Rarely do I have a garden conversation that doesn’t include deer. Living in West Virginia means living among wildlife and, most often, herds of deer.
As I type, three does are sauntering and nibbling their way through the back; they will settle under the thicket of branches in the same spot that generations of their furry family have called home. You might say we have a love/dislike relationship. I enjoy seeing them and worry when they disappear for a few days, but deer are destructive to the garden.
Very few plants are deer-proof; when hungry, they are just like us and will eat anything and everything, but there are deer-resistant choices. These plants are not their first choice and will have a better chance of surviving in your garden.
Deer don’t like plants with much texture, they feel funny on their tongues. They walk right past my lamb’s ear. Plant yarrow, lady’s mantle or brunnera and you should have success.
They do not like fuzzy, and they do not like tough or stringy leaves. Plant an iris bed, add peonies to your landscape (you need peonies for so many reasons, mostly they are beautiful), try begonias or even elephant ears.
If you have a sunny spot, I have had good luck with cone flowers, coreopsis and shasta daisies. They devour my Black-eyed Susans the minute they grow 6 inches tall. I have had success with bee balm and, like these other sun-loving plants, it attracts and feeds pollinators.
Generally, deer will pass on plants with a strong smell. My fragrant herb garden or the lavender and Russian sage growing in the sun are of no interest. Onions and alliums are safe. I also have several boxwood shrubs, another strong-smelling shrub they will ignore, and one I like because they stay green year-round. Roses are the exception; the deer and I both love roses. They won the battle. Now, my roses come from the florist.
Deer learn at a young age to avoid toxic plants. They know to leave the ferns alone; bleeding hearts and daffodils will not attract them. Although they won’t eat them, they do love to walk through my ferns and can break the stems as they jump.
The ferns are planted in an area with a low fence. Although my back has fencing, it is fencing to keep the pup in, not to keep the deer out. Deer can easily clear a 6- to 8-foot fence. Funny story, when I first installed my fence, it disrupted their pathway through my yard. For the first week or so, I would find white fur on the top of the gate, a reminder that no gate would stop them from where they wanted to go.
I have learned not to plant their favorites, such as hostas or tulips. When I have a tender, young plant or a treasure I want to keep and see grow to maturity, I wrap it in black plastic deer netting and check it often. It is not unusual to find new plantings, or in some cases, the mesh slung across the yard as if they were spitting it out after not liking the taste or texture.
Spraying with a deer deterrent works, but you must be diligent. I even suggest changing the brand every so often to keep them guessing about the smell (remember, they don’t like strong scents). I have heard placing bars of deodorant soap, and even human hair in the garden will keep them away. I doubt that works.
Having a pup roam the garden doesn’t frighten them. They seem to know her limits, and I swear they even know her schedule. I love that silly pup, but she does not keep the deer away.
When planning your garden and purchasing plants, most will have labels noting if they are deer resistant. A quick Google search will give you long lists of planting choices. Remember when choosing plants to keep in mind the sun, shade and moisture levels of your area.
My deer (yes, my deer) challenge me in the garden. They have eaten and destroyed more plants than I could ever list. After all of these years, I am still learning to accept and plant not my first choice, but plants that are least tempting to these graceful but hungry creatures who call the little house on a big hill home.