Deer Gardening

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010


One reason it's difficult to compile a list of deer-resistant plants is that deer appetites seem to vary from one deer herd to another. Scott Woodbury, horticulture supervisor at Shaw Nature Reserve near Gray Summit, says deer in the reserve's unfenced natural areas like the early-emerging trout lily (Erythronium albidum). In our woods, trout lilies grow right next to a deer trail and seem untouched.

Individual deer also may have varying preferences and needs. Deer have been known to develop a taste for a species of plant they previously ignored, and the increased nutritional needs of pregnant or lactating does may lead them to consume plants they otherwise would avoid.

Limit Planting

That doesn't mean it's impossible to design gardens that won't ring the deer's dinner bell. If you share your neighborhood with deer, you probably already know which of your plants deer like and which ones they leave alone. In our own gardens, columbine, vinca minor, purple coneflower, daffodil, surprise lily, yarrow and many other species have escaped the browsing herd.

On the other hand, deer certainly seem to relish some of our favorite garden plants, including tulips, hostas and daylilies. A simple strategy of not planting such deer-delectable species will likely reduce deer damage. If you aren't sure whether deer like a plant or not, plant just one or a few as a test. If the deer leave the plants alone, you can feel safer about investing in more of the same species.

Deer seem to avoid certain textures in plants, so consider fuzzy-leaved lamb's ears or mullein. Rough or tough leaves generally repel, as do herbs with strong aromas and flavors. Flowering plants in the mustard family, such as alyssum and nasturtium, have done well for some gardeners.

Plants that appear after the woodland leafs out may be safer than early starters. Even then, a palatable plant's survival depends on whether a deer happens to come by or not. Remember, too, that some nibbled plants aren't necessarily goners. They may grow new leaves and bloom later. Even after the deer bite them off, our daylilies keep growing.

Grow Native!

Using only native plants also may discourage deer. Rose Allison of Carthage reports having as many as 13 deer visit her yard. "Most of my wildflowers are not bothered, except spiderwort." She attributes her garden's success to the fact that it is composed entirely of native species.

Her garden plants include butterfly weed, cardinal flower, celandine poppy,

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