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Gardening with Deer

03/10/2012 in gardening, pests

The perennial question of what to do about the deer, is one I often see posted and reposted at help forums.

I wrote up a page about deer-proof gardening a number of years ago, it may be time to revisit the concept.

The Problem

Deer make gardening difficult, they get over their fears of us rapidly. It can seem like they move into the garden, and forget to leave…

When they nibble the pretties, it may kill them.

trilliumThe trilliums are just emerging from dormancy, and the deer have already mowed them down at one of my gardens! These jewels are planted against the foundation of the house!

While there are a lot of products marketed to deter deer, the need to apply early and often can make this prospect tedious….
Some of those products stink, and can make visiting the garden unpleasant.


fencePutting up little fences everywhere can protect individual clumps of plants…

if the home-owner can stand to live with these little pens…

Inedible Plants for the Shade Garden

It might be easier simply to plant stuff that the deer absolutely will not eat…
aconite Aconitum comes to mind… This pretty flower is said to be so poisonous that we are advised to wear gloves when we set out the plants!
There’s a story about high-ranking members of the church coming to dine (some time ago), and when the kitchen help went out to pull horse radish, they accidentally pulled some aconitum instead… oops!
Nobody is going to have problems with the deer grazing on something known as one of the most deadly plants grown in the garden…

dw1 Hellebore are toxic and are a great option for the deer-prone garden. I post a lot of hellebore posts, as hellebore are winter bloomers, and anything that will bloom in the winter deserves a place in my garden to combat the winter blues.

mayapple-bloom May apple also comes to mind, often referred to as American Mandrake…

Mandrake conjures up great memories from the fantasy stories we’ve all read, where a dog is employed to pull the plant out of the ground…. While the fruit can be eaten, the American Natives were said to have respected Mayapples as a vehicle into the next lifetime. Definitely a plant that shouldn’t be bothered by the deer!

foxglove1Consider foxglove, a popular heart medication, foxglove would be dangerous for us to attempt eating, the deer can be reliably expected to completely avoid this medicinal…

Inedible Plants for the Meadow

Moving out of the shade garden, consider the castor bean…
It’s been a few years since I’ve grown this delight, but it is definitely safe from the ravages of garden pests… I wrote extensively about castor beans on the garden video post, when a v-blogger made a mistake in discussing their edibility. Definitely not edible… I used to use the beans to protect my other seeds from rat predation.

brugmansia Brugmansias and daturas are great plants for the garden… they produce incredible displays of blooms, and are pest proof. The deer will not eat these guys.
Now… there may be a minor problem with the neighbor kids, looking for kicks, but these plants really aren’t worth all the brouhaha…. it’s not going to be a pleasant experience for them, and if all the over-reactions of the media were to stop, there’d be a lot less experimentation with stuff that isn’t pleasurable.

poppies The poppy is left alone by the deer.
They can’t afford to have their minds clouded by the plants found in the medicinal garden.
A drunk deer would be easy prey…

ginger-lilyCannas and Ginger are a couple of tropical looking showy plants that the deer seem to avoid.
I don’t know why this is…
Neither is known to be poisonous, I found several sites that claim that cannas are non toxic to pets.

Plant Delights goes further, claiming that canna roots are a human food source!

So… Why don’t the deer eat cannas?

They may eat them in your garden… Deer are notorious for suddenly deciding to eat flowers they’d previously avoided.

Sometimes, we plant the garden, and the deer eat the plants that come with a guarantee of being deer-proof.
When growing a non-toxic garden, these things happen.

I can’t begin to tell you how many supposed deer “resistant” plants that the deer are partial to in my garden.

I’ve seen butterfly weed and echinacea suggested as deer “resistant” on lists of plants recommended for deer problem gardens, the Georgia deer love them.

The aromatics, like monarda are almost deer-proof…
I’ve seen incidents of the deer eating them in spite of the smell.

