Deer may be well-loved creatures in the forest, but in the garden, they can be serious pests—especially with increasing suburban expansion. But in 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants (Timber Press, 2012), Ruth Rogers Clausen explains how to design a garden that’s aesthetically pleasing for you without being full of attractive tasty snacks for deer. In this excerpt from the chapter “Help! Deer Are Destroying My Garden,” Clausen gives an overview of plants that attract and deter deer.
Buy this book in the Mother Earth Living store: 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants.
Characteristics of Deer-Resistant Plants
Although no plant is completely deer-proof, certain generalizations can be made about plants that deer are likely to ignore. Fuzzy-leaved plants seem to be unpalatable to deer—the hairs on the leaves must be irritating to the tongue. Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare), and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) are good examples. Some plants contain compounds that are poisonous to mammals and deer in particular. By instinct or because they were taught by their mothers, deer detect the presence of these compounds, though in desperate hunger situations they will resort to eating them. Spurges (Euphorbia) and Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis) are among these, along with castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) and monkshoods (Aconitum). Deer have an excellent sense of smell and get confused when overstimulated by aromatic or fragrant foliage or flowers. Many culinary herbs fall into this category, such as sages (Salvia), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thymes (Thymus), and ornamental onions (Allium). Highly scented flowers like lilacs (Syringa), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria) are seldom browsed. Plant these at entry points in the garden to confuse deer. Deer also dislike tough, leathery, or fibrous-textured foliage. Ferns and ornamental grasses belong here along with Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), peony (Paeonia officinalis), and Siberian iris (Iris sibirica). Spiny or bristly plants are also left alone. Spiky yucca (Yucca filamentosa), bristly poppies, rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa and its hybrids), globe thistle (Echinops ritro), and barberry (Berberis) are usually safe. In fact, due to lack of browsing by deer, pesky Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) has spread through woodlands across North America, driving out native species for habitat. It is now included on many state lists of invasive species.
Plant Physical Barriers to Keep Deer Out of Your Garden
Make it as difficult as possible for deer to use your garden as a buffet and playground. Look for tracks and deer paths so that you know just where deer are entering your garden, and head them off. In lieu of a fence, plant a dense shrubbery of tall, unpalatable plants that blocks their view of your garden beyond. ‘Lynwood’ forsythia (Forsythia ×intermedia, ‘Lynwood’), fragrant sumac (Rhus racemosa), arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), tall cultivars of bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa ‘Coronation Triumph’, ‘Jackmanii’), devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa), dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’), and trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata) are good candidates. Or install and plant a tall trellis where they enter your garden. Deer are uncomfortable jumping into a space if they can’t see a safe landing point. Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), and Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) are deer-resistant vines suitable to camouflage or decorate a tall trellis.
Create berms or different ground levels at the entry points to wrong-foot deer. If you plant on top of berms you will gain extra height to hide your garden beyond. Construct terraces and steps on steep or sloping areas within the garden. Deer are uncomfortable navigating changing levels, especially when they are on the run. While they will readily walk up or down sloping ground, they are afraid to jump from level to level.
Other Techniques to Keep Deer Out of Your Garden
Deer like their food fresh and lush as well as easy to find. Soft, young daylily shoots, for example, are more palatable than older, fibrous stems. Grow your plants lean and cut down on fertilizing. High-nitrogen fertilizers (those with a high first number on the label formula) encourage soft, disease- and deer-prone foliage. It is thought that deer actually need a diet high in nitrogen for good health. If well prepared and amended ahead of planting, few soils (except those for high-density succession vegetable gardens) need to be fertilized every year. Spot feed those few plants that are hungry feeders, such as peonies and astilbes.
Maintain soil fertility with regular applications of organic matter such as compost, decomposed leaves, or well-rotted manure, all of which improve the tilth, structure of the soil, and drainage without encouraging soft, deer-favored growth. Plants are able to reach their potential with good soil conditions, rooting deeply to tap into water and nutrients. If you fertilize with chemicals, select a slow-release, balanced formula such as 5-5-5 that does not shock the plants into quick soft growth. Look for the plant food formula on the package. The first number represents available nitrogen (N) for vegetative growth; the second number represents available phosphorus (P) for root, seed, and flower development; the third number represents available potassium (K) for flower and fruit development and increases sturdiness against stress and the elements. Save high-nitrogen fertilizer for leafy crops such as lettuce and salad greens.
