Oh, Deer (Part 2)

On last month’s journey, I outlined the dietary requirements of white-tailed deer, their increasing population and loss of habitat, and the consequences on our home gardens, specifically where conifers are concerned. Let’s continue the discussion and focus on shrubs and herbaceous plants.

In a vegetable garden, you have more to worry about than keeping deer out – groundhogs and rabbits are also destructive, making a fence essential if one is to harvest anything for the table. With ornamental plants, however, the home gardener can make choices that are less delectable to the deer.

Woody Ornamentals

I’m happy that three of my favorite species are seldom hit by deer. The first is the shrub-sized plant Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) that offers powdery blue flowers in the spring, feathery green foliage in the summer and antique-gold color in the fall. The second is Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus); with its fragrant foliage and flowers, this butterfly magnet has the appearance of butterfly bush (Buddleja) but isn’t invasive. Last are the Viburnums; every garden needs them for fragrant flowers, ornamental berries and fall color. (Deer have not paid any attention to my beloved viburnums, although some gardeners have reported damage.)

Rarely damaged shrubs include: abelia (a terrific multi-season, underused butterfly attractor), barberry (Berberis), boxwood (Buxus), American holly (Ilex opaca), crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia), leucothoe and pieris.

Also less likely to get chewed: yellow- and red-stemmed dogwoods (Cornus sanguinea, C. sericea), redvein enkianthus, forsythia, Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta), inkberry (Ilex glabra), mountain laurel (Kalmia), bayberry (Myrica now renamed Morella) and wisteria.

Garden plants that are often severely impacted by deer include flowering quince (Chaenomeles), cotoneasters, hydrangeas, Japanese holly (Ilex crenatal), weigela, deciduous azaleas and rhododendrons. Their favorite, of course, is English ivy. Oh, did I mention hybrid tea roses?

Herbaceous Plants

Deer can feast upon herbaceous plants and annuals during the growing seasons. When designing new borders or filling in gaps, it is wise to avoid favorite deer-eatables (no matter how much one would like to grow them). Being careful about choices will be less expensive and more satisfying in the long term.

There are some characteristics that are common among any list of deer-resistant perennials and annuals. Plants that deer find to be offensive often have fuzzy foliage (like lamb’s ears) or are highly aromatic (for instance, lavender, caryopteris, mints and various sages). Deer also seem to avoid plants that have thick foliage or thorny stems. Some plants, like euphorbias, exude sap that acts as an irritant (it’s known to cause skin sensitivity in humans also). Keep these features in mind when making selections beyond those I’ve suggested are safe. And don’t forget that deer prefer fertilized and irrigated plants!

My Stand-by, Deer-proof Herbaceous Plant List:

Euphorbia (Euphorbia amygdaloides): A tough groundcover; tolerant of any conditions
Bergenia: Bold-textured and ideal for shade gardens
Hellebores: My favorite garden plant
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Fragrant and great for drying
Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina): I like the cultivar ‘Big Ears’ because the foliage is bolder, and the flowers are sparse and white.
Lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus): A fragrant strewing herb
Yarrow (Achillea): ‘Moonshine’ is the workhorse selection, but there are many color choices available.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): The cook in the family will make use of this.
Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis): A wonderful choice for the front of borders
Globe thistle (Echinops):  A favorite honey bee magnet, although its abundant seedlings can become a nuisance
Lupines (Lupinus): Eye-stopping; it seeds around politely when it finds conditions to its liking.
Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria): I like the brassy magenta one; also available in white for those with blander tastes.
Salvias: Dozens are available (those with fragrant foliage are typically left alone).
Poppies (Papaver): I like the bright spots of drama the orange P. atlanticum brings to the garden. Conscientious trimming of the spent flowers extends the flowering throughout the summer, but be sure to leave some to go to seed.
Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum): A butterfly magnet
Ornamental onions (Allium): Add drama to the late-spring display.
Daffodils (Narcissus spp.): Come back for decades
Crocus (C.tommasinianus): Squirrels do not eat this species, and it spreads nicely.
Ferns: The Japanese painted-fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’) is absolutely essential for a shade garden. Be wary of ostrich ferns’ invasiveness.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa): Essential as a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars
Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’: Great in sweeps and a good companion for anything; can be sheared for later season rebloom
Lily of the valley (Convallaria): Old-fashioned favorite
Pachysandra: Boring but a useful workhorse
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Shrub-like and airy, it offers silver stems in winter.
Castor bean (Ricinus): Folklore claims it keeps moles away, but your local regulations might forbid growing it.
Trilliums: You might be lucky enough to have them growing in your woods.
Sedums: Great for sunny border groundcovers and in containers

Additional perennials that are deer-resistant: agastache, kniphofia, yucca, artemisia, dianthus, guara, echinacea, baptisia, dahlias, snapdragons, geranium, dusty miller, bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia and spectabilis), columbine (Aquilegia), campanula, bachelor buttons (Centaurea), coreopsis, digitalis, gaillardia (but rabbits eat it to the ground), coral bells (Heuchera), although mine were hit for the first time this past winter, and bee balm (Monarda).

The deer-resistant annuals include: melampodium, zinnias, ornamental peppers, wax begonias, calendula, ageratum, cleome, datura (deadly for livestock), marigolds, nicotiana (its relative, tobacco plant, is deadly to humans!) and snapdragons. Ornamental grasses are immune, but choose natives like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) rather than the invasive Asian silvergrass Miscanthus species (miscanthus.cfans.umn.edu­).
And make note that deer will relish these annuals: ornamental sweet potato, impatiens, celosia, pansies, daylilies, hosta, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ and clematis.
Take these lists along to the nursery. By planting a wide variety of deer-resistant plants, you won’t end up with an entire section of your garden decimated when the neighborhood deer are on their gardening journey.

Take these lists along to the nursery. By planting a wide variety of deer-resistant plants, you won’t end up with an entire section of your garden decimated when the neighborhood deer are on their gardening journey.


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