Deer deterrents — Taste and touch

Got deer? Do you want to try controls other than expensive fences? In addition to deterrents that may repel deer through their sense of smell, there are several that work on their senses of taste and touch. Rhonda Massingham Hart, in her revised book on Deerproofing Your Yard and Garden, gives a nice summary of these deterrents.

Just as we tend to avoid foods that don’t taste good, unless we are starving, so do deer. This brings up one drawback to this group of repellents, deer must first taste the plant or plant part to find out they don’t like it. So there will be some chewing damage.

Another drawback is that such repellents, similar to odour ones, may be washed off with rain and so need frequent reapplication. Keep in mind that taste repellents are usually applied to non-food crops, as they wont taste good to us either.

Unlike odour repellents which steer deer away from a whole area, taste repellents work on only the plant part they cover. This is good if you like to watch deer but just don’t want them chewing certain plants. On the other hand, plant parts that aren’t sprayed may be eaten, so spray thoroughly. This principle applies to other wildlife as well. I found this out the hard way with rabbits which ate the stems of my sunflowers, leaving a nice row of leaves which had been sprayed with such a repellent.

Perhaps the most common taste repellent is a pepper spray, either ones you can buy or make yourself. This not only tastes bad but also can create a burning sensation for a short time, as many have learned with hot sauces. In fact, just mix up some hot sauce with water and a surfactant and spray on plants. The ratio will of course vary with the hot sauce, but one part hot sauce to 16 parts water often works well. Studies have confirmed the obvious, that more and stronger works better.

Another recipe consists of five tablespoons of cayenne pepper, and one tablespoon of olive oil, to one gallon of water. I have found though the pepper particles may clog the tips of sprayers and be hard to clean. Another drawback to pepper sprays in particular is that they may also repel beneficial and desirable pollinators.

Another home remedy that may repel humans as well is rotten eggs. Less offensive and effective for some is gray water– used soapy water as from a bath. Keep in mind that detergent water probably wont work, as it doesn’t contain the fatty acids that are in soap, and that repel deer. The soapy water also may leave a white film on leaves, and attract mice.

Commercial taste repellents are available, often containing bitter chemicals or even the fungicide thiram. If using any of these, follow label precautions, and definitely don’t use on food crops.

Deer don’t like, and may be scared off by, unexpected touches. One of the most popular of these deterrents is a lawn sprinkler, activated by motion. These may work on other wildlife and dogs as well. Ones that work on timers aren’t nearly as effective as deer, being quick learners, soon learn the pattern.

One of the cheapest deterrents, touch and otherwise, is monofilament line such as heavy fishing line. Some just use one strand, held on stakes between two and three feet off the ground. Deer, having poor eyesight, bump into this and not knowing what touched them are spooked. Others go for a fence of multiple strands, about eight feet high and about 18 inches apart. Some using such lines have reported deer, not seeing them, run right through them. Humans may trip over them as well!

Dr. Leonard Perry is Extension Professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. Visit his website at