just saying no to deer, with fencing

front-fence-and-trip-wire-in-sunI GARDENED WITH THE DEER FOR NEARLY A DECADE, and then I said no more. I’d sprayed, sachet-ed, blood-mealed and Milorganite-d myself into a meltdown; I just couldn’t wrap or pen or hang aluminum pie-plate mobiles or otherwise defend individual plants any longer. After all, the deer would just eat whatever wasn’t “protected,” being indiscriminate feeders who were happy to move on to the next course as the previous runs out. So I finally fenced.

Fencing is the only real deer-proofing method there is (assuming your fence is the right construction for your location and animal population, and is well-maintained). No other tactic offers complete control, keeping deer out of the garden.

Even “deerproof” plants had proved deer-resistant at best, and besides, the garden-design limitations such lists impose provide insufferable restriction for someone like me, who can’t resist a hot plant. I’m as much an omnivore as the deer; we just couldn’t cohabitate peacefully.

eaten-hostasThe garden’s backbone—its woody plants—were being disfigured. Forget the occasional hosta stripped of its leaves (above); ugly, yes, but it sent up new growth relatively fast. The deer damage to woody plants I’d invested money and then time in (waiting for them to go from $30 youngsters to a real part of the landscape) was mounting fast. Some viburnums, in particular, had taken multiple hits and were beyond corrective-pruning rehab, as were many evergreen hollies—two of my favorite genera of shrubs.

The cost exceeded the actual plant-specific losses, too: All those half-effective potions and gadgets, and the time it took to use them, were pricey.

And finally, one day, I looked out the window and realized this: I garden largely to enjoy viewing the landscape I have created, not to view a bunch of vulnerable specimens each encased in their own private cages, like a military encampment of impromptu tents and tee-pees pitched here and there in a time of battle. It was a sad sight. Enough.

fences that work


FIRST in my exploration, I turned to scientists and agricultural experts (not garden-product marketers), always my preferred first step. To choose a style of fence that will work for your garden locale, you need information about the local deer species, their habits, and their capabilities (read: how high can they jump, and how low will they go).

Managing deer in a suburban environment can vary greatly from doing so in a rural one; hilly terrain and flat land each has its challenges. And so on. A comprehensive book by Neil Soderstrom, “Deer-Resistant Landscaping” (Amazon affiliate link), walks you through how to analyze your situation on all these fronts; suggests numerous plants that offer resistance, and covers 20 other animal pests and many anti-deer tactics other than fencing. I can speak only from my own experience; the book didn’t exist when I was experimenting here myself.

Great resources for location-specific insights: your cooperative extension (find yours); a nearby botanical garden or conservation organization (I relied initially on research that was then available from nearby Cary Institute of Ecocsystems Studies at first); or agricultural organizations like this one that compiles information that is product-agnostic, like this one.

Or start with this primer on protecting plants from deer from Ohio State’s wildlife program specialist Marne Titchenell. From such sources, I quickly learned that fence could be of several classes and complexities:

  • electrified or not (the former generally being cheaper because less material is involved; wire’s cheaper than other fencing);
  • made of materials ranging from board to wire strands to high-strength polypropylene mesh (above, shown reinforced with high-tensile wire), to woven wire (bottom photo);
  • temporary (seasonal) or permanent, with both versions existing of most of the above kinds;
  • requiring professional installation or at least expertise and equipment like a post-hole digger (a nearby, fenced-in tree farm helped me find a capable contractor); or in other cases more DIY;
  • that cost per foot can vary from very little to very large.

I also learned a few more things, some of them the hard way:

  • No matter how tall your fence is, what you do at ground level to exclude the deer is just as important. Deer are happy to do the limbo anytime and wriggle on in, particularly fawns.

It wasn’t until years later, on a trip to the hillside Northern California of salvia expert Betsy Clebsch, that I learned how two rows of low fencing situated parallel to each other will also work: specifically, two 4′ tall fences spaced 5′ apart.

