For desperate gardeners, new idea to keep deer out of your garden

October 4, 2016
deer grate with pedestrian path in Atlanta by Stofko

Mike Dunn of Atlanta created what he calls a deer grate to keep deer from entering his property along the driveway. Because the deer grate can be slippery when wet, he built a narrow pedestrian path alongside. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

deer grate with railing to keep deer out

What looks like hand railings along the side of the deer grate are really to keep the deer from jumping diagonally over the grate. Atlanta was in the middle of a drought when the garden communicators held their convention, but on the day we visited the Dunns’ garden, it poured. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

I saw some beautiful gardens when I was in Atlanta a couple weeks ago to attend the conference of GWA: The Association of Garden Communicators. But since the climate is so different there, I wasn’t sure I would be able to bring back any tips that would help us here in Western New York.

Then we went to the home of Lee Dunn and her husband Mike. There I saw something that should interest gardeners who are desperate to keep deer out of their yards.

It’s what Mike Dunn calls a deer grate, and he designed and built it himself. It’s modeled after a cattle guard, which is used to keep cows and other livestock from getting into roadways.

Dunn’s deer grate is basically metal tubes set into a recessed area of the concrete driveway. The tubes are spaced just a little farther apart than the length of a deer’s hoof.

What happens when a deer steps on the grate?

“I’ve watched deer walk up to it, look down and walk away,” Dunn said. “I’ve never had a deer walk on it. They would have had trouble if they did.

“I haven’t had deer penetration in four years.”

Let me note that you need more than just a deer grate to keep deer out; fences are are a large part of the Dunns’ defense system. The deer grate just keeps the deer from entering along the driveway.

The Dunns’ large property, which they call Dunhaven, is set in a hollow and the land at the edges of the hollow slopes up. Tall fences are set near the top of the slope. Some of the fences are chain link, about 6 1/2 feet high, with wire strung about 6 inches above the top of the fence.  Other fences are steel picket fences that Dunn welded himself.

Oh, and that’s another thing. If you want to install something like this yourself, you need skills in concrete and welding.

“If someone is pretty handy, they can do it themselves,” Dunn said. “There’s not a lot of precision involved.”

If you don’t have skills in concrete and welding, he estimates it might cost you $4,000 to have a deer grate installed. That includes $1,500 for the concrete, $1,000 for the steel and $1,500 for the welding.

To Dunn, the deer grate is worth the expense. One year he and his wife put in $2,000 worth of plants, only to have the deer devour the plants the same weekend. If you look at the cost of plants over the life of the garden, he thinks it’s a wise investment.

“Just the reduction in blood pressure alone is worth it,” Dunn said.

Beating the deer became a matter of pride as well.

“Deer have brains the size of a walnut,” Dunn said. “My feeling was that if I couldn’t beat them, I should give up gardening.”

(Fact check: Dale Hoffman of Cheektowaga, my brother-in-law who is a deer hunter, says a deer’s brain is probably closer in size to a tangerine than a walnut. Still, a human brain is much larger than a deer’s brain. And many gardeners who are dealing with deer can commiserate with Dunn.)

Without the deer grate, Dunn said his property would be the “Dunn buffet. The deer would come in and clean us out.”

closeup of metal tubes in deer grate

The metal tubes are set on top of metal beams in the recessed area of the driveway. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Dunn had help from another person in constructing the deer grate. They dug about 8 inches deep, then poured the concrete. The recessed area is about 6 inches deep. Metal beams are set the long way on top of the concrete. Hollow metal tubes are set across the beams and welded into place.

Not only can the deer grate stand up to cars, it can hold tractors, trucks and cranes that come onto for tree maintenance and other work.

Since deer can leap 18 feet, Dunn made the deer grate 22 feet long.

“That launched generation one, but deer were still getting in,” Dunn said.

It turns out that the deer were jumping diagonally to get across the grate.

“I had to give them a little credit for that one,” he said.

But Dunn was persistent. He built ornamental half-moon shapes, which look like hand rails, to prevent the deer from jumping diagonally across the grate. Since then, he hasn’t had a single deer in his garden.

Next year GWA: The Association of Garden Communicators will hold its convention in Buffalo. I can’t wait to show them what we have here in Western New York!

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12 Responses to For desperate gardeners, new idea to keep deer out of your garden

  1. Linda on October 4, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    Mr. Dunn is persistent! In four years the dear did not learn to use the pedestrian path. Does anyone know if dear always take the same path? “Dear Crossing” signs would indicate that. This might work even if you do not have a fence all around. How far off am I?

