Deterring deer from eating your garden is doable, sort of, with plenty of strategy. Crooks sprays precious babies with the garlic-and-rotten-egg-smelling Liquid Fence.

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by Valerie Easton

My sister’s sacrificial roses were my first clue to the immense frustration of dealing with deer. She capitulated to her voracious visitors, placating them by planting vigorous, coarse roses at the entry points to her Oregon farm. Her hope was that they would fill up first on roses she didn’t mind losing and leave her treasures alone.

Another not-so-successful hope lies in “deer-proof” plants. Don’t believe it. It’s true some plants are as dependably alluring as a box of Fran’s sea-salt caramels. But deer have their own hungers, unfathomable to us, changing with season, location, weather and mood.

Deer-savvy friends recently disabused me of my notion that a sturdy 8-foot fence is fool-proof. The irony of such an expensive solution is that no matter how often you check the fence, deer somehow get inside — and, if they feel trapped, wreak destruction trying to escape.

It never takes long for gardeners on deer-ridden Whidbey Island to get going on their favorite topic of frustration. Designer Stacie Crooks had never dealt with deer until she began work on an estate garden on a wild bluff here a couple of years ago. She learned quickly, because the wily critters clambered right up the steep bank from the beach to dine on the thousands of new plants she installed.

Because immature leaves are tender and deer tend to be curious about new plantings, Crooks sprays precious babies with the garlic-and-rotten-egg-smelling Liquid Fence. It’s a non-toxic, biodegradable product that is reasonably rain-proof. Because it’s very expensive and deer get used to it, Crooks sprays sparingly. She’s learned never to stake young trees, for bucks prefer to rub their horns on something rigid. Also if the tree is pliable and bends over, it’s much harder for the deer to grab on for a bite. Skewering trees like shish kabobs seems to invite predatory nibbles.

Marie Lincoln, proprietor of Chocolate Flower Farm on south Whidbey, relies on lavender to protect her deer-candy display gardens. When she lived in Redmond, she kept deer at bay with hundreds of purple ‘Grosso,’ pink ‘Melissa’ and white ‘Edelweiss’ lavenders around all her roses, interspersing clumps throughout the planting beds. She’s repeating this tactic on Whidbey, while training deer to keep their distance. “The solution that has been 100 percent effective for us is to frighten the deer with Scarecrow, a motion-sensor sprinkler that shoots a quick burst of water,” she says. Motion detectors placed at strategic points around the property keep deer guessing.

“They come right up to the perimeter and stare . . . then get agitated and take off. . . . Clearly they’ve had a prior run-in with Mr. Scarecrow,” says Lincoln. She points out you need to remember to turn the device off in the morning or you, too, will be startled and soaked when you go out to the garden.

Crooks’ most beautiful strategy is to outwit deer with design. She surrounds their favorite plants with an arsenal of flora that they disdain. Who would have thought lovely plants like heather and all the brown grasses (Carex testacea, C. ‘Cappuccino’ and the leatherleaf sedge C. buchananii) could create a deer-repellant force field? Even roses flourish when engulfed in swarthy sweeps of these autumn-toned grasses. When Crooks uses deer-dinner plants like dogwood, rugosa roses or more colorful grasses like the striped Carex morrowii, she encircles them with plenty of lavender or heather.

Crooks, no doubt well-trained in flexibility and reality by her teenage sons, sums up her deer philosophy: “You have to coexist with the big beasts peacefully by outsmarting them, or you’ll lose big-time, always.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.