The gap between is too wide for jumping (and deer hate entering an enclosed space, anyhow, that “reads” as if they might get trapped). But the gap’s big enough for your wheelbarrow and mower (or you can plant it, a garden ringing the garden).

This is a great solution for small gardens or areas near the house where a tall fence would be unsightly. It creates a space like the old-fashioned dooryard garden, but with two rows of fence. A more impromptu, agricultural-application double-fence method could be created with moveable electric fencing panels, too, like the material sold as sheep fencing. One caveat: If you have heavy deer pressure, plan to put low fences up quickly, all at once. Don’t let the animals get accustomed to a piece here or there, and adapt; change their pattern of movement once only, for good.

A final possibility is growing a living deer-proof fence, or a hedge too wide to jump, from willows, says longtime plantsman Michael Dodge. Best deer-resistant Salix, for fencing and hedging (a.k.a. fedges), he says: “The S. purpurea willows are deer-resistant, and great for a fedge or fence. Even gracilis or nana makes a dense bush, 4 by 4 feet, that they won’t jump over.”

my own fencing adventures

front-fence-detail-2MY PROPERTY is bordered on three sides by state parkland and forest, so I was able to make good use of the natural treeline as part camouflage and part support for my fence. That really influenced my choice of a high mesh barrier.

On the front boundary (top photo), where I did not wish to have the caged-in look of a very high fence, I fashioned a modified double fence. I used 6-foot posts between each piece of picket fencing (detail, above), and strung the poly mesh reinforced with high-tensile wire (not electrified) to reinforce the top. Outside that layer, a three-strand trip wire (also not electrified) on low posts forms the “other” fence (below).


My own fence journey has had two major phases: First, after that initial research, I used polypropylene mesh. I got very good, but not complete, control from this 7.5-foot material for about six years, until one too many animal had run into it or limb had fallen on it. Not the material’s fault, though.


I failed to reinforce the mesh with several strands of high-tensile wire running horizontally through the top, bottom and middle. Today, in one spot where I use this system (above), I have it properly reinforced, as in the photo above (and also flapped and pinned down at ground level with earth staples to prevent invasions from below, as I always did according to product directions). Note: This is not bird netting, but heavy poly with larger openings.


Once the poly had done its service, I switched to woven wire (below), a very heavy 8-foot-tall metal material. Sliding farm gates on rollers span both my driveways (above): ugly, yes, but not as ugly as what the deer would do to me. Nobody’s been in since; well, nobody except the frogboys, but they don’t eat much in the way of shrubbery.

(Oh, and in 2014, an adult black bear did climb the metal gate to have a hot-tub-like dip in my water garden, and basically check the place out. Probably no fence that’s going to help me prevent that. The usual bobcat and fox visits I don’t mind a bit.)

woven-wire-fencegoing fenceless?

IF YOU ARE insistent on going fenceless, I suggest doing some homework. Again, read this interview with the Ohio State specialist on basic deer-fighting tactics. And then study up about plants that might stand up to the pressure. I love the Rutgers search tool that rates plants by their appeal (or lack of appeal) to deer (sample result below); other university extensions have lists and charts to offer for other regions.

deer chartRuth Rogers Clausen’s book “50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants” (Amazon affiliate link) is another popular resource by a serious plant person and longtime garden writer. No way I’m sticking to 50, though, so please: Do fence me in.

  1. Jim Pike says:

    I read your article with interest and it reflected my own experience (70 years thus far). I developed my own two fence solution last year which I described earlier on this site. I would refer people to view it, because it has now worked well for over a year. It is structurally weak but because it is electrified the deer do not seem to bother it after an initial experience with it. It may or may not work well in snowy areas, but maybe you don’t need it (for vegetables) in the winter. One of the best things though is that it is inexpensive. I protected around ten thousand square feet (100′ X 100′ ) for around $250.00 although I did it myself so there was no labor cost. I don’t know how you would find it because it was a comment to another article but maybe if you ask the good folks here they could point you to it. Good luck. Jim Pike

    1. Russell Dawkins says:

      Mr. Pike, could you supply a link to your item describing your two fence solutions, please? I can’t find it.
      Alternately, could you please email me at rdawkins(at)shaw.ca
      Thanks, Russell

  2. Kirsten Roberts says:

    Thank you for your story and photos!
    I have moved to a suburb and have created a garden about 12′ x 12′ square rather close to our house. Deer and rabbits are used to grazing in the yard.

