Deer in the Garden? Here's One Way to Solve the Problem

The writer of this story was struggling with deer in the garden. Then she figured out how to deal with them.

As almost any gardener knows, deer are beautiful, graceful creatures. But when you have deer in the garden, they’re evil beings set on destruction. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. They do need to eat, right? I just wish they would stop eating my flowers and vegetables!

Even if you aren’t out in the country, your city garden may still get eaten by rabbits, skunks, and other city-dwelling critters. So whether it’s deer in the garden or some other animal, you know how frustrating it is when your colorful, lush garden turns into a sea of plant stems.

That’s precisely the problem writer Nancy Slack ran into at her central Texas home. In Deer Gardens, she hilariously describes how she imagined and even planted a garden of ivy, impatiens, roses, marigolds, zinnias, and poppies. That’s when it began. At first, it was just one deer. Then she noticed four or five deer in a nearby clearing. Then a dozen! She would plant; they would eat. And so it went.

But Nancy wasn’t giving up. “I sprinkled all the leaves with cayenne pepper and brushed off my hands. I could feel little beady eyes peering at me from the tree line. I realized it didn’t bother me anymore if the deer were hungry. I poured a little extra pepper on the mulch.”

Still they came, until Nancy and her husband “knew that one day we’d come home to find them all sitting in the living room reading the paper, smoking cigarettes, and working crossword puzzles.”

Did the deer end up in her home? Did Nancy ever get the garden of her dreams or did she awaken each day to find deer in the garden? I’ll let her share the story. Just be prepared to laugh!

Enjoy More Stories About Attempting to Fend Off All Sorts of Critters, Including Deer In the Garden

This story comes from our archive that spans over 30 years and includes more than 130 magazine issues of GreenPrints. I love pieces like these that turn stories into comical moments of laughter, and I hope you enjoy this story as well.

decorative border

Deer Gardens

How I solved my deer problem. For good.

By Nancy Slack

Don Quixote was just fine until he began reading books.

I think gardening books were what got me. At night I’d pore over lush photographs of gardens from New England and Germany and France. I wanted them all. It was an innocent diversion while we were renting.

When we bought an old house west of Austin, though, I took my gardening books with me. Every evening I’d walk around the yard, making feverish lists of plants in my head. My mind would sweep over the raw Texas countryside, conjuring up rich, lush hillsides of verdant green plants. I didn’t see the cedar trees anymore. In place of these (my version of windmills), I saw flowers.

So I began stacking rocks next to the front porch to make a garden wall. Occasionally, I’d look up from the dirt and stare over the hill. The view didn’t look like the photographs in my magazines, but I found I liked to look at it. It was a stark landscape of a few muted colors: white limestone, wheat-colored grass, and the dark green of cedar and live oak trees. Overhead, vultures circled in a blue sky, and the wind ruffled the tall grass in the distance.

One day, from the side window of the house, we saw something move. “Look,” said my husband, “a deer.” We watched her pick her way past a stand of yucca plants. Her ears twitched, and the white flat of her tail flicked.

We crept onto the porch for a closer look. I could see the deer over the garden I’d planted: ivy, impatiens, four o’clocks, and roses. The pinks and greens looked pretty against the weathered wood of the house, like an old-fashioned English garden. Out near the cedar trees, the deer turned and looked at us with wide brown eyes.

The next morning we opened the door to find that the garden was devastated. The impatiens were eaten; the roses devoured. That pretty little deer had chewed up all my plants.

I kicked a half-eaten rose bush. “So much for English country gardens,” I said.

“There might be more than one deer,” Darrell said. “Their only predators out here are cars.”

I raked up the root balls and threw them onto the compost pile. And I’d thought that deer was so cute. People in Louisiana probably think alligators are cute, too, until one eats their poodle. I needed to look back through my magazines and find a whole new way to garden. I needed something that deer wouldn’t eat.

So the next week I rolled down the driveway with a carful of new plants: marigolds, zinnias, salvia, and poppies. These were deer-resistant plants, and they looked wild and bright against the cedar house, like a Santa Fe courtyard. I tucked the earth around a seedling and stood up, startling four or five deer at the edge of the clearing. Poor things. Maybe it was hard for them to find something to eat.

But it wasn’t hard at all. Those deer waded into the garden like folks at a church supper when the prayer meeting lasted too long. So much for Santa Fe courtyards. I needed better defense. I could put up a fence, but an eight-foot barricade around the house would feel less like a home than a prison. Besides, those deer seemed fiendishly clever. They’d probably be able to work the gate.

I looked at my books again and toted home plants that were leathery, pungent, or flat-out poisonous. I planted rosemary, garlic, and mint along one side of the house; datura, iris, and yarrow along the other. I sprinkled all the leaves with cayenne pepper and brushed off my hands. I could feel little beady eyes peering at me from the tree line. I realized it didn’t bother me anymore if the deer were hungry. I poured a little extra pepper on the mulch. But I walked out a week later to find the datura stripped down to its stalk. I looked to see if I could find a deer body stretched out next to it—datura is related to nightshade. The idea of finding a corpse cheered me up. I looked behind me. Seven or eight deer stood near the cedar trees, their heads cocked to one side. They gazed at me attentively, with the same tender interest that vampires probably feel for a Red Cross nurse.

