Gardening friends across the country share a common frustration with us: deer grazing the valuable ornamental and edible plants in our gardens. This challenge feels as though it is getting more difficult each year as deer populations increase. And its not just deer who show up to feed at the buffet of our well-tended gardens. Rabbits, voles, moles, squirrel and muskrats also destroy plants and steal produce from our gardens each season
Discovering the damage is always a bit of a shock, and always creates frustration. Two Oakleaf Hydrangea shrubs which escaped damage until now were stripped of their leaves sometime yesterday. We’ve had enough rain that spray repellents were washed away. The careful planting of distasteful plants around them was not enough to keep these hungry deer away.
A neighbor suggests we plant things especially for the deer, to feed them. While this may sound like a good idea at first, the reality is the deer will eat those plants to the nub, and then continue on to the rest of the garden. The more food available, the more the herd will increase.
Some neighbors enjoy seeing the deer in their yards. They find them beautiful. I have no argument with that. However, the reality is that these gentle and graceful creatures not only decimate the vegetation, they also carry ticks. The ticks often carry Lyme’s Disease and other dangerous diseases, which create life-long illnesses in those who develop the disease.
That is why my partner and I have spent the last six years, since we moved to this deer ridden tick infested forest garden, doing everything we can to eliminate the deer from around our home. Some tell us up front we are on a fool’s errand. And maybe they are right. But since I love to garden, the alternative is to simply sell and move on in hopes we won’t find deer in our next neighborhood.
But as man develops nature into more sprawling neighborhoods, the native animals learn to live among us. Their fear of us diminishes with their options.
I first wrote about gardening in spite of the deer two summers ago, in June of 2013. The techniques and plant list I offered then was based on three years of experimentation and conversation with other neighborhood gardeners; and extensive reading on the subject. After another two years of gardening, and watching deer continue to somehow slither in through the fences we’ve constructed to keep them out, I’m ready to revise the plant list and offer somewhat different advice.
The bottom line is that there are a few plants the deer almost never touch. They will walk right past them without touching a single leaf. And these are the only species one may plant with total peace of mind. Planting other species the deer and other critters find tasty leads to loss. You may enjoy the plants at times, but will be faced with the damage done at others.
Now sometimes it is worth it. Many plants the deer graze will eventually grow to a height and breadth so that grazing may damage, but will not destroy the plant. Many of our roses have now grown to that stage.
Yes, I love roses and have planted them despite the fact they are simply deer candy. I have lost many rose shrubs to the deer over the past few years. But a few have established and now flourish. I think the secret has been to chose large growing, hardy shrub roses. The smaller tea roses can rarely gain enough size to survive. The same can be said for Rhododendron, Azalea, Hydrangea, and other marginal shrubs.
Another factor to consider is that newly planted nursery shrubs are already rich in Nitrogen from the grower. A high Nitrogen content makes the plant tastier; like salted French fries to our palate. Nitrogen, and other elements in fertilizer, are considered salts. If we can keep a plant alive, through whatever means, for the first two or three years; it not only grows larger, it also grows less appealing.
When considering how much extra fertilizer to spread around your shrubs and trees, if any, this is an important consideration. Growing your garden on the lean side might offer additional protection from grazing.
We have observed that plants which grow extremely well in some of our gardens, such as Camellias and Hydrangea macrophylla, also called Mophead Hydrangea, get eaten in others. My mature Camellia bushes are left alone, but I’ve had tremendous damage done to some, but not all, newly planted Camellia bushes. Sometimes shrub species and perennials that nurserymen and landscape architects recommend as ‘deer resistant’ get eaten, anyway.
Experience is the best teacher. Somehow, deer rarely stick to the published lists of plants they are supposed to avoid.
Maybe I’ve grown cynical, but now I seek out poisonous plants for our garden. No, I’m not planting poison ivy as ground cover and Castor beans in the flower beds. Although Castor beans have lovely foliage and I plant them some years….
I’m not interested in plants poisonous to the touch. I’m interested in plants which deer and other animals will not graze because of the poisonous compounds in their leaves.