    What are your thoughts about the following fence?
    6′ tall t-post stakes at corners and center of each side, then wrapping around a 3′ high wire fence (squares too small for a rabbit). Finally, stretching a wire around the garden at the 5′ and 6′ heights.

    Inside the garden I would maintain some 2′ high stakes that help mark rows, but might also confuse the deer. I also have 3 6′ tall large tomato cages inside the fencing.

    Do you think this garden plot is small enough that this fencing will discourage the deer?

    Thank you for your advice!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kirsten. They usually won’t jump into a visually busy space like that. You might hand “flags” (strips of an old sheet or some other cloth) on the upper wire every several feet to make sure that they “read” that it’s there. I suspect you can take the “flags” down after a month or two.

  3. Janie says:

    Hi Margaret, I have been reading and following you since you were in Newsday! Here in Smithtown we now have deer, and living right on the Blydenburgh Park area all of a sudden we have deer eating from the tops down, voles form the bottom up, and rabbits whatever the rest leave! I am planning a BIG garden job, to put hoops and covers over my day lily beds and putting all my veg and annual beds together now, in one area, fenced off, with raised beds within. Hope it works! I keep “trying” to give up, especially since the “Hurricane”, but I just can’t.. I think it’s in my blood..both sets of grandparents were farmers at one time in their lives and my mother was an avid gardener…
    So I made a small plot with some tomatoes eggplants peppers(hot and sweet) cukes and just planted some cole for fall in between..covered all with big netting which is helping (I hate bird netting) just had to get a fairly large black snake out of it the other day). My green beans and lettuces and herbs I put in my very very crowed very small walk out the door deck this year, to keep them away from the deer…..and my zucchini is in an old wheel barrow…I can’t wait for a regular sized garden again! Although I kind of like the sq in the wheel barrow… but I miss my winter squash, since theres not enough room for them in the tiny plot I made!! (I’ve been gardening organic since 1971)
    I think if I make the fence is high enough and theres stakes etc, within it, as you mentioned above, it just might work. I have a lot of work to do..I have lilacs started (they’re small I might as well try to save them..I know they will eat the hostas, lining the driveway, down to the nubs but I can’t save it all..I even have some of those in pots on my patio to spare them) and there’s sedum and even the Montauk Daisies they are eating..all have to be moved..
    Anyway thanks for your advice, as always love it……hope this works!

  4. Leonard Ladin says:

    For over 15 years I have fenced my 2.3 acre property with 29 beds, many dozens of sq. ft. of ground cover and over 100 planted shrubs including hydrangea of every cultivar and viburnums of many species. I use the same polypropylene material that you used, supported either by trees (stapled) or a double height of 2 five foot
    cattle steel fence posts using black cable ties to hold fencing. After being invaded by squirming yearlings. I put up 3ft. teel hardware cloth supported by re-rod. This combination is used on three sides of the property. The swinging gate is a 10ft wide “pony gate” of solid rough hewn 1 thick oak. On top of the 5ft high white gate are five ft. high, 3/4″, black steel pipes into which four 1/4″ black steel rods are screwed. The front of the property has classic wooden horse fencing four ft. high surmounted by a single five ft. cattle post to which the poly is also attached by cable ties. The 3 spaces between the horizontals are filled with a single wire strand to deter squirmers

    All this was done after the same frustrations you mention of organic and chemical repellents which failed and the aluminum plates on wires. The last straw was when the deer completely removed the leave from six foot Ilex Glabra, imported at great expense from Cape Co planted under my Pines on the road side of the property.
    Since then I have experienced a few incursions requiring fence repair with cable wraps or pieces on new poly. This resulted in loss of hosta leaves and in on snowless winter the loss of significant amounts of winter creeper ground cover.