They don’t eat them to the ground like the main menu items, but I’ve seen it happen.

hawt-lipz1Usually, deer avoid salvia. Salvia are beautiful plants with a strong odor.

I have a garden where the deer have decided they enjoy a bit of salvia with the rest of their salad.

Another almost deer-proof item is lantanna.
I’ve seen them browse it on occasion.
But not that much.
I consider these aromatics very good items for the deer prone garden in spite of the occasional browsing in the rare yard.

I believe that deer can be encouraged to leave the ornamental garden alone, but it’s going to take a heavy handed approach, weeding out those favourite plants that the deer perfer, like the hosta…

Deer-proof Gardening Ideas

I suspect an effort should be made to collect the plants that a monk might have grown in his medicinal garden, or a wizard might have grown in his magical garden.

I read a lot of fantasy, and I’m always drawn to the passages wherein the witch or warlock collects the plants that go into the spells… this makes a magical deer-proof garden grow in appeal.

I’ve seem some forum posts devoted to fairy gardens, and while a lot of space seems to be devoted to the little houses and other art, there’s some great plants that would be very much appropriate to such gardens.

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8 responses to Gardening with Deer

  1. I don’t know whether deer are not a problem for me because of the plants I grow, many on your list; the dog who barks, or because they have ample food without eating flowers. They are very abundant and hunters did not harvest many this year. More were hit by cars on the highway than were shot.

  2. We don’t have this problem, thank goodness, even though we see them on the field next door sometimes. Rabbits are our problem, I swear they look at the price tag first, if it was an expensive plant, then they eat it to the ground !!

  3. Being in the city means that I don’t have deer to contend with… but I have been trying to get rid of a patch of yellow cannas for about 10 years now. Maybe I’ll just eat them!

  4. I remember one year at a new house. I bought over $100 worth of SMALL plants (years ago, meaning a LOT of plants!) and spent all day planting them in my double-dug ornamental garden. I woke up the next day to find NOTHING but stubs, footprints, and spots where the deer had laid down to rest during the feast. I went on to try hanging soap, putting out hair, letting my large dog patrol the area … nothing worked. I ended up with a grassy back yard and ornamentals reserved for pots on the deck and the front beds. Those deer could be persistent! (Oh, they ate salvias, lantanas, and bee balm there, as well as several onion species that they “shouldn’t have liked”)

    Thankfully I don’t have that problem here. In fact, your list reads for me like a list of “plants I cannot have” since I have geese and goats now, so I pretty much avoid toxic species. I miss azaleas … sigh.

  5. Donna said on 06/02/2012

    No deer in the city for me, but I work with a tree nursery (my business partner, I am the designer/architect) and they have resident deer, both raised on the farm and wild. So I know deer, and too have written on them! With loads of pretty deer pictures, but none caught in the act of eating a landscape.

    You have outlined many good points and advice, most important of which, is not planting what the deer prefer. When hungry, they eat just about anything, though. Keeping a garden with deer resistant plants keeps the garden better looking and smelling too, no fences or smelly deterrents.

  6. I don’t have deer problems but I also don’t have all those nice rocks you have around your monarda bed. I am jealous! I have only two rocks big enough to see. Both were brought to me by a friend from Ohio.

  7. stone said on 07/17/2012

    Rutgers agricultural experiment station in New Jersey published a reasonable deer plant chart
    Where plants are rated in an ABCD key
    A = Rarely Damaged
    B = Seldom Severely Damaged
    C = Occasionally Severely Damaged
    D = Frequently Severely Damaged

  8. Jan said on 09/26/2014

    Another plant deer may sample but leave alone once they discover they don’t like it is snapdragon. I’ve had curious deer pull newly-planted snaps out of their holes, only to leave the entire intact plant laying on the ground, having discarded it completely. If I catch it in time, I can replant the uprooted ones, they thrive, and the deer never touch them again.

    They also seem to leave marigolds alone, although that’s iffy. I’ve heard of deer eating marigolds, but they don’t touch them in my garden.

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