These animals are smart, and they know these things instinctively. Even if you lose a Caladium leaf here and there, it won’t happen very much.
The other general group of plants the deer leave alone are the strongly scented herbs. They do not like, and will not bother most herbs. And herbs offer beautiful foliage along with some flowers. Ferns, likewise, rarely suffer from grazing. A frond may disappear from time to time, but the plant remains.
Rough textured and strongly scented foliage protects other sorts of plants, as well. I’ve never had a Pelargonium grazed. Whether you plant Zonal Geraniums in a flower pot, Ivy Geraniums in a hanging basket, or scented Geraniums in a pot or bed, you can plant with confidence. In fact, I’ve had some success with planting scented Geraniums, some of which will grow very large in a season, around roses and Hydrangea to protect them from grazing. Deer dislike scented plants that much.
Native hardy Geraniums are nearly as safe a bet. If tasted, they won’t be eaten. These make a nice ground cover at the front of a bed and around shrubs.
Many native shrubs and trees remain immune to grazing. Maybe this is why the deer leave naturally overgrown areas to shimmy into our garden buffet. There is a benefit in learning to appreciate the aesthetic of native plants. These may not be first choice from an ornamental point of view, but they will survive.
It is very frustrating to realize there is absolutely nothing you can do, short of building an 8” high wire cage around your garden, to protect those fruits and vegetables you would like to grow for your own family. I’ve seen 10” high secured netting draped on heavy frames to protect tomato plants in my neighbors’ garden. Sure, the deer couldn’t get at the plants, but squirrels found their way in to steal the tomatoes. Ditto with potted tomatoes grown ‘out of reach’ on the deck.
Just remember, most animals haven’t a care in the world beyond finding food and staying alive. They have 24/7 to scheme a way in to your garden for dinner. So whether you want to plant blueberry bushes, apple trees, strawberries or a row of beans; it is likely it will be eaten before it ripens in a garden like ours.
That said, there are still many beautiful choices in trees, flowering shrubs, perennials, annuals, herbs and ferns from which to choose. Here is a freshly curated list for your consideration. We live in Zone 7b, in coastal Virginia. This list is peculiar to our climate, but many of these plants may grow well in your garden, too.
Key to symbols:
! a native plant in our area
# attracts birds with berries, fruit, nuts, or seeds
* a nectar producing plant which attracts butterflies and other pollinating insects
+ a nectar producing plant which attracts hummingbirds
Flowering Trees and Shrubs
# * + Althea, Rose of Sharon Hibiscus syriacus
# * + $ Angel’s Trumpet: Brugmansia and Datura
Bamboo (various species)
! # Bayberry, or Wax Myrtle Myrica cerifera
! # * Beautyberry Bush Callicarpa americana
# * Boxwood Buxus sempervirens
! # * + Butterfly Bush Buddleia (various species)
# * + Butterfly Tree or Glory Tree Clerodendrum trichotomum
* Camellia C. japonica and C. sasanqua
# * +Crepe Myrtle Lagerstroemia
! # * Dogwood Cornus florida
# * English Laurel Prunus laurocerasus
! # * Fringe Tree Chionanthus virginicus
! * Hydrangea arborescens
# Japanese Maple Acer palmatum
# * + $ Ligustrum
* +Lilac Syringa vulgaris
# * Mahonia Mahonia aquifolium
! $ Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia (all parts of this plant are highly poisonous)
! # * Magnolia virginiana and other species
# *Heavenly Bamboo Nandina domestica (all parts of this plant are highly poisonous)
! * & Native Holly Ilex opaca
! # Oakleaf Hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia
# * + $ Oleander
# * Fire Thorn Pyracantha (various species)
! # * +Red Bud Cercis canadensis
# * $ Rhododendron
# * + Silk Tree or Mimosa Albizia julibrissin
# * St. John’s Wort Hypericum
! # Southern Wax Myrtle Myrica cerifera
! # + Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia
! #* Adam’s Needle Yucca filamentosa and other species
Perennials and Bulbs
! $ Wolfsbane, Monkshood Aconitum
$ Elephant’s Ear, African Mask Alocasia species
#*$ Italian Arum, Arum italicum
* $ Bleeding Heart Dicentra cucullaria
! # * + Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberose and Asclepias incarnata
* + Canna Lily Canna
* Centaurea ( various species)
# * + $ Columbine
* $ Elephant’s Ear Colocasia
* $ Lily of the Valley Convallaria majalis
! # * Coreopsis ( various species)
* + Crocosmia ( various species)
* $ Daffodil Narcissus ( various species)
! # * Daisy Asteraceae ( various species)
* $ Daphne
* + $ Larkspur Delphinium
# * Dianthus ( various species)
! # * Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea
* Euphorbia ( various species)
# * Fall Anemones A. hupehensis
Fern (click for detailed information)
# * + Gaillardia ( various species)
* Geranium ( various species)
* + Ginger Lily Hedychium ( various species)
! * Goatsbeard Aruncus dioicus
* Goldenrod Solidago rugosa
* $ Lenten Rose Hellebore ( various species) (note, this plant is highly poisonous)
* $ Dutch Hyacinth Hyacinthus orientalis
* # Iris (Bearded, Dutch, Louisiana, Siberian, etc.)
! # * + Rose Mallow Hibiscus moscheutos
! * +Joe Pye Weed Eutrochium ( various species)
# * Lambs Ears Stychys Byzantina
* + Mexican (Bush) Sage (Salvia leucantha) or Salvia Mexicana
* Muscari ( various species)
* Pelargonium ( various species)
* Peony Paeonia ( various species)
* $ Plumeria
* + Red Hot Poker Kniphofia ( various species)
! # * Black Eyed Susans Rudbeckia ( various species)
$ Sauromatum venosum, Voodoo Lily
*$ Calla Lily Zantedeschia species
* $ Artemisia
# * Basil
# * Dill
* + Lavender
!# *+ Monarda
# * Parsley
* + Pineapple Sage Salvia elegans
* Sage Salvia species
Annuals and Biennials
* $ Caladium
$ Castor Bean Ricinus communis (all parts of this plant are highly poisonous)
# *+Spider Flower Cleome hassleriana
* Dusty Miller Centaurea cineraria
# * +$ Foxglove Digitalis purpurea
# * + Lantana or Shrub Verbena Lantana camara
* + Mandevilla sanderi
* Mexican Heather Cuphea hyssopifolia
* New Guinea Impatiens Impatiens hawkeri
* + Pentas ( various species)
* Plectranthus ( various species)
* Purple Heart Tradescantia pallida
# * + Zinnia elegans
! * + Trumpet Creeper Campsis radicans
! * + Honeysuckle Lonicera sempervirens
# * $ Ivy
! # * + $ Passionflower Passiflora incarnata
* Periwinkle Vinca major & V. minor
# * Star Jasmine Trachelospermum jasminoides
! # * + Virginia Creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia
To have confidence your garden won’t be grazed, choose plants known to be poisonous.
Pick Your Poison:
Poisonous ornamental shrubs:
Angel’s Trumpet: Brugmansia and Datura
European Holly Ilex aquifolium
Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia
Some species of Oak are poisonous
Poisonous Perennials and Bulbs
Bleeding Heart Dicentra cucullaria
Elephant’s Ear Colocasia
Lily of the Valley Convallaria majalis
Sauromatum venosum, Voodoo Lily
Castor Bean Ricinus communis
Tomato leaves (though the deer have grazed my tomatoes)
Passion Flower Passiflora Caerulea (leaves)
Plants that will need extraordinary measures to protect in a forest garden include: Azaleas, Hostas, daylilies, Oriental Lilies, Roses, impatiens, some sedums, Tomatoes, squashes, sweet potato vines, cucumbers, beans, and mophead Hydrangeas.
All photos by Woodland Gnome
- Still Optimistic…. (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- A Beautiful Wildflower (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- Bringing Birds To the Garden (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- Figs (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- Southern Wax Myrtle (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- Camellias (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- “Miss Huff” Perennial Lantana (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- Goldenrod (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- Pass Along Plants, Ginger Lily (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)