    I would never go to your wire fence as unlike the black poly, it is not invisible against the woodland that mostly surrounds me. However now that 15 years have passed with the poly, I wish to avoid further damage as it ages and profit by your suggestion of reinforcing the top and middle sections (the lower is reinforced by the hardware cloth) with “high tensile steel wire” Can you please be more specific about the wire: diameter. what defines “high” tensile strength and most importantly a source that would understand what I will need and/or what I want to purchase

    Thanks for an extremely useful article as I always find in your news letter.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Leonard. It’s the kind of wire that is used to make inexpensive electric fences, and comes in rolls — I suspect it’s either 14 gauge or 17 gauge. I just asked at the farm-supply store or lumber yard, and it was long ago but I know that’s what it is usually used for (and comes in different thicknesses).

  5. Ralph says:

    Thanks for this piece. We have 20 acres of the Texas hill country (and all it’s deer.) I am leaning towards your concept. Our idea is to plant a pyracantha hedge in the lane in between the fences. Will this negate the inside fence?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Ralph. The first time I saw a parallel set of low fences, at the salvia collector I mentioned in Northern California, she actually grew roses between the two fences in several big swaths. As long as the distance between the fences is too tight to seem inviting, but also too wide to jump across both in one leap, you can in fact plant in between, I think.

  6. Anthony says:

    Take a visit to the Mohonk Mountain House they have an interesting deer fence, also a list of plants and their study over the years for deer resistance. Their gardens are beautiful. Peace…

  7. Marion Kukula says:

    Living close to Valley Forge Natl. Park we were overrun with deer. I enclosed an area that runs from the house to about 60 feet back. We put in posts that are 8 ft. tall and put up 4 ft of picket fence topped with 4 feet of black wire with 2 X 4 in. openings. The black wire disappears when viewed from the house. The deer can roam beyond the fence, but have never jumped in.

  8. Margaret Koster says:

    Regarding deer resistant plants, I took a class on propagating California natives a few years ago and the discussion went to the subject of deer and deer appetites, as it always does. One fellow observed, “The trouble with those plant lists is the deer don’t read them!” I have read that they don’t prefer pungent plants and plants with small leaves and so far this has proven more or less true in my unfenced border garden. They are leaving the cooking herbs and the strong smelling salvias alone – but with the drought they are hungry and some plants previously undamaged are suffering a lot more munching this year. I individually fence shrubs until they are large enough to tolerate browsing, but on one manzanita I can see I should have let it get a little taller. Another manzanita with smaller leaves they have not bothered at all. Go figure.

    My fence, designed and installed by a friend, is quite elegant. Lengths of iron pipe are driven into the ground and hold the ends of overlapping rebar arches. The rebar is fastened together where it meets and there is horizontal rebar all along the top. The arch framework supports six foot high woven wire with tighter weaving near the bottom for the smaller critters.

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds like a great fence, Margaret. And I agree on all your points: Generally aromatic plants are “safer” than others, but when deer are hungry, all bets are off.

  9. Mary Keefe says:

    I have begun trying a motion detecting devise that shoots a burst of water. It protected perennials last summer. We shall see how it works this year. Have you tried this?

  10. Liz says:

    “Once the poly fence had done it’s service, I switched to woven wire.”
    So did the poly fence eventually wear out?…..Asking as I need to put up a fence.

    1. margaret says:

      I had not reinforced it with the wire needed to keep it taut, so when deer (or bear) ran into it, it sagged and eventually got damaged. In another location where I did it right and threaded the wire through, it has more than 10 years of service without a single issue. So it was not the material’s fault (but do get the heavyweight stuff, not lightweight like bird netting).

  11. Nancy Bellaire says:

    Our garden club installs gardens for nonprofit organizations, which are without deer fencing. And will never put up fencing. In addition to using the Rutgers site in making resistant choices, we plan to plant the new garden using repellex. Repellex are tablets you put in the planting hole.

