I keep seeing mentions of deer getting to people’s fruit trees and eating all of the fruit and leaves. While a few solutions popped up here and there, I saw a great one in the book Gaia’s Garden and I wanted to explore more. Here’s what I found.
Deer commonly eat the new growth on fruit trees in the spring and summer, and evergreen leaves, dry leaves, fruit, and nuts in the fall and winter. If they identify the fruit trees as a food source, they’ll establish a routine of visiting them. Most of the damage is done in the winter as food is more scarce.
So, while deer often eat fruit trees, which fruit trees do they prefer, and what are some inexpensive ways to keep them away from your fruit trees? Let’s take a closer look.
1. Fence The Trees
Young fruit trees are especially vulnerable to being eaten and damaged by deer, so fruit tree saplings should be enclosed within some kind of fence for at least the first 2-3 years of their life. Use a translucent screen or canvas to allow enough sunlight to reach the tree’s leaves.
While the tree’s lower branches are still vulnerable, they’ll naturally get pruned by deer and other causes over time. This is actually beneficial as the lower branches are more likely to catch a pest or disease from the soil.
Sometimes the problem isn’t deer eating fruit trees, but the bucks rubbing their antlers or scratching themselves on your fruit trees. In these cases something more heavy-duty is helpful. For example, wrapping the tree in chicken wire or metal mesh protects the trunk of the tree.
Keep in mind to provide sufficient space for the tree or expand the wrap as the tree grows so it doesn’t become strangled and dig into the trunk.
Canvas screens are also useful if you live in a hot climate. It’ll diffuse most of the sunlight, significantly reducing the heat the tree receives. Some signs a fruit tree is heat stressed are leaves are curling, browning, and dropping.
The fabric mimics the tree’s natural environment as a partially shaded understory plant and gives it a better chance to survive.
Creating an enclosure around your fruit tree is the most effective way to protect it from deer. Although deer can jump fences up to 7 feet, they don’t like entering small spaces, so a small enclosure around an individual tree will go unexplored.
While expensive, you can use a woven wire fence around the perimeter, but make sure it’s at least 8 feet high and is nearly flush with the ground to prevent deer from going underneath it. Electric fences can also work to keep deer and livestock predators out (and keep your livestock in).
To give you a head start, here are some of the best deer fences you can buy. Some bird netting also works.
2. Plant a Food Hedge (Fedge)
In the book Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, the author found a creative way to not only deter the deer but provide his family with more food.
I planted bush cherries, Manchurian apricots, currants, and other wildlife plants for wildlife food and thorny wild plums, Osage orange, and gooseberries to hold back the deer. But on the inside of the hedge—my side—to some of these hedge row plants I grafted domestic fruit varieties.Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden
The author also went on to plant mulch and nitrogen-fixing plants including clover, Siberian pea shrub, and buffalo berries so he didn’t have to fertilize or heavily irrigate his fruit hedge.
Toby reported the deer were less and less of a problem as they had enough food on their side of the hedge, and the rough vegetation held them back.
3. Coyote (or Dog) Urine
This one I found from a homesteader in Abundance Plus.
Coyotes are natural predators of deer, so it makes sense that deer would be sensitive to the smell of coyote urine and want to stay far away.
Other animal products that deter deer include:
- Blood meal
- Human hair
- Dog hair
- Dog urine
4. Let The Dogs Out
The sight, sound, and smell of a dog are huge deterrents to deer. Bring your dog out to your orchard often, or let it roam around it freely on its own if possible, so that deer associate your tree with the presence of a potential predator.
Guard dogs work best, but herding breeds are a close second. Free-range dogs are also better and you can place their dog houses near deer trails if possible.
I’ve even heard that small terrier or toy breeds can help deter deer, but be mindful of the coyotes as they’ve been known to target small dogs.
5. Plants That Repel Deer
I sometimes write about companion plants, and I found there are plenty that deer cannot stand. Typically, these are plants that have a bold smell or taste, including:
- Allium (Garlic, Onions, and Chives)
So, plant these plants around your fruit trees (or underneath them) and deer will be much less likely to visit.
6. Irish Springs Soap
An oldie but, according to many homestead channels on YouTube (including this one guy with a pet skunk), Irish Springs Soap works.
For some reason, deer don’t like the smell of this soap and they’ll stay far away from your fruit trees.
You can find Irish Springs Soap in most grocery or convenient stores, or on Amazon.
This method works best if you put a bar of soap in every individual tree. You can hang them in an old nylon stocking, a suet bird feeder, or by drilling a hole through the center and threading it on twine.
7. Ammonium Soaps
Similar to the soap-bar method, you can hang ammonium-soaked rags from your tree to repel deer with a strong scent.
You can also use ammonium sprays that are made with 15% ammonium soap.
You’ll need to renew them after it rains, but you can combine this with one or more of the solutions on this list for better effectiveness.
