Deer-Resistant Plants for Your Garden

You can create a gorgeous garden that’s naturally deer-repellent with these tips and a little understanding of deer behavior.

| November 2012

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.

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