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Deer Resistant Choices for the Garden

Oh…deer.  Deer here, deer there, deer everywhere.  We moved in on their territory and now we want to kick them out.  Sounds like the makings of a movie but in real life this is a ‘battle’ some gardeners are facing.  Whether you love deer or not, they are here and they will be in your garden (unless you fence it) and they will nibble on your plants.

Personally, I love deer and have a family that lives in the woods next to my house.  I don’t love that they wander through and demolish my hostas the night before I plan to spray Bobbex.  So, yes, I will be fencing part of my back yard so that I can grow vegetables and hostas but I leave the front yard and the forest to them and I try to choose ‘deer resistant’ plants for my garden.

Deer are browsers and they tend to follow the same paths, nibbling as they go.  They will try just about anything, especially the young ones, so really nothing is deer ‘proof’ and what they didn’t like one month they may love the next.  Winter is especially tough when a lot of their food source has gone dormant or late summer when it’s all dried up.

Some general guidelines to follow might help keep your garden looking a little bit fuller.  Plants with scented, fuzzy or spiny leaves, gray foliage or thorns are a good place to start.  You can also incorporate a deer repellant into your gardening routine such as Bobbex or Plantskydd.  Just try not to spray the day of a backyard bar-be-que as the ‘fragrance’ tends to linger.

Deer generally don’t like most conifers (trees/shrubs with needles) but with every rule there are exceptions.  I’ve found that pines, spruce, junipers, larch and firs are the best choices in trees, ground covers or mounding conifers while hedging cedars turn into chess pieces from deer ‘pruning’.

There aren’t a lot of deciduous trees that the deer won’t eat so make sure they start branching out of reach or that you can barricade them until they’re tall enough.  One tree that is a must in my garden, and not just for deer resistance, is Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata).  It’s a gorgeous tree in the spring and the deer have yet to develop a taste for it in my gardens over the last 10 years.

There are quite a few shrubs that tend not to be on the deer menu.  Pieris, Vitex, Caryopteris, Spiraea, Potentilla, Kolkwitzia, Berberis, Boxwood and Choisya have all been passed by in my experience.  If you want something that will really make them stop in their tracks and rear back in distaste try Chinese Bitter Orange…it has thorns on it longer than my pinkie!   Speaking of thorns, roses are deer candy but rugosa roses seem to stand up better against the browsing.

Perennials can be hit or miss but some foolproof (at least as foolproof as you can get) ones are lavender, or any herbs for that matter, ornamental grasses, euphorbia, aubretia, ferns, achillea, lithodora, erysimum, hellebores, pulmonaira, primula, rudbeckia, perennial cranesbill geraniums and shasta daisies.  If you don’t know what any of these are, don’t worry, we do and will help you find them on our tables.

As for annuals, last summer I tested scented geraniums in my garden in a few places I knew they grazed.  They’re different from the traditional zonal variety, with smaller, airier flowers and leaves that come in different fragrances when rubbed such as nutmeg, rose and lemon.  Not one leaf was touched, much less breathed upon and not only that, I was really impressed by how they looked.  The foliage is great and they flowered all summer long and even survived over this winter.

Osteospermum is another annual that seems to be a good choice along with argyranthemums, zinnias, dusty miller, bacopa, nicotiana, blue salvia, heliotrope and usually petunias.

While gardening with deer can be a challenge it is one we must live with.  If you want plants in your yard then you will have to expect the deer are going to have a good look at them.  They don’t know any better, they’re just trying to fill their hungry stomachs.  There really aren’t any hard fast rules to what deer will or will not eat but we can help you make choices that may stand up to browsing.   Visit the ‘Deer Resistant Plants” tab on the webpage menu for more information.

Shirley Eppler

May 2013