Gardening With Deer

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Deer are described as beautiful, graceful, plentiful and tasty. Others call them a pest with a big appetite. Large populations of white-tailed deer in our area do cause problems for gardeners. Every herd eats differently and the food sources are always changing. How do gardeners deal with such an abundant problem?

Gardening with deer requires patience and experimentation. Deer management techniques require flexibility in plant choices and some understanding of their habits. The population in a herb changes frequently so management techniques are best tweaked often.

No plant is considered completely deer-proof. Deer generally do not eat entire plants but just the best part. They nibble on buds, tips of new shoots, leaves and even flowers. They are said to be concentrate selectors because they consume the most nutrient-rich, highly palatable foods they can find. Many seem to prefer to eat at dusk or after sunset. Natural food sources are always changing. When facing starvation, deer will eat any plant in order to survive.

The first line of defense against deer is always smart plant selection. Deer do tend to stay away from plants with these common characteristics: thorny or prickly leaves and stems, strong scents and pungent tastes (herbs), poisonous or thick, latex-like sap, and hairy leaves. Choose deer-resistant plants with fuzzy or hairy foliage including lambs ear (Stachys),  lady’s mantle (Alchemilla), Suberian bugloss (Brunnera), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), tuberous begonias, heliotrope, yarro (Achillea), Ageratum, poppies, purple top vervain (Verbena bonariensis) and others.

Most deer dislike plants with spines on their leaves. They will nibble the leaves and taste the flower buds but generally avoid leaves with spines. Consider choosing bear’s breeches (Acanthus), globe thistle (Echinops), Cardoon and sea hollies (Eryngium).

Deer use their noses to choose their food. If something smells distasteful, they are less likely to taste it. Plants with very aromatic foliage discourage them from feeding. Plant flowering herbs and plants with fragrant foliage to avoid deer browsing. Consider growing sage, thyme, lavender, oregano, dill, catmint, Agastache, Artemesia, Russian sage, salvia, tansy, bee balm, mountain mint, dead nettle, blue mist shrub, or lantana.

Deer resistant plants also include plants that contain compounds toxic to deer. Decide if you want to grow ferns, Baptisia, bleeding hearts, daffodils, Helleborus, Aconitum, Euphorbis or poppies. Be cautious because some of these plants are also toxic to humans and pets.

Plants with leaves that are tough to digest are also typically avoided by deer. Included in this group are pachysandra, iris, wax and dragonwing begonias, elephant ears, peonies and leatherleaf and arrowwood viburnums.

A small percentage of a deer’s diet includes young, succulent grasses. Ornamental grasses are a great plant choice to replace some turf.

There are other factors that discourage deer from dining in your landscape. Next we will consider fencing, repellents and scaring techniques.