8. Spray Deer Repellents
Some of the best spray repellents to use for deer are made of:
- Hot sauce
- Rotten eggs
- Animal blood
Deer repellents work best if you rotate between a few different kinds every few months to keep the deer from getting used to the smells. You’ll also need to reapply after it rains or every 90 days, whichever comes first.
Repellents like Havahart’s Critter Ridder or Deer Off use stinky ingredients like rotten eggs to drive deer away, and spicy cayenne to abandon your tree as a food source.
Another repellent, Plantskydd, uses dried blood to trigger a fear response in deer and cause them to scram and performed very well in a USDA Forest Service study of deer repellents.
You can find these deer sprays and others at garden supply stores and on Amazon.
Bonus tip: Sprinkling coffee grounds around your fruit trees repels deer and other pests such as snails and slugs. Plus it’s a great fertilizer.
Keep in mind that if it’s smelly enough to repel deer, it’s also smelly enough to repel you and any potential guests, too. If your fruit trees are close to your house or in a part of your garden that you frequently visit, using these sprays might not be the best option.
9. Motion-Activated Sprinklers
If you aren’t able to or don’t want to put up a fence, and soap or repellents are doing the job, another good option is a motion-activated sprinkler.
Deer are prey animals and they know it, so a strong (but harmless) splash of water when they least expect will startle them to run away and leave your fruit trees alone.
If you’re interested in a motion-activated sprinkler, you can try the Orbit 62100 Yard Enforcer, which works both day and night, and runs on AA batteries. There are also some which are solar-powered.
Just don’t forget to deactivate it when you want to approach your fruit tree!
10. Motion-Activated Lights
Along the same line, a motion-activated floodlight near your fruit tree will startle deer and increase their sense of danger.
The Mr. Beams MB360XT spotlight is wireless and battery-powered, which means you can mount it close to or even on the tree itself.
11. Wind Chime
Deer are startled by unexpected sounds, so hanging a wind chime in the boughs of your fruit trees can make them think twice about approaching it.
This works best when combined with another method on this list like sprinklers or scent repellents.
You can also use motion-activated speakers, although they’re more complex and expensive. I’d probably start with wind chimes and see how it goes from there.
12. Monofilament Fishing Line
Monofilament fishing line is incredibly difficult for deer to see, and stringing a perimeter of fishing line around your fruit trees will deter deer by confusing them.
Drive some stakes or posts in a square shape around your fruit tree, and string the fishing line around it about 2-3 feet off the ground.
The deer will walk right into it but they won’t be able to see it, which will unnerve them and discourage them from getting any closer to the tree.
13. Keep The Grass Mowed
Deer like to move through cover, and they also enjoy bedding down in tall grass. If your fruit tree has any areas like this nearby, mowing down the grass will remove the bedding area and make deer feel more exposed.
Similarly, look around your property and try to find the access points or trails that deer use to come into your yard. Walk along these trails to lay down your scent, which the deer won’t like. It’s even better if you walk with your dog.
You could also try blocking them off with something like wooden pallets, which deer are reluctant to climb over.
14. Harvest Quickly
By harvesting your fruit as soon as they ripen, you remove the main object the deer are after. This also keeps the fruit from over-ripening, falling to the ground below, and rotting there to draw deer in with their scent.
Additionally, if you have large enough fruit trees, you can leave the lower branches and fruit for the deer, while you harvest the mid to high fruit.
However, chances are you don’t have the fruit to spare and something like the fruit hedge option from earlier would be a better solution.
How to Tell If Deer Are Eating Your Fruit Trees
You can usually tell if deer have been eating your fruit trees by:
- Catching them in the act
- Noticing jagged edges along eaten leaves
- Hooves in the ground around the fruit trees
Since deer are skittish, it’s sometimes difficult to catch them in the act. Because of this, the best way to find out if deer are eating your fruit trees is to set up a trail cam.
Which Fruit Trees Do Deer Eat (& Not Eat)?
Some trees such as citrus grew thorns as a defense against browsing animals. Other plants developed a bitter smell and taste (more on these deer-repellent plants later). However, if deer are hungry enough, they’ll eat almost any fruit tree.
Let’s explore some of the best ways to keep a pack of hungry deer from eating your fruit trees and other plants.
The most effective method to deter deer from your fruit trees is one that uses several different techniques. For example, using fencing, repelling, and even hunting (if allowed in your area).
My personal favorite is installing a fruit hedge with a double side so both the wildlife and my family can enjoy homegrown fruit.
Hopefully, you found some good inexpensive and homemade options to deter deer from your orchard!
If you’d like to learn more about deer fencing, check out this awesome video by Stefan Sobkowiak – The Permaculture Orchard.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. See your local services.
- 7 Easy Steps to Grow Fruit Trees (Free Guide): Need more fruit tree help from the ground up? See our free guide to make growing fruit trees a breeze.
- Ask the Free Community: Join The Couch to Homestead Community and connect with other members discussing gardening, homesteading, and permaculture.
- 30-Day Permaculture Food Forest Course: Learn how to turn your backyard into a thriving food forest in just 30 days with our online course.