Water wisely, especially during times of drought. Rather than sprinkling just a little every day, water deeply once a week or so to encourage deep rooting and strong, sturdy, less palatable plants. During dry spells especially, leaves that are wet in the evening are sure targets for nighttime deer browsing. If you are watering by hand or with a sprinkler, do it early in the morning or in early evening so the foliage dries off before nightfall. Better yet, use economical soaker hoses or drip irrigation to water at ground level and avoid soaking the leaves. If leaves remain wet going into the night, they are also more susceptible to the development of fungal diseases. Expect to find greater deer pressure in your garden during summer droughts.
Keep lawn grass short, not only because it removes a hiding and feeding place but also because of the danger of deer ticks, which cause Lyme disease. Children and pets playing on lawns often pick up deer ticks. If the soil has been prepared properly prior to seeding or sodding, the roots should be able to reach down to the water table and not need daily sprinkling. A deep watering once or twice a week during dry spells should suffice. Forget extra fertilizer. It only encourages lush, soft leaves that grow more quickly and need more frequent mowing.
Avoid planting deer candy—a species known to attract deer—unless you are prepared to adequately protect it. Most of us can live without daylilies and tulips if we can have the joy of yarrows and daffodils. If not, you’ll need to protect your favorite susceptible plants. Deer candy can be surrounded with deer-resistant plants; for example, in sun, aromatic savory calamint (Calamintha nepeta), lavender, bluebeard (Caryopteris), or Russian sage (Perovskia) can be planted among and around roses and lilies to protect them.
Include water-thrifty plants, which also often resist browsing. These tend to have coarse cell walls that are difficult for deer to digest, making them less palatable. A sampling includes yarrows (Achillea), blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), blanket flower (Gaillardia), catmint (Nepeta), hummingbird mints (Agastache), Thunberg bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii), lavenders (Lavandula), and many plants from Mediterranean and dry regions. Their structure evolved to help them survive periods of low water supply. Drought-tolerant plants may be planted anywhere in the garden but are especially useful in xeric gardens, planted often, but not only, in the Southwest. As water becomes a scarcer and more expensive commodity, responsible gardeners are becoming more careful about their watering habits. They are seeking and enjoying more plants that demand less water to thrive. Part of the garden that is not serviced by a water standpipe is by necessity a low-water garden.
Limb up low overhanging branches of crab apples, magnolias, orchard fruits, and other susceptible species to a height of at least 6 ft. This eliminates the line of vegetation that deer can browse. Keep underbrush to a minimum to remove a food source and hiding place. This is especially important on the edge of woodlands where deer like to hide and rest unobserved. Soft bedding of leaves, pine needles, ferns, or other vegetation is an open invitation for them to hang around.
Even More Tips to Keep Deer Out of Your Garden
Plants grown in containers close to the house on porches, decks, and terraces are less likely to be browsed, though of course there is no guarantee—it is not unusual to find one or more deer right at the back door in the morning. Try using hanging baskets, making sure they are high enough so that deer cannot reach them, no matter how close they are to the house.
Elevate bird feeders beyond the reach of deer, to at least 6 ft, and remove any brush or debris that could give deer a leg up. In snowy winters you may find deer climbing up on snow banks for an evening meal from your feeders. If possible, set bird feeders away from woodland edges where deer are likely to venture. Select feeders that can be raised or lowered on pulleys, enabling you to fill them easily yet still keep the food out of reach. Bird feeders positioned close to the house are a joy to those inside.
Decorations for the garden come in all sizes, shapes, and types, and some can scare deer quite effectively. Ornaments that catch light, such as shiny gazing balls, work in some gardens. If it fits your style, install a decoration with moving parts to frighten deer and discourage them from stopping. Though hardly ornamental, aluminum pie plates are sometimes effective when hung from trees or made into mobiles, particularly in vegetable gardens. Homemade flapping scarecrows can be fun and effective, too.
Mast (acorns) is a basic deer food, so be diligent about raking up acorns in the fall if oak trees grow on or near your property. Expect to experience greater deer pressure in years when acorns are in short supply. Pick up crab apples and orchard fruits routinely too, as these constitute a deer feast. Grapes, peaches, cherries, plums, and nectarine are other favorites.
Common Features of Deer-Resistant Plants
Although there are no guarantees when it comes to deer browsing, plants are much less likely to be nibbled if they display any of the following:
Plants That Attract Deer
This list of plants that deer find appetizing is far from complete but identifies some definite plants to avoid.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants by Ruth Rogers Clausen, published by Timber Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants.