It's enough to deal with rabbits and voles. And vegetarian barn cats. But deer? They are my nemesis.
For the most part I have managed to design a deer resistant garden without resorting to fences, dangling tablets of Ivory soap in old nylons or constantly spraying. Spring has it challenging moments as the new growth on plants is so tender and tasty, especially to the inquisitive young but fall is when I see the most damage. The problem is twofold; browsing shoots and damaging the bark.
As fall approaches, deer must find and consume large quantities of carbohydrate rich foods such as acorns, chestnuts, apples and pears to put on fat for the winter. Nuts and mushrooms are also popular foods at this time and are high in phosphorus, which is needed to replace what is taken from a buck's flat bones (ribs and skull) for antler mineralization. For the typical gardener, if you have already harvested your orchard fruit the deer are most likely to feast on leaves and soft shoots of woody shrubs and trees.
While frustrating, if you have selected plant species that are only of moderate or low interest to deer, the damage is likely to be fairly minor. For example the leaves on the golden smoke bush shown above would have fallen to the ground anyway. The branch itself is intact and the shrub will be fine next year.
Smoke bush (Cotinus sp.) browsing in my garden seems to be mostly taste-testing. My Old Fashioned smoke bush only lost a few leaves from a single branch.
I have found this list to be helpful as a starting point for selecting deer-resistant plants for my garden as it suggests the level of damage one can expect. Of course no list is perfect and I disagree with several entries, but that is to be expected; different deer species in a different state, different native and non-native plant availability, different herd etc.
Young plants can be especially susceptible since their roots have not developed adequately to anchor it into the soil.
Deer have left my larger distyllium shrubs alone but the rough tugging by an inquisitive animal uprooted this young plant.
Damage to bark
Far more of a problem in my garden is the damage done to the bark by stripping, gnawing or rubbing. I've also seen 'fraying' when young bucks rub against rough bark to remove the velvet off their antlers or to mark their territory. Severely damaged trees and shrubs can be lost either through the physical damage itself or to later weather /insect related problems on the exposed surfaces.
Deer do not have teeth in the front of their upper jaw nor sharp incisors like rabbits. Instead of neatly clipping the vegetation at a 45° angle the way that rabbits and rodents do, deer twist and pull the plant when browsing. The aftermath is pretty horrific with branches scattered haphazardly over deer-trodden soil
Some deer repellant sprays definitely do help and it may be wise to use them on especially vulnerable shrubs and trees in fall. Liquid Fence is the one I usually have on hand but I have heard great things about Plantskydd – it just isn't readily available where I live.
While we certainly can't fence our 5 acres – and nor do we wish to, we have taken to short term fencing protection until trees grow above browsing height.
Before we did this the deer 'pruned' out the tree leader. Thankfully it seems to have recovered from that ordeal!
Sometimes a full fence may not be needed, especially if the aim is just to stop the deer reaching the trunk of a tree. For this we have just used metal posts inserted around the tree setting them a 18-24" apart so a deer cannot easily get past them.
Once the leaves have fallen from this Persian ironwood the greater risk is damage to the trunk which we hope to minimize using these posts. We can still add wire fencing if necessary but this is less obtrusive.
Using this method around conifers can work especially well as the ever expanding girth hides the stakes in a few seasons
Understanding the routes a herd takes through your garden is also helpful. Certainly I try to avoid known temptation shrubs and trees directly along these wildlife freeways. Sometimes helping to direct their path using dense barrier planting can be helpful, as we have done with prickly barberries
What's your goal?
My personal aim is to reach a point where the deer and I can co-exist peacefully. I'm not trying to keep them off the land (they were here first) and I'm happy for them to browse in our forest and meadow. Rather, my desire is to have a beautiful garden that is of little interest to the deer by focusing on plant selection and non-harmful deterrent techniques. I'm sure I'll lose a few more plants along the way but I think we'll get there.