Let’s face it: Gardening with deer ain’t easy. You can spray repellents till you are blue in the face, erect a fence straight out of “The Shawshank Redemption,” and adopt a pack of border collies, and still, somehow, the deer will manage to nibble your hydrangea to the nub. Almost everyone living in the suburbs knows it’s true. The deer were here first, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. What’s a gardener to do?
To greatly increase your chances of having a successful garden in deer territory, go back to the basics. Instead of spending your money on an electrified, razor-wire fence and repellents that smell like a slaughterhouse, create a beautiful garden by using the right plants.
Though there is no such thing as a deer-proof plant, there are many species of plants that the deer seldom feed on. Different deer herds feed on different plants, so what they eat in one region, they may not find favorable in another. That being said, there are many plants that, no matter where you live, the deer tend to leave alone.
There are a few characteristics common to plants that deer typically don’t eat, and when you shop at the nursery for new plants, keep these characteristics in mind.
• Deer often avoid plants with fuzzy or hairy foliage. This includes plants like lambs ear (Stachys), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), ageratum, spirea (Spiraea), and yarrow (Achillea). Rub the plant’s foliage between your finger and thumb; if you feel small, bristly or soft, hairs there, it’s a good bet that the deer won’t eat it.
• Plants that contain compounds toxic to deer also are good choices. By instinct, or by seeing what older herd members avoid, young deer learn not to eat plants that will upset their tummies. Poppies (Papaver), false indigo (Baptisia australis), bleeding hearts (Dicentra), spurges (Euphorbia), hellebores (Helleborus), daffodils, monkshood (Aconitum), and ferns all contain compounds that deer can’t tolerate (some of them are poisonous to humans, too, so be careful when planting them in gardens where small children might “browse”).
• Also turn to plants with heavily fragranced foliage. Deer, like people, eat with their noses first. An overly aromatic plant will often deter their feeding by confusing their olfactory system. Most herbs are both beautiful and deer-resistant, including sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, lavender and others. Other aromatic choices include Russian sage (Perovskia), catmint (Nepeta), blue mist shrub (Caryopteris), boxwood (Buxus), and ornamental sages (Salvia).
• Plants with thick, leathery or fibrous foliage also are a turn off. Iris, arrowwood viburnums (Viburnum dentatum), pachysandra, and peonies don’t often fall victim to deer browse. The same can be said of plants with spiny or prickly foliage or stems. Barberry, globe thistle (Echinops ritro) and bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) fit into this category.
• Deer also avoid eating grasses, both because they are difficult to digest and their sharp edges are not very inviting. This means that nearly all ornamental grasses and sedges are a good fit for deer ravaged gardens.
Remember, each herd eats differently, so what works for you, may not work for your cousin in Ohio. Be willing to experiment, but do keep these deer-repelling characteristics in mind when introducing a new plant to your garden.
And, if you plan on growing vegetables, there are a few that are considered deer-resistant. Members of the onion family are unpalatable to deer due to their odor, as are members of the squash and cucumber family because of the small, irritating hairs present on their foliage. But, if you really want to grow vegetables in deer country, your best bet is to erect a tall, wooden, stockade fence. They can’t see over or through it, and they don’t like to jump into enclosed spaces.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.
Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.