting them closely in rows and weaving the thorny foliage together.. Maybe another option for a natural fence?
Comment by Phil Wed Aug 17 16:32:59 2011
I've explored osage orange hedging before, even though they don't really fit the bill for being multi-purpose. My experimental hedge-laying didn't work, but I think I probably should have started the seeds in a more controlled environment where I could give them love and then transplanted them.
Comment by anna Wed Aug 17 18:24:27 2011

Osage oranges are a great tree for living fences! Deer hate to eat them too:) as for multi purpose the wood makes a great firewood and superior fence posts. A good load of hedge can fetch a premium price, currently 180 dollars a cord here. the fruit is sometimes eaten by livestock although inedible by humans. However the balls do keep all kinds of bugs out of your closets and basements! Ebay currently has hedge apples forfive bucks a piece and a tree can produce many. a row can be quite me ssy. Just wanted to add my two cents, there may be a better option but for ease of planting, upkeep and uses it's hard to beat a hedge apple!

Comment by Annie Tue Nov 1 22:39:06 2011

I actually played around with making an osage orange hedge. Despite all of the reports on the internet, I didn't see a single plant come up, which suggests you need to give the seedlings more love than I did (which wouldn't take much.

I'm still interested in the idea of hedges, but clearly it would take a considerable amount of work and should be tweaked to fit the species being fenced in. And we're not positive what all of those species will be yet....

Comment by anna Wed Nov 2 15:38:43 2011
If you have a source of bamboo you can build a shorter fence and tie bamboo poles diagonally along the fence to extend the height. The length and bushy tops will prevent the deer from jumpimg over it. Deer are also deterred by the sound they make as wind passessthrough them. This is a very cheap and quick way to make a 10' fence that uses no plastics only a fast growing renewable resource!
Comment by john Thu May 2 11:05:28 2013
I have t post fencing around my garden only 6ft high, not high enough to keep the deer from jumping in and eat all of my garden, BUT I found online some t-post fence height extenders that added 2 ft to 6 ft fence NOW I have 8 ft tall t post fences and NO DEER in my garden thanks to the tee-post extender people my family has fresh organic food to eat. it also work great for dog fencing. I bought them direct from the company her is the website is www.tpostextender.com
Comment by Kellie Wed Jun 3 02:41:13 2015
At a permaculture convergence a few years back, someone suggested planting Maximillian sunflowers as a hedge. They are perennial and have rough hairs on the leaves. They said the deer didn't like them. Inexpensive enough for an experiment, I'd think. AND they are lovely, edible tubers like Jerusalem artichokes and habitat for bees, birds, etc.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helianthus_maximiliani)
Comment by Patricia Menzies Sun Mar 13 18:48:44 2016
What about sea buckthorn? Nitrogen fixing, really thorny and with delicious berries which can also be made into a super healthy oil.
Comment by Kristian Sun May 8 10:58:35 2016
In Gaia's Garden, the author (Toby Hemenway) planted a thick hedge of mixed prickly species to deter the deer, then grafted related edible species on the inner side. Placed parallel to the deer path, would move them on past easy entry to your garden. Biggest drawback? Time for growing.
Comment by Patti Tue Nov 1 09:06:01 2016

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime