06 February 2011

Oh, Deer. The Curse of Many Gardeners.

There are several questions that garden writers get over and over again, and try to answer with varying degrees of success. “How do I keep deer from eating my…?” is the most often, and most plaintively-asked question. You can fill in the blanks as to what they’re eating, depending on the season: rhododendrons, holly, thuja and yew in winter; tulips and crocus in spring; daylilies, hosta, roses, daylilies vegetables, tree and berry fruits, and a host of other tasty options in summer. They’re voracious. And they’re not going away any time soon.

Despite other challenges such as fog, wind, cold and goutweed, deer have never been a problem in our garden. We’ve been deer-free up here on our plot ever since we got Jenny-Many-Lumps, the ancient and not-overly-bright donkey that keeps my horse in the pasture and the coyotes out of it. Jenny thinks deer are simply long-legged coyotes, and she keeps them out of the pasture too, as a rule. She and Mungus had a discussion once about who had the right of way, but it was resolved amicably. 

Rhododendrons and azaleas are often ravaged by deer populations.
I’m pretty sure it’s no comfort to anyone, but deer aren’t just a Nova Scotia problem; in talking with fellow gardeners across North America, they’re ubiquitous in many regions, especially in urban settings. It’s partly our fault, of course, for having taken over so much of their habitat. Some people feed deer in winter, and that helps contribute to populations growing, because more animals survive harsh winters where they would otherwise perish.  

Hypericums, or St. John'w Wort, are not usually troubled by deer.

For some gardeners, electric fencing is an option, but it has to be high enough that deer can’t jump over it. For someone with a large property, that kind of fencing runs into expense. There are a number of deer repellent options out there, both homemade and commercially prepared. You’ll hear people recommend dog hair, soap shavings, urine (human or dog), hot pepper sauce, sour milk, and egg concoctions, among other remedies. I hear of mixed successes with these concoctions, but it does seem they work best if used in rotation, and you need to get them on before the deer start marauding regularly. 

Remember, however, that in spring when the beasts are hungry, they’ll probably opt to eat regardless of how something tastes or smells. And whether you’re using a commercial or homemade repellent, most sprays will need to be reapplied after a rain. 

Repeat after me: there are no deer-proof plants. A hungry deer will try anything once. Normally, however, deer are not particularly fond of plants with prickly or fuzzy foliage (although just to be contrary, they love roses and some sea-hollies) so you can often opt for barberries (above), globe thistles, yucca, potentilla, astilbes and poppies.

Toxic plants such as hellebores, jack in the pulpit, monkshood (above, yellow monkshood with a sage) and daffodils are also rarely bothered. Some gardeners find that putting deterrent-type plants in front of more tempting species helps to foil hungry deer.

They generally tend to avoid plants with strongly scented foliage such as cranesbills, wormwoods, tansy, ferns, herbs such as lavender, and alliums. 

While the following aren't exhaustive lists, they may help you know what to avoid planting; and what to plant instead. If you can't have an attack donkey or a high fence, these suggestions may be some help.

Plants to avoid
Some species are apparently almost irresistible to deer. Unless you can plant them in containers where deer can’t reach, or can protect the plants in some way, you might want to consider avoiding planting these species if you’re in an area with a high deer population.
Evergreen holly
Rhododendrons and azaleas
Plums, cherries and related fruit
Highbush blueberries
Thujas (also know as arbourvitae or ‘cedar’)

Again, let me remind you that these plants are deer resistant, not deer proof. And there are always exceptions. While hellebores are very toxic, I have a friend who reports that deer decimated the fancy, double flowered varieties in her mother's garden. So somewhere there's either a dead deer or one with a cast-iron stomach.

Deer Resistant Perennials:
Aconitum (Monkshood)
Alchemilla (Ladys Mantle)
Alliums (Flowering onions)
Aquilegia (Columbine)
Asclepias (Milkweeds)
Echinacea (Coneflowers)
Heuchera (Coral bells)
Hypericum (St. John’s Wort)
Liatris (Blazing-star)
Papaver (poppies of all sorts)
Polemonium (Jacob’s Ladder)
Salvia (sages)
Tradescantia (Widow’s Tears)

Acer (maples, preferably native)
Aesculus (Horse Chestnut, buckeye)
Amelanchier (Serviceberry)
Aralia (Devil’s Walking Stick)
Berberis (Barberry)
Betula (Birch)
Buxus (Box)
Cornus (Dogwoods, preferably native)
Crataegus (Hawthorn)
Some junipers
Picea (spruces, most species)
Pinus (Pines, especially natives)

What about you, gentle readers? What sort of plants have you had problems--or successes--with when it comes to dealing with the Bambi-bandits?