    Does anyone have experience with this product.?

  12. sylvia warner says:

    Does no one else have to deal with deer, chipmunks and woodchucks? I’d really like a fence that keeps out all 3!

    1. margaret says:

      I have everyone but the deer, and would have them, too, if not for my fence. With woodchucks, you have to go below ground and above with your fencing, since they are fantastic tunnelers, and I don’t think there’s a fence in the world that could stop a chipmunk.

  13. Paul Westervelt says:

    I too love Soderstrom’s book and especially admire his deer resistant plant lists as I’ve never seen anyone do it so well. Deer in different areas eat different things so even though they apparently don’t eat Podophyllum in New York, my stands are defoliated each spring. Neil surveyed reputable lists from around the country and gave each a code. Each plant on his master list is then followed by the codes of every list that included that particular plant. The more codes behind a given plant, the more confident I can be deer won’t eat it. It’s not foolproof (I’ve heard of them eating Hellebore and Aconitum in desperate situations), but I still wish I’d thought of it!

    1. margaret says:

      Very funny, Kinney. Of course a dog is a great partner in the garden, against all pests. My fence never needs feeding or walking, though. :)

    2. Nancy Simmons says:

      The deer come so close to the house that they scare my dog so badly that one night she jumped through the basement window!!
      I gave up on gardening several years ago because of the population of wildlife here, in the Mid-Hudson region but this year my son and I are going to begin again in earnest. we have built small (3×6), fenced, raised beds hoping to keep all creatures at bay.
      Wish us luck!

      1. margaret says:

        The fence is the key, Nancy. Can’t garden in a high deer-pressure area without a physical barrier, period. I do wish you luck.

  14. sylvia sylvester says:

    I have found that just about any fence, four feet or taller will work if you have a German Shepherd that has a dog door for night time guarding. My dog gets out of my bed, ha ha and rus out side and scares the deer away. They only come into the yard once. Way too hard to run away from a big dog like that and jump a fence too. They choose to never come back. Between the dog and the cat, the rodent population also stay away. Not to mention people with bad intention.

    Sometimes we make life too hard. . . I got my best friend for $69.00 at the pound. I have had four of them over my lifetime, and none of them have ever dug or caused any problem in my gardens.

    1. margaret says:

      You’re right, Sylvia, a dog is a great deterrent! Used to have a cat but he is gone, sadly…so just me and the fence remain! :)

  15. James says:

    Just be careful if your dog goes after a fawn when the mother deer is nearby. This happened to me yesterday and my dog is now at the emergency Veterinarian. I’m going to put up deer fencing.

    1. margaret says:

      Sorry to hear that, James. Best wishes that your dog has a speedy recovery. (And I never regretted the investment I made in my fence like 20 years ago. Smartest thing I ever did.)

  16. william h morehouse says:

    Interesting little tidbit!
    These are “Urban” deer not suburban!
    In Coxsackie.
    Last year the deer got in my son’s garden and pretty much ate everything
    What was interesting they ate the HOT pepper plants and the HOT peppers too!

  17. Craig says:

    I liked your comment from your experience in Northern California in putting 2 rows in to keep the deer out. I know that is more expensive but it does work. I own a business in Nor Cal and have done this for many farmers and couldn’t agree more with the post. Barbed wire is pretty cheap to put up of course. Thanks for this article as I enjoyed it.

  18. HEATHER GREEN says:

    Hello, this is such a great and complete post, thanks so much for putting together all this insight–all around your own experiences. I had a quick question. You outline Betsy Clebsch’s double fence, but I can’t find any picture of it. Could you describe it a little more? Was it a double electric fence or an actual wooden fence?


    1. margaret says:

      Not electrified, no. Any parallel barriers 4 feet high and about 5 feet apart create a visual “do not enter” for deer, who perceive it as a place they could get stuck inside. So it could be pickets or mesh — as long as it’s visible (which is why with mesh of any height it’s often recommended to tie “flags” (strips of fabric) on it at least in the early going as deer acclimate.

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