“Will Deer Eat It?”

Polka Dot plant takes center stage in this fairy garden. It comes in white, pink and red.

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The lady checking out in front of me at McDonald’s Garden Center on Jamestown Road had two cute little pots of ‘Polka Dot Plant,’ Hypoestes phyllostachya, and she had a single question for the clerk: “Will deer eat it?”  For those of us living among free-roaming herds of deer, that is always the question!

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Hydrangea macrophylla attract deer, who eat both leaves and flowers.

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Do deer graze in your garden?  It seems that ever growing herds of deer continue moving into more and more areas across the United States.  Even suburbs and small town now have a problem with deer.  So many are born each year, and they have no natural predator.  There is no longer enough hunting to keep their population in check, and so they have learned to live among us.

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Maybe you, like some of our neighbors, enjoy seeing ‘The Bambis.’  But maybe you, like many of our friends, want to grow a garden around your home to please you and your family- not to offer a free dinner to the local herd.

It is a constant struggle here, in our forested community.  Each doe can have up to five fawns a year.  Triplets aren’t uncommon.  Each buck may have a harem of six or more does in his family group.  We saw a group of more than 20 running across our neighbor’s yard one day in late January.

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Plants with poisonous leaves, like these Colocasia, won’t be grazed by deer.

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Even if you are content to let nature take its course in your yard, and you aren’t an avid gardener; you may be concerned about deer ticks and the diseases they carry.  Ticks lurk in places frequented by deer.  They wait on grasses, shrubs, anywhere they can until a warm blooded comes near enough for them to jump on and catch a ride and a meal.

The last time we were at the doctor getting an antibiotic script for a tick bite, the doctor offered up some comforting news.  She told us that the tick must be attached for 24 hours to transmit Lyme’s disease.  That is reason enough to thoroughly check for ticks after a day of gardening!

We have so many neighbors who have contracted Lyme’s disease, and we have had so many tick bites, that we do everything in our power to keep deer out of our garden.

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Ticks linger in overgrown grasses and on shrubs and trees, waiting for a ride and a meal.

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And that is not an easy thing.  Unless you are ready to construct a 10′ high chain link fence around the perimeter of your yard, maybe adding a little razor wire on top, they will likely find a way in from time to time.  And so we do everything in our power to discourage the deer from coming in to start with.  And if they do sneak in, we dispatch them and encourage them to stay in the ravine in future!

Which brings us back to buying ‘deer resistant’ plants.  The McDonald’s clerk didn’t know whether annual Polka Dot Plant was deer resistant or not.  But she looked it up somehow in her system, and told her customer that she believed it was.  She was right.  Hypoestes is considered deer resistant.

But that is a very loose term.  When hungry enough, deer will try grazing many things they shouldn’t.

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Rose scented Pelargonium with Pineapple Sage and Rose.  Herbs with a strong fragrance can offer some protection to tasty shrubs, like this rose.

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We’ve had to learn a lot about what deer won’t eat in order to garden in our community.  My last garden was enclosed with a 7′ fence in a suburb which had no deer.  My azaleas were 8′ high and I could grow anything I wanted without a second thought.  But the past is the past, and we live in the present, right?

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Azaleas once grew abundantly in our forest garden, before the deer population skyrocketed. Ours are now badly grazed and misshapen.  Some barely hang on from year to year.

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So unless you have an eidetic memory, it might be easier to remember some basic principles of what plants deer avoid than trying to memorize a list!  I’ve read lots of lists over the years and listened to a few experts speak on the topic.  No one is 100% accurate. in part because deer develop different preferences.

But here are a few guidelines which might prove useful as you plan your garden this spring:

  1.  Deer don’t like strongly scented or strongly flavored foliage.  This means that almost any herb is ‘safe’ and won’t be grazed.  This includes plants you might not think of as herbs, including annual geraniums, scented geraniums, Artemisias, and some perennials related to the mint family.  All Alliums, including garlic, scallions and onions, repel deer.
  2. Deer don’t like thick, tough and textured leaves.  Your Yucca is safe, as is prickly pear cactus, Iris and Lantana.  I’ve never seen lamb’s ears, Stachys byzantina,  grazed, either.
  3. Many plants are naturally poisonous, and others have oxalic acid crystals in their leaves which irritate deer mouths.  Caladiums and their relatives are ‘safe’ due to the irritating crystals in their leaves.  That said, two friends told me their Caladiums were grazed during a summer drought last year.  We lose a leaf from time to time, but never a whole plant.  Colocasia and Alocasia, Arum italicum, and Zantedeschia all fall into this group.  If a plant is known as poisonous, like Helleborus and daffodils,  you can plant it with confidence.
  4. Deer avoid eating ferns.
  5. Deer avoid grey foliage.

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    Lavender has both a strong fragrance and tough, thick leaves. Deer never touch them and they are helpful as screening plants around tasty plants you want to protect.

