Deer may look shy and innocent, but they’ll gut your treasured plants faster than you can say “Bambi.” Like any self-respecting foodie, they have a wide-ranging palette, and they’re willing to try almost anything once. What they don’t eat, bucks in rut may destroy in fall and winter, when they use tree trunks, sturdy shrubs, and stiff-leaved agave and yucca as rubbing posts to get the itchy velvet off their antlers.
If you’ve got deer, you’ve probably tried spraying repellents and hanging twirling objects and siccing the family dog on them (just to chase them off). But deer are opportunistic, and you can bet they’ll be right back in the garden that one evening you forgot to spray or twirl or sic. The only guaranteed way to protect your plants and grow what you want is by deer-fencing your garden. That may work fine in back, but what about in the front yard, where tall fences are typically prohibited or frowned upon?
The sanest solution, which requires the least maintenance over time, is to ditch the Bambi buffet and restrict your plant choices to the kinds of plants deer don’t enjoy. No matter what a plant tag says, no plant is deer-proof. But like people, deer prefer some foods more than others. (Keep in mind you may still need to encircle certain plants – young trees, agaves, etc. – with 5-ft-tall rolled-wire cages from early fall through spring to protect them from antler damage.)
Here’s what to look for when choosing plants that will make deer bypass your garden and head straight to the neighbors’ green buffet. As always, look up the suitability of a plant for your particular climate and conditions before buying.
How to keep deer out of your garden without a fence
Experiment with scented leaves**
Deer tend to avoid plants with strongly scented leaves. What smells minty fresh or peppery or oniony to us smells like a turnoff to them. Many edible herbs fall into this category, and they work well as ornamentals too. Try sage (Salvia spp.), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), and oregano (Origanum spp.).
Other plants that have fragrant foliage include wormwood (Artemisia spp.), society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), hummingbird mint (Agastache spp.), lavender (Lavandula spp.), bee balm (Monarda spp.), and catmint (Nepeta spp.). Boxwood (Buxus spp.) is a good choice too. You can also plant a “barrier” of scented-leaf species around more-vulnerable plants in hopes of discouraging deer from investigating more closely.
Get friendly with fuzzy leaves
Velvety and raspy leaves apparently don’t go down easy. Deer often ignore plants with pronounced textures. Rub a leaf between your fingers. If it feels fuzzy or rough like a cat’s tongue, chances are deer may avoid it in your garden. Try lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), dusty miller (Jacobaea maritima), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), and verbena (Verbena spp.).
Get full-on with ferns
Deer usually leave ferns alone, although in my own garden they decimated a swath of native river fern (Thelypteris kunthii) after ignoring it for 9 years. I guess it started looking tasty in year 10! This only proves that making a deer-resistant garden is a never-ending experiment. Still, many gardeners have success with ferns, so give these a go: autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), and Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum). Other plants with ferny foliage can also make deer turn up their noses, like yarrow (Achillea spp.) and foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’).
Become a fan of fibrous foliage
Leaves that are stringy enough to be woven into baskets don’t rank highly on the deer buffet line. Such plants also tend to have bold foliage that sets off finer textures. Iris (Iris spp.), yucca (Yucca spp.), sotol (Dasylirion spp.), agave (Agave spp.), sago palm (Cycas revoluta), Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), and dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) are good choices.
Try toxic plants
Deer wisely avoid plants that make them sick, although they may still sample and spit it out. But that usually only happens once or twice. Try daffodil (Narcissus spp.), spurge (Euphorbia spp.), oleander (Nerium oleander), and jimsonweed (Datura spp.). Be aware that plants that are toxic to deer may also be highly toxic to people and pets.
Opt for ornamental grasses and sedges
Pretty much any kind! Deer tend to leave grasses and grass-like plants alone (although they may bed down in them), and there are many beautiful species to choose from. Try fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.), silver grass (Miscanthus spp.), muhly (Muhlenbergia spp.), sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), switchgrass (Panicum spp.), and sedge (Carex spp.).
Choosing plants that are last-choice on the deer menu does limit your plant palette, which can be frustrating. But it also encourages you to look past the 5 or 10 most commonly used plants and choose something you might never have tried before. Test a variety of plants to see how they hold up over time, and then plant more of the ones that deer avoid. Deer are good teachers, after all. Sometimes we gardeners just don’t want to learn the lesson, which is to garden with deer, not for them.
Photos: © Pam Penick