How to Keep Deer, Rabbits and Groundhogs out of Your Garden

Tips for Making Friends with Local Wildlife

This spring as warmer weather moves in and you make your way outside to enjoy your yard, you may find that you’re not the first one to get your hands (or should we say paws?) in the dirt. It seems every year more and more animals like deer, rabbits or groundhogs are finding their way into backyards, flower beds and gardens than ever before, causing homeowners more problems than ever.

For some of us, the occasional deer that passes our deck on a spring morning or the rabbit who quietly hops through our grass is little more than a pleasant reminder of the flora and fauna that spring brings. However, if you’re one the many gardeners who sees these animals as unwanted intruders prying on your beloved tulips and roses, their arrival can most certainly be met with equal parts of fear and disdain.

Before you throw up your hands in defeat or take drastic measures in defense of your pansies -- maybe even erecting a high fence at the cost of natural aesthetics -- there are a few things you should know to send the message that the party’s over to how to keep deer out of gardenthese unwanted guests who’ve chosen your yard as their favorite local buffet.

Most likely, the deer you see this spring is the same deer you saw last fall…though they may have brought company this time. As the number of predators has fallen in recent years, the rise of healthy offspring has grown from the occasional fawn to twins or triplets in some cases, and they stick by mom’s side until they can learn to survive on their own -- which means as she teaches them the best spots on the block to fill their bellies, they’ll be sure to remember to come back when they’re on their own.

The unfortunate fact for those of us who spend so much time planning the perfect backyard oasis is that female deer do not migrate. Instead, they will seek haven in the familiar settings of the same neighborhood year after year. The same goes for any female offspring that successfully learn to forage and survive the harsh winter. The bucks, however, will migrate for miles in search of habitat and a mate, which, unfortunately, leads to more deer to deal with next year.

The best move you can make to stop the damage caused by deer to your garden or yard is to consult with your local extension service or university to find out what native plants are the most deer-resistant. After all, one deer can consume over ten pounds of foliage a day, and as you’ve probably already figured out, there’s no such thing as a deer-proof plant, no matter what your local garden center tells you. Rather, there’s what a deer will eat first, and what a deer will eat later. Even harsh plant material like andromeda, barberry, boxwood and holly are, at best, least preferred by browsing deer, and selecting plants like these is a great way to start your defense against their voracious appetite.

As for the rabbits, groundhogs and other nesting animals that have begun their exploration of your garden or yard and launched a ground attack on your newly emerging flowers, consider their size and use it against them. Small decorative fences and walls can be a great way to hide your true intention: protection. If you’re able to find out where these animals tunnel and make their nests, you should consider decorative ways to close and cover them up. A large flower pot can take up the space that they’ve been using in a way that provides color to a spot you may have neglected. Meanwhile, freshly mulched beds can disrupt a familiar nesting spot just enough to relocate your unwanted guests.

And when all else fails, there are plenty of homemade remedies and commercially available products to help keep deer, rabbits or groundhogs out of gardens or yards. For years, Irish Spring’s soap has been shaved and sprinkled in flower beds to keep animals away, but you need to keep an eye on the area as rain and watering will wash it away quickly. If you want something a little more professional, try your local garden center or hardware store for commercial products like Messina Wildlife’s Animal Stopper line. The company uses a mix of organic ingredients to create a full line of animal repellents in both liquid and granular delivery methods for domestic and wild animals. Their products feature pleasant-to-use formulas that should last about 30 days regardless of weather. 

No matter how you decide to defend your garden or yard this spring from deer, rabbits or groundhogs, remember that while the expression may be that “good fences may make good neighbors,” learning to live with nature makes for a good life. By being able to coexist with the animals that pose a threat to your garden, you may find new joy in seeing how pleasantly they can surprise you just by being there.