So many of us have done it. You buy a beautiful plant at the nursery, but you’re not familiar with it. You check the tag, see how much sun and water it needs and bring it home to plant. Only to find the next morning all that remains are stubs of green at the ground – flowers and leaves have all been stripped – leaving it bare and leaving you fuming.
Sound familiar? It’s called gardening with deer.
Why is it so exasperating? Because learning to garden with deer is like aiming at a moving target.
As urban growth infringes more and more on their habitat, the deer problem grows as well. With no natural predators left, they are competing with us for food and water.
When it comes to controlling them, there are more outrageous claims for repellants than there are deer, frankly. The list runs the gamut: urine, pepper spray, blood meal, rotten eggs, human hair, soap shavings, fabric softener sheets.
Gardeners who have lived with deer for a long time will tell you one universal truth:
There is no such thing as deer proof.
There are some repellants that work on some deer for some of the time.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to determine what will turn away YOUR deer and whether or not the same concoction will also work next week. Nothing is 100%. And most of the potions…well, they stink, literally. And they have to be reapplied regularly.
Motion sensors with lights and sprinklers usually only work for a few weeks until the deer figure out the pattern and outwit us again. Dogs can help, but again, they aren’t on patrol constantly and deer move at night when Fido is sometimes snoring peacefully.
The only reasonably reliable deterrent is a fence, but without long and open sprinting access areas over which they might vault. Thicker vegetation and trees close to a privacy-type fence seem to be fairly safe. For larger properties out in the country, an electric fence will sometimes work, if they don’t simply jump over the top of it. But they are expensive and complex and not usually an option for the average home gardener.
Certain type of netting over some plants will also work, but they can trap birds and other animals and make it difficult to garden, not to mention they aren’t very attractive.
Because they have so many muscles attached to their ears, they can turn their ears in any direction without moving their heads. They have excellent hearing and can hear higher frequencies of sound than humans. They don’t like loud, clanging sounds, so large wind chimes may keep them at bay on occasion.
Deer also have an acute sense of smell, up to 20 times greater than humans, and they have eyes on the sides of their head, giving them a 310 degree view of the world around them. If they are looking for goodies in your garden, they’re going to find them!
What are considered deer “goodies,” you ask? They love sweet, juicy plants like succulents, hostas and lilies. They look for new plantings or fresh, new growth on established plants. Our gardens are particularly vulnerable now, when fresh, spring growth becomes abundant.
I have found that their sense of smell also calls them to freshly-turned earth. New plantings, even things they dislike, will entice them. They seem perfectly content to stomp around in my garden and paw undesirable plants out of the ground, leaving them to dry out and die, just for the sport of it. So I always protect new plants for a few weeks with a little circle of chicken wire or a milk crate or something similar until the soil and plants aren’t fresh and tempting.
So, you ask, which plants are deer resistant? Again, that depends on many variables. In drought years like we’ve been experiencing, the deer have little to eat in their habitat and venture into our gardens to eat things they would never otherwise eat in a year with average rainfall and growth. And different herds of deer have been know to eat different kinds of plants. They’re kind of like us – some like ketchup on their burgers, some like mustard!
But there are some general (not guaranteed) guidelines you can follow.
Deer tend to dislike certain textures. They seem to avoid plants with wooly or fuzzy leaves, like Lamb’s Ear, and herbs with strong scents and flavors like rosemary, garlic, Mexican oregano, mint. Native plants seem to fare better as well, like Lantana horrida, and some salvias and sages. They occasionally avoid thorny plants, but will also eat roses with thorns with great abandon.
In addition to plants, young trees also need protecting during the deer breeding season, which occurs between October and January. Called the “rut,” it is when their antlers lose their velvet. To prepare for territorial fights, they crash antlers with other bucks, and will often scrape their antlers against trees, breaking branches and severely damaging bark. They also become very nervous and are constantly active, exhibiting erratic behavior and often wandering into places you would normally not find them, like residential areas.
There is good new, however. Many of our local nurseries do an excellent job of labeling plants “deer tend to avoid.” Again, no guarantees, but that’s a very useful piece of information when you’re shopping and run across something you don’t know much about but just have to have.
There are also many excellent websites with extensive alphabetical deer resistant plant lists, divided by types of plant.
So, do a little research, check out plants before you buy them, and protect them when they are newly-planted in your garden. You can garden with deer, you just have to serve them a menu that they don’t like.