Keeping the deer at bay

Features - Lawn Care

Deer control can be a challenge, but the right approach can yield positive results for your customers and their plants.

November 20, 2020

© Scott Carroll | Unsplash

For those with prized lawns, deer control services can keep them at bay, but it’s far from a foolproof solution.

“If deer are desperate enough, they will eat anything,” says Eric Taylor, division manager with Lynch Plant Healthcare of Sudbury, Massachusetts.

Joe Markell, president of Sunrise Landscape + Design in Sterling, Virginia, says controlling deer has become more difficult in recent years.

“They’ve gotten a lot more aggressive in the past several years,” he says. “Maybe because they are being pushed out of their natural habitat, they’re trying more stuff that before they wouldn’t touch.”

Heightened herds. For Taylor, his clients have noticed an uptick in the deer population.

“We live in a sweet spot between where there’s a ton of deer and an affluent client base who would pay for the service,” he says. “This area we’re in has been developed for the last 10-15 years or more. The population used to be kept down more because there were more hunters.”

While deer are being driven out of the woods, Markell says they are desperate to find a safe space.

“It’s ease of access,” he says. “Most of these plants are planted in the open yard. They feel safe in these places. Deer are opportunists. They go where it’s easy to get to.”

Establish expectations.

Taylor and Markell both make it a point to tell their clients that there is no silver bullet when it comes to repelling deer.

“I think it’s probably the most challenging service to offer well,” Taylor says. “If you are able to dial in a turf care program by testing products, you can really offer it with 100% confidence and great control. This isn’t foolproof. There is a different way you have to pitch it to your customers. You have to start off by managing expectations. You cannot guarantee that they won’t have any deer on their property. A lot of times, the deer have to try to eat the plant to realize they don’t want to be eating this.”

Markell says that deer control only makes up a small portion of his company’s business.

“It’s pretty small for us,” he says. “I’d say we do about a dozen or so. Those are people with highly prized lawns who are willing to pay. I have a few customers who have herds of 20 or 30 deer come across their properties. If you treat, they might move on to others around you if they don’t like the taste.”

Taylor says utilizing sprays and physical deterrents can be a great combination.

“You have to pitch the service as, ‘We’re going to do a bunch of different things that are all tools in our tool belt,’” he says. “Not one is going to be the only thing you need, but all together you can make an effective plan. If their plant material is important to them, and they want to invest the money in it, being on a deer repellent program is excellent. If you’re doing the repellents and netting then that’s better.”

Mix it up.

When it comes to providing the service, Taylor says mixing up which products you use can be helpful.

“We have products that work good but if we use it six times, the deer will build up a tolerance for it if they’re desperate enough,” he says. “You have to be one step ahead of the deer.”

Markell says his company is always testing different products and sees varying success.

“We still do some spraying, but it’s been very hit or miss,” he says. “Sometimes it works and sometimes they power through it. We’re sampling some now that are systemic, meaning the root takes it up and the plant itself tastes bitter. We haven’t seen any success from it yet, but it’s early so we can’t really say.”

Markell and Taylor say common ingredients in deer repellents include egg-based products and cayenne pepper.

Seasons changing can also have an impact on which products work best.

“There are different products for different seasons because of the way they browse and the growth habits of the plants,” Markell says. “In the winter, if there is a prized plant we know is susceptible, we might put netting over it. You really can’t see it, but it keeps them from eating all the foliage. In the fall, we can get away with one or two fungicide applications. In other seasons, you’ve got to do it monthly. It has to be very regular.”

Taylor says being extra vigilant in the wintertime can also be useful.

“Throughout the year, we’re able to have good success,” he says. “During the winter, it’s different. In the wintertime, you really need to be proactive and get an application down before it snows. If you really want great control, you might have to go out through the winter to reapply.”

“Deer are opportunists. They go where it’s easy to get to.” Joe Markell, president of Sunrise Landscape + Design

Fence it in.

“The treatments will deter them, but it might not stop them completely,” Markell says. “You’ve got to make sure people understand that. If they care that much, they need to think about fencing. The best success we’ve ever had is putting up a seven-foot fence around the whole property.”

Markell suggests a height of seven feet for a fence, as deer will be able to jump anything lower. He also recommends staking the bottom and having the fence around the entire perimeter of the property.

In addition to fencing, deer netting is another tool to keep plants safe. Markell says the two options are ideal for homeowners who prefer to keep their lawns free of chemicals.

“If you don’t want to use any kinds of chemicals or deterrents, you’ve got to fence it or net it at least,” he says. “You have to put a physical barrier up because nothing else will keep them out.”

Find a good fit.

Another natural solution is planting deer-resistant plants.

“We certainly recommend deer-resistant plants,” Taylor says. “You’ve got to find the ones that appeal to the customers.”

Both Taylor and Markell recommend hollies as an effective option. Other deer-resistant plants they recommend include lilacs, boxwoods and daffodils.

“You’ve got to fit the right plant to the right place in terms of conditions,” Markell says. “It all depends on what the customer is looking for. You can be limited. People want flowering plants, but that’s usually what they eat first.”

Taylor suggests staying away from arborvitaes and rhododendrons. “They eat those like crazy,” he says.

Be prepared.

Before adding deer control as a service, Taylor says make sure your business utilizes reliable scheduling software.

“More important than anything, you have to have a good scheduling software so you’re there at the times you need to be there,” he says.

“It’s not like tick or mosquito control where you’re late but the day after you get there and do the application, you won’t see any ticks or mosquitos. With deer repellent, if we get a call that we weren’t there in time, the damage has been done. The plants have been eaten.”

Taylor recommends having a good inventory of backpack sprayers or a spray truck can also be useful.

Markell says establishing a good relationship with a supplier can also be useful, especially if you plan to install fencing.

“You need a good supplier where you can get everything you need,” he says. “They’ll have the post and fencing itself and some of the tools to make the install successful.”