Advice About Deer Fences
Humane, beautiful, budget-friendly ways to protect vegetable gardens from wildlife
Dear Avant Gardener, We recently bought a large property in New England. We have planted an orchard and are looking forward to creating a vegetable garden. Our challenge is how to create a practical fence that works at keeping the deer out of the vegetable garden and isn't a total eyesore! We want our little garden plot to look beautiful! — Carolyn, Brooklyn
Welcoming and nurturing wildlife is my passion, so what can I say about deer fences? I’ll get to design — another passion — but first some thoughts on humane gardening that have practical implications for your fence.
Deer’s gotta eat
I’m glad you want to fence your vegetable garden, not your entire property. With a large property, you can make sure there are plants to feed the deer away from your orchard and planned vegetable garden. As Nancy Lawson writes,
Occasionally people ask me whether I ever factor the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer and other species into my thinking. Reversing this concept, I like to ask a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we question the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life? — Humane Gardener
Lawson suggests resilient natives that thrive while also nurturing deer. (Lawson’s leaflet and other resources are linked at the bottom of today’s column.)
Form follows function
Before you build a permanent fence, I encourage you to spend time on your property observing its ecosystem. The optimal design for your fence will depend on what needs protecting from whom. Your young fruit trees may be more vulnerable to deer than your vegetables, for example, requiring cages to protect individual trees while they’re young. And your vegetable garden may need protection from rabbits, groundhogs, or racoons, each of which calls for a different design. Or maybe you’ll be really lucky and all these animals will have predators and food aplenty and won’t eat your produce.
Sometimes the predators we most fear turn out to be friends, not foes. As Tammi Hartung of Colorado’s Desert Canyon Farm told Lawson:
“So often what I’ve learned is that we jump to these conclusions about what’s happening, and that’s not what’s really going on at all. . . . We thought for years that deer were eating crops, and we were doing our defensive moves on individual crops. And then we started paying more attention, and we noticed that they weren’t eating those at all.” The plant of choice was invasive bindweed — “our biggest problem here” in the pathways along the one-hundred-foot beds. . . .
[O]ne longtime cattle rancher recently asked Hartung what she does about cottontails and jackrabbits. . . . When she suggested he let the foxes, coyotes, and bobcats take care of them, he said, “I’ve been telling the guys at the ranch to shoot any of those things they see. Maybe I should rethink that.” — The Humane Gardener
Pete and I were thrilled when a fox showed up on our Rhode Island property to control the rabbit population, but our neighbor feared for her West Highland terrier Jack’s life. It took Pete — and his wildlife biology credentials — to convince her Jack was safe. In fact, it was the fox that was in danger; Westies were bred by Scottish farmers to kill them.
Tools for observation
I suggest treating your first vegetable garden as an experiment. You could forego the fence or install an inexpensive one temporarily. Once you’ve gardened at your new home for a couple of years, you’ll have a much better idea what the threats are, as well as how much produce you can use and how big a garden you enjoy tending.
Whatever you do, consider installing wildlife cameras to monitor what’s really going on.
When an adult pair of foxes began stopping beneath the Hartungs’ bird feeders with their kits, night cameras revealed they were eating mice drawn to the seed. – The Humane Gardener
We have various cameras at both our homes, and they provide endless amusement, as well as useful information. For example, we often see a large family of racoons parade up our Florida dock at sundown. They have never even touched our trash, preferring the plentiful oysters, acorns, and palmetto seeds on the property.
If you have room and time, consider a living fence that deer can neither push through nor jump over. One option is a dense hedge of deer-resistant native shrubs at least four feet deep with a gate. Create a broad pathway around the interior of the entire hedge to ensure it doesn’t shade your vegetables, which generally require at least six hours of sun.
If you have the right conditions — moist soil nowhere near anyone’s foundation or plumbing — you could make a living fence from willow cuttings. Native species are keystones, supporting hundreds of species of caterpillars, necessary to the survival of terrestrial bird species.
Simple and symmetrical
The critter fence designs pictured below are made of nearly invisible wire with metal or wood posts. Little effort is made to hide the wire; your eye is drawn past the wire by the lush plants inside. (Note: Avoid drooping fencing; a bad look.) Choose a style and materials that work with your house and hardscaping, keeping the number of materials to a minimum – and don’t break the bank.
Humans are programmed from birth to prefer symmetry, so it’s no coincidence that the enclosed shapes are square or rectangular with a wide entry in the middle of the longest wall. The rectangular enclosures even appear to follow the golden rule, with the longest sides roughly 1.6 times the shorter ones. Note that the wire grids are squares or Vs, too, which are more attractive than rectangles.
— The Avant Gardener
P.S. Spring is coming. What landscape challenge do YOU plan to tackle this year? How can I help? Please send rambling questions and even images to me at DearAvantGardener@gmail.com. I edit questions for publication.
Here are various attractive, functional deer fences, starting with Martha Stewart’s in Katonah, New York. It’s an example of how scale — generous, symmetrical, divine proportions — and simple functional design make a beautiful garden. As you can see from the detail, the posts are squared metal and the metal grid is similar to this eight-foot high, two-by-two inch grid (though hers appears to be galvanized without coating and woven instead of welded).
Interior designer Jonathan Berger’s hand-tied wire and Coyote-fence lodgepoles reflect the vernacular of his Santa Fe, New Mexico, location. The fence is actually held up by inexpensive metal posts behind the lodgepoles.
Another of Martha Stewart’s vegetable garden fences looks to be made of four-by-fours and two heights of four-foot tall V-mesh horse fence from RedBrand. The posts could be either pressure treated lumber or cedar, which costs five times as much and doesn’t last as long; they both weather to an almost indistinguishable grey.
The fence by Sunny Side Design is made by enclosing five-foot high rigid hog panels in pressure treated lumber, then adding an arbor on top to reach the eight foot height required to keep out deer. They provide materials links and step-by-step DIY instructions.
This ten-foot-tall fence includes closely spaced pickets along the bottom to keep out small animals and a deer-proof grid of squares made of one-by-ones above. The fence is capped by two-by-eights and beveled two-by-sixes. All wood is cedar, except for the pressure-treated corner posts topped by finials. Deer have never jumped over the swinging picket gates at the front and back of the enclosure, according to the owner.
See lists of deterrent and resilient plants in Nancy Lawson’s pamphlet, Gardening Among Hungry Mammals.
See my complete DIY instructions for Creating a Privacy Hedge.
Read about keeping out rabbits, raccoons, and groundhog at Mother Earth News.
Evaluate whether a living willow fence is right for you and buy supplies at Vermont Willow Nursery. Cutting also available at Living Willow Farm. (Check native Salix ranges at bonap.org; avoid non-native species.)
Find start-to-finish instructions for your first vegetable garden, including how to build a temporary fence, at Grow It Build It.
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