  2. Vicky on October 5, 2016 at 5:24 am

    When you have heavy deer browsing you have to fence, as this couple did. Otherwise, they will find a way in. Even with their small brains, they are clever! They teach their young where food is available-i know as they devastate my property. A method i use for the foundation garden is metal poles and high tension fishing line. Because the depth is only 4 feet before my brick house, they get confused and won’t jump, even though the line is 4 feet high-they can jump 7-8 feet. Deer have poor depth perception. Repellents don’t work anymore, even some former deer proof plants get eaten. But this works. I can’t fence my property, so this is a desperate measure! They do nibble around the edges, though. I live in the Village for Williamsville.

  3. Donna on October 5, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Having been around a lot of deer (at my friend’s deer farm that has both raised and wild deer galore) I don’t see why the deer will not just go to the left and mosey on in. Yes, there are deer trails, but deer do venture off those trails, especially when feeding. In Wales, I saw these gates for cattle and sheep.

  4. Connie on October 5, 2016 at 8:48 am

    Vicky, thanks for the tip. Even if people can’t fence in their whole yard, stringing fishing line might work.

  5. Mike Dunn on October 5, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Deer don’t go down the path because of an iron ornamental gate that locks… mike dunn

  6. Connie on October 5, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Mike, thanks so much for that clarification.

  7. Connie on October 5, 2016 at 9:33 am

    Linda, I think a deer grate wouldn’t be as effective if you didn’t also have fences. My sister doesn’t have her whole yard fenced in, but they installed an electric fence along the edge where deer usually come in. It prevents the deer from entering at that point, and it does help because that is their favorite point of entry, but they still come in from other spots.

  8. Sue Lewandowski on October 5, 2016 at 9:40 am

    We fenced our veg garden to a height of 6 feet, left a space of about 2 feet, then more fence to height of 10 feet.(I don’t know why my husband did that, but I’m sure he had a plan!) Don’t you know, the darn deer jumped into the small space between the fence sections! Apparently ours have better depth perception than most. We got a roll of plastic mesh material and filled the gap so they can’t get in anymore. Now they feast on my Hostas, but those come back each year. We’ve had some success with a homemade spray, but you have to be consistent with it and vary the strength of the aroma from time to time.

  9. Vicky on October 5, 2016 at 10:12 am

    When i did Master Gardeners training back in the 90’s, we had a Cornell speaker who presented a trial they did with 4’fences lined up in rows of 3. The females taught their fawns to jump the first one, run the length inbetween and jump the next and the next! So they do learn! It proved that a fence had to be at least 8′ tall or that a heavy hedge barrier had to be on the inside of a fence so the deer would be confused about the distance that they could jump, can’t see what’s on the other side. The fishing line -pole fencing technique only works when it is erected in front of a solid structure and is not more than 4 feet from the structure. You can’t use it to enclose a larger space. I spent several years on the Amherst Deer Management Committee and learned a lot from the DEC on deer behavior.

  10. Connie on October 5, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Regarding deer and double or triple fences: In 2014, I talked to Paul D. Curtis, associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at Cornell University. You can see that article here. Curtis said that at Cornell they have a herd of deer for research penned in with three sets of fences. Each fence is eight feet high and the fences are ten feet apart. While 120 of the deer stayed put, one deer kept jumping the fences and getting out. “A highly motivated deer will do that,” he said.

  11. Mike Dunn on October 5, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    I think there may be a little confusion about why the deer grate. I fenced the entire property and succeeded in keeping deer out very reliably. However, the driveway was still an open issue. I designed and built the grate and since that time, I’ve not had a single deer penetration (4 years). We have three acres, two of which are full gardens, visible by the pests from outside the fencing. Still not a single penetration. So, it’s a holistic approach to beating these beings and I’m proud to have beaten them…at least for now. They may be studying me just like I’ve studied them….

  12. Vicky on October 5, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Connie, thanks for the refresher from Paul Curtis. I believe he was the person who spoke during my Master Gardener training. I has been awhile, but he may have spoken to our Deer Management Committee years ago. I was on it when we first introduced bait and shoot, which was very contentious for the community. One of my greatest concerns is the spread of tick born diseases to humans, pets and farm animals. It is very real and scary. I know people who have been infected and it concerns me when people try to befriend the deer. It is illegal to feed deer. Yet, i have come across those who have done this. I do my best to educate when i can. Unfortunately, the deer are here to stay and remain a problem to our gardens and health.

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