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Now, here is what they do enjoy eating:

  1.  Any new shrub from the nursery, which has been grown with lots of fertilizer, looks delicious!  Even a shrub they wouldn’t think of grazing when it is mature will be tasty when young.  Nitrogen, a salt, makes the foliage taste good.  Think salt on french fries….. Give those newly planted shrubs and trees a bit of extra protection until they are at least 2 years old.
  2. Any plant you might eat, especially in your vegetable garden, will attract deer.  We’ve had fruit trees grazed, tomatoes devastated, bean vines harvested, and lettuce made to disappear in the blink of an eye.
  3. Any tender, soft, succulent, beautiful leaf, like a Hosta, Heuchera, Coleus, or Hydrangea, will interest a deer.  They also like flowers, otherwise known as ‘deer candy.’  You wouldn’t think deer would graze roses, but they do.  They adore eating any lily, especially daylily leaves and flowers.

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Grow tasty annuals, like sweet potato vine, in pots or baskets out of reach of deer.  Grown where they can get to it, expect it to be grazed from time to time.

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What can you do?  Like the lady with the Polka Dot plant, consider whether or not a new plant will attract deer before you bring it home to your garden.  Let the majority of your new plants be those the deer won’t graze.  I’ve learned how to create an interesting garden by growing lots of herbs and poisonous plants!

But I grow my favorites, too.  We gave up on a veggie garden, but we still have roses, a few Hosta, and Hydrangeas.  I defiantly grow a few tasty annuals in pots and baskets out of the reach of deer, or in pots right up against the house.  You would be amazed how brazen hungry deer can be!  And yes, I’ve had sweet potato vines and Coleus plants eaten off my front patio.

That is why the perimeter of our property is mostly planted with shrubs and trees that deer won’t graze.  We have wax myrtle, crepe myrtle, bamboo, red cedar, Ligustrum and Yucca along  the outer edges, somewhat hiding the more delicious plants in the center of our garden.

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Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower, is a favorite of nectar loving insects. A perennial, it is rarely touched by deer and grows more vigorous each year.

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I generally surround tender tasty plants with highly scented ones the deer will avoid.  We grow garlic, chives and onions in random places to protect certain plants.  Highly scented herbs can often give some protection, too, if planted around a shrub you want to protect.  I throw garlic cloves in pots of annuals.

We also regularly spread Milorganite around the perimeter of our property and around shrubs, like azaleas, we want to protect from deer.  You need at least a 4′ swath of this smelly fertilizer to fend off deer.  An interesting benefit is the drastic reduction in ticks we’ve found since we began using Milorganite last spring.

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Scented Pelargoniums and Zantedeschia prove a winning, and deer proof, combination.

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I keep a spray bottle of ‘Repels-All’ and spray the Hosta and Heuchera as they emerge; the roses and Hydrangeas as they leaf out.  Rain washes this product away, eventually, and so one needs to use it every few weeks.  Plants are more vulnerable in spring than in late summer, so you don’t have to make a life-time commitment to spraying this stuff.

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Hibiscus prove deer resistant.

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No one of us can solve the deer problem alone.  We’ve recently heard of some research in New York with contraceptive injections good for 22 months for an adult doe.  But this program is very expensive and labor intensive.  Hunting remains very controversial.  There are few ideas out there for a humane solution to this growing problem.

As undeveloped habitat disappears deer move in to our neighborhoods, sharing the land with us. And so it is up to us, as the brainier species, to adapt.  One way to co-exist with these gentle creatures is to design our gardens with plants they won’t eat.

Let them eat elsewhere!” becomes our motto, and  constant vigilance our practice.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Our ‘deer resistant’ garden, filled with poisonous plants and herbs,  in early spring

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

4 responses to ““Will Deer Eat It?”

  1. What a very informative post! As I’m sure I’ve said to you in the past, we used to suffer deer at home (little Muntjac) – now we have different problems. I think pests are good for reinforcing the human gardener’s spine. Your post drives the point home!

    • You are so right ! I think of all the challenges faced by gardeners, working without electricity , who managed greenhouses to produce winter crops and spring annuals. Look at all they accomplished ! Climate change presents it’s own challenges and demand for creative action ⏰Please remind me – What is plaguing your Chatillion, garden ?

      • I am so lucky at the moment – nothing!!! It used to be voles (we have a great hunting cat and used some drastic measures for a very brief period. On arrival here I could grow NOTHING). In the past I’ve had deer as well (in England), which is why I watch your deer tactics so avidly!

        • A group of gardening friends visited yesterday , including a new neighbor just beginning her Williamsburg garden . She is leaving an established garden she and her husband created over a quarter century . …and they have never had to contend with voles . My friends and I were describing the works of voles and ways to thwart them. Fore- warned is fore -armed…. ( She looked horrified ) We are blessed with neighboring hunting cats, resident hawks and owls who all help with vole control . Our own cat rarely hunts anymore, but surely they can sense him . The deer around here are smart and brazen . I spread an entire bag of Milorganite, yesterday evening , after finding the dears in our garden twice yesterday ! I’m sure that the deer watch our tactics , too , and laugh as they find a way back in….. 😕

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