  1. We're lucky that deer is not a problem in our garden. We have other pests, squirrels!!

  2. Down here in Dorset, in southern England I count my lucky stars that we have no deer in the garden...I have worked on gardens just a few miles away and when they used to eat the rose buds it was so heart-breaking...lovely creatures in the fields or woods but not in the garden...

  3. Oh Dear...those poor things have to eat too don't they but just not in our gardens))). Think you could add Baptisia to the list of plants they avoid but as you say, they seem to try anything once.

  4. Here in southern New England I've used two contradictory methods in the perennial garden: I planted icky tasting plants in front of the ones they like, to keep them away. It sort of worked.

    I have also put in sacrifice plants (a stand of turtlehead off to the side, which spreads and reblooms after each browse) which deer love, and let them have at that; it tends to keep them out of the rest of the garden. It sort of works too.

    For small shrubs and trees I have to cage them in wire mesh.

  5. Jodi, for years I had a constant battle with deer. Seems what they will not eat in one area they might fancy in another so lists of plants are confusing at best. For instance I tried monkshood and lady's mantle and both were eaten. Hanging baskets I thought were out of reach were knocked down and decimated. One of the reasons I love PEI so much, no deer!

  6. Dear Jodi, Excellent posting! You are right, as a Master Gardener this is the most common question I am asked. And you totally nailed the answer. Great photos, too. P x

  7. You are so lucky to have deer patrol to protect your lovely garden. Your donkey is a real trooper to be working at her age. What, the horse ignore the deer. Mine didn't. My Arab ran them off all the time.

  8. I thought deer problem only happens in the wild, not in your beautiful blooming garden!

  9. Jodi, I live in an area with the highest deer concentration in the US. When people ask me about deer and a plant, I always say, if applicable, "deer haven't eaten that in my garden." You probably don't want to hear this but in my garden echinacea, heuchera, and tradescantia are favorites on the deer buffet. I highly recommend the deer spray Repellex, made in Canada. It has an entirely different formula based on animal blood plasma with latex. It doesn't wash off so lasts for at least a month. I have used it for over 10 years without rotating in other sprays. The thing to remember is that these sprays work by taste so you have to spray every new part of the plant that appears: the closed tulip leaves, the open leaves, the flower stalk, the bud, the open flower. It may seem like the spray isn't working but usually the deer have just found an unsprayed part of the plant. Carolyn

  10. Carolyn, (and others), thanks for your feedback. You make my point exactly--that they'll eat things they aren't 'supposed' to eat, depending on where you live. It's a pain, but I'm glad to hear that Repellex works for you. I haven't tried it because there's no point in ME testing stuff, since i don't have deer problems, but I'm going to see about getting some and having a deer-plagued friend test it out.

  11. Dear Jodi, This posting highlights for me the benefits of city living. In Budapest, I have no garden so that is a quick and easy answer to a deer problem. In Maida Vale, deer are seldom spotted and so I have not yet had to take any precautions!! As for squirrels....can that be a topic of a future posting for me?!!!

  12. Despite having deer out the ying-yang in my area, they don't really bother my garden too much. I have most of the plants you've listed in the 'deer love' category, and they're rarely bothered. I did find a few top branches of a small holly bush chewed off once. And if I plant hot pepper plants in the garden, as soon as they're high enough for the deer to reach in and nibble over the fence, they're gone. The eat the plants before the peppers have a chance to grow.
    My neighbour has a peach tree, and I've even seen a deer eating the fallen peaches off the ground in a rainstorm. That was kinda cool ;)

  13. Oh dear~They are beginning to be a problem in our neighborhood! gail

  14. We have very high deer pressures here, and spent all of last spring trying, and failing, and trying again to fence them out of the orchard. We've finally succeeded in securing the safety of our fruit trees thankfully, but only after they stripped leaves, flowers and buds from most of the branches. Outside the fence, here at least, we have the best success with Rhododendrons, sages, rosemary and lavender. However, during a drought, or after a hard freeze, they'll try anything once.


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