Over the next few months, they consumed the rest of the garden. They ate the flowers off the iris and the yarrow down to the root. The only plant left in the garden was a rosemary bush. It grew two feet wide and waxed luxuriously, in stately privacy. It had plenty of room.

By this time a herd of twelve deer stood out back of the driveway each morning. They’d flick their ears at me cheerfully whenever I opened the front door. In the evenings they’d roam around the yard like cows, huffing at each other, sometimes kicking at a yearling. At night our headlights would pick up the eyes of fawns bedded under the trees. Once a doe parked her baby on the front porch. I knew that one day we’d come home to find them all sitting in the living room reading the paper, smoking cigarettes, and working crossword puzzles.

It had gone too far.

I have always been morally opposed to hunting. When I married my husband, I couldn’t understand how he could shoot animals. They were living beings, a part of the planet, our fellow creatures.

That’s before those creatures ate my flowers. Times had changed. We drove to town and made the ultimate gardening purchase. We bought the final defense in the war against deer, the horticultural equivalent of the A-bomb.

A freezer.

I spent that Fall encouraging my husband to fill up his deer tag. He didn’t like doing this—it was a long way from what he regarded as hunting. I’d look out the window and point at a yearling in the front yard, saying, “Get that one, honey. He ate my marigolds. Shoot him.”

That Winter we put three deer in the freezer. I cooked venison stew, venison chili, and burgers and spaghetti sauce with ground venison. I found that I liked deer meat. It was low fat and easy to use. And it tasted a lot like flowers.

It seemed to work—the deer disappeared from the yard. One day I moved a few plants to the porch and looked out over the clearing. It seemed a little empty with no deer out there.

Then, at the edge of the clearing, I saw something move. Nine or ten deer were moving towards the cedar trees. Most of them were does. I wondered how many were pregnant.

I slumped onto the porch. The deer hadn’t disappeared after all, and they were probably still hungry.
I watched as they picked their way through the Winter grass. Framed against the trees, with the last of the light shining on their coats, they looked delicate and pretty. They looked like they were living where they belonged.

Maybe after a while, I thought, people in Louisiana find that they don’t care about poodles anymore. Perhaps they quit planting Japanese maples and draining the swamps. Maybe they start to walk down to the water every evening, hoping to see alligators slowly rise to the surface of the swamp.

I put my head in my hands. I didn’t know if I’d been creating a garden as much as maintaining a police state. Maybe it was time to accept the landscape the way it really was.

So I gave up. I bought a crateful of rosemary bushes and filled all the gardens with that one kind of plant. Up on the porch, the rosemary smelled rich and oily. The green matched the cedar trees and the leaves on the live oaks. It wasn’t a garden for Santa Fe or England, but a garden for the Texas hill country. It looked like it was growing where it belonged.

After that, we sat on the porch in the evenings, and the deer came every night. Some evenings there would be 14 or 15 of them. They trailed quietly across the clearings, moving slowly. Like walking flowers.

By Nancy Slack, published originally in 2020-21, in GreenPrints Issue #124. Illustrated by Tim Foley

decorative border

Have you had an experience like this? I’d love to read your story in the comments below.

  • I had approx. 100 hosta plants… I loved them, so big and lush…. the deer ate them all.
    One very harsh winter, they almost anihilated my rhododendron bush, and it is supposed to be
    poisonous to deer, even causing convulsions and death. I have allowed the deer to feel that
    my property is home and safe. One even had twins one year, one in the back of the property, and the other on the front lawn. Sadly the one in back died of hypothermia the same night it was born, because the temperature dropped to below zero, and I would expect it becomes very difficult to take care of 2 babies that are 200 feet apart. My husband took it to the cottage and gave it a decent burial. I now only plant things I find precious on my balcony, Whatever is planted on the ground, I freely let them eat. Everyone is hungry. (One morning a 3 legged racoon was resting serenely on the chair on my front verandah.) So I haven’t given up, I just have come to the realization that we share this land with other creatures, and we are the ones who have encroached on their territory. Love and peace to all.

  • Gardener F.

    Oh, yes, I’ve been there, unfortunately I live in a small town and shooting them (or even bringing in professional archers to host. a deer hunt) is prohibited. After spending loads of money for years on spray-on deterrents (they do work, but also create a lot of work, a need for close attention to a spraying schedule and lost time for the gardener) we finally built an 8 foot fence. As the writer said most often that kind of fence is not a thing of beauty so we put in open work fence panels along the front and sides of the yard. Solid wood fencing encloses the back along the deer trail equivalent of grand central station for neighborhood deer. It’s working but after nearly two years of deer free paradise we had four visitations from fawns, we think it’s the same pair that initially jumped through the 10 in square openings in the front fence (they do learn through experience). Who could have envisioned that they would be able to jump through a space that small with those long, skinny, dangling back legs? So now my husband is busy building additional panels to narrow the existing open squares to add to the bottom 3 feet of the existing fence to create “fawn barriers” which hopefully will work. I guess we will find out after the next birthing season—–they seem to be having triplets nowadays rather than just singles or twins.

    As it turns out the fence and large gates that my husband designed and built have proved to be a good deterrent as well as a great enhancement to the lot and showcase the gardens that they enclose.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter Your Log In Credentials

This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

GreenPrints is an active member of the following industry associations: