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Deer, oh Deer


“What don’t the deer eat?” It’s still the number one question we get asked at the garden centre and we still can’t give you a definite answer. Whether you think deer are beautiful and have every right to eat, too, or you think they’re a nuisance, you probably don’t appreciate spending a lot of money on planting trees and shrubs only to come out the next morning to find your new landscape is a mess of barren twigs and broken branches.

Bottom line is that the deer will eat just about any plant if they feel like it, even if it’s just to try it out, and I sometimes think they stomp all over it just to get back at you for planting something that isn’t tasty. If you wish to coexist with deer but don’t want to support their food habits, there are a few guidelines to follow when choosing what to plant in your garden that may result in the deer thinking your smorgasbord offering this year is a little on the bland side.

If you can’t put up a big fence then you need to figure out what is less palatable to deer. Generally, and again there are no sure bets, deer tend to stay away from most conifers with the exception of hedging cedars. They seem to dislike plants with grey foliage for some reason or heavily scented plants. Fuzzy or spiny leaves and things with thorns (with the exception of roses) are less likely to be eaten, also.

The other thing to note is that deer tend to follow the same general route when they venture out to eat so don’t plant a hosta in their path, it won’t stand a chance. Heavier browsing tends to happen in late summer when their natural food sources have dried up or gone to seed and our gardens are lush, fertilized and watered so don’t be surprised that one day your something-or-other has disappeared after it was given a pass all spring.

Smaragd hedging deer pruned
Hedge ‘pruned’ by deer

If you think your neighbor has gone a bit mad with the hedge pruners and made massive chess pieces out of their cedars it’s probably just the deer wandering through and nibbling their way up the trunk resulting in a cedar looking like, well, a bishop from a chess board. Besides hedging, deer like yews and Hinoki Cypress. However spruce, hemlock, fir and pines seem be fine for the most part.



For shrubs you can try boxwood, pieris, berberis and caryopteris. There’s always a debate about rhododendrons. Some swear that the deer don’t like them and in some neighbourhoods that may be true. Or there are just tastier things in that area. I have seen rhodos eaten down to the main branches and I’ve seen selective munching. In my previous garden some got nibbled and some didn’t. Could be because they were off the beaten path or perhaps that certain cultivar wasn’t as tasty as the other but never think that your rhodos are deer proof. Nothing is deer proof.

Ornamental grasses are almost deer proof. I say almost because I will never say that anything is deer proof however I don’t think I’ve ever heard of deer eating ornamental grasses. Watch, mine will get eaten overnight now.


If you are determined to plant whatever you like then you may want to invest in a bottle of deer repellent spray. There are a couple of good ones available but I warn you, they smell. One smells like sulphur and the other, well, let’s just say it smells like a dead deer. Bobbex is the only one we carry now because it seems to be really effective and it doesn’t smell like something died. It’s basically an egg-based spray with other proteins, garlic and castor oils. The proteins in the spray scare the deer into thinking there’s a large animal nearby and the garlic is a taste deterrent (unless your deer have Italian blood in them). Any sprays need to be reapplied often even if it says it’s rain resistant, because any new growth that hasn’t been sprayed will be susceptible to nibbling.

Remember, nothing is deer proof however you can plan your garden to be less desirable to deer…or build a big fence. For more information on plants the deer usually turn their noses up at, stop by Cultivate Garden & Gift and pick up our extensive deer resistant list.

Shirley Eppler

May 2015