Keeping Bambi at Bay: Best Deer-Resistant Plants
When we first moved from manic midtown Manhattan to the serenity of rural Litchfield County, Connecticut, my wife and I were immediately struck by the amazing array of flora and fauna on our four-acre lot. Thick stands of mature hardwoods and white cedars grew amongst lush ferns and flowering mountain laurel. The stream defining our southern property line routinely attracted a wildlife menagerie that included turkey, fox, chipmunk, possum, coyote, raccoon, and, of course, deer, lots and lots of deer.
To this day, we still marvel at the beauty of all that grows and grazes outside our windows. However, the excitement of seeing wild deer wears off rather quickly once they start feasting on your gardens. Three years ago, I planted a large bed of hosta (plantain lily) to help soften the transition between a stonewall staircase and the lawn. Big mistake. Apparently when deer see hostas they think, “Salad bar!” The bed of lush plants looked as if it had been mowed. And surprisingly, it only takes a few midnight marauders—not a huge herd—to devour thousands of dollars worth of plants.
“If deer are starving, they’ll eat almost anything,” says David Jensen, and he ought to know. Jensen owns Deer-Resistant Landscape Nursery, a mail-order firm that sells over 300 deer-discouraging plants. And Jensen has a very simple, yet effective way of testing his plants: His central Michigan nursery isn’t fenced in. Hungry deer regularly traipsed across his lush property looking for an easy meal. “If my plants weren’t deer-resistant,” Jensen flatly states, “then I wouldn’t have them to sell.”
Backyard deer encounters have steadily increased in all regions over the past several years, and they’re likely to continue as neighborhoods spread into wilderness areas and natural predators are driven out. And every home gardener seems to have a strategy for discouraging deer. Some of the many tried—but not necessarily proven—techniques include spreading human hair around the plants, hanging foil pie plates in the trees, installing motion-sensor water sprinklers, and scenting plants with coyote urine. (Collecting coyote urine must require extreme cooperation from the coyotes, don’t you think?)
Perhaps the only sure-fire way to keep deer out of your garden is to erect a fence, which isn’t always possible or practical. And it certainly isn’t the most attractive option. Plus, most deer fences are only 7 to 8 ft. tall, a height that an adult deer can easily leap over. A more practical approach is to introduce deer-resistant plants to your garden (see list below), and use deer-repellant sprays on all the other plants.
Choose a spray that contains a sticky residue, such as Deer Off, Liquid Fence, or Plantskydd, that won’t wash off in the rain. These sprays are effective for up to two months, even though you might only notice the smell for a few hours. Most spray repellents contain natural ingredients and are safe to use around children and pets. They typically contain such aromatic ingredients as rotten eggs, hot pepper and blood meal. Be aware, however, that you’ll have to reapply the spray every week or so on fast-growing plants.
For my hosta problem, I consulted with Bill Hosking, owner of James S. Hosking Nursery in Watertown, Connecticut. He suggested using Milorganite, an organic fertilizer derived from—believe it or not—sewage sludge strained from a Milwaukee wastewater treatment plant. Milorganite comes in granulated form, so it’s easy to simply sprinkle around the plants. There’s no way to describe the smell, but I can tell you it has definitely kept away the deer—and most of my neighbors. The hostas are thriving once again. And because Milorganite is an organic fertilizer, it won’t burn the plants or break down as quickly as chemical fertilizers. It’s also relatively affordable at about $12 per 40-lb. bag. Now I’ve just got to be sure to reapply the Milgoranite, as necessary, to discourage the deer.
As effective as some sprays and fertilizers are at keeping away deer, the best approach is to simply choose plants that deer don’t like to eat. Below are 22 deer-resistant plants to consider for your garden. The list is divided into seasons and includes groundcover and shrubs.
Dicentra, bleeding heart
Iris Siberica, Siberian iris
Buddleia, butterfly bush
Salvia, meadow sage
Late summer/fall blooming
Perovskia, Russian sage
Lamium, spotted dead nettle
Potentilla, bush cinquefoil
Again, just to reiterate: If deer are starving, they’ll eat almost anything. (One particularly cold, snowy winter, deer devoured my newly planted holly bushes, spiny leaves and all.) However, if you live with deer, you’ll greatly increase your chances of maintaining a lush landscape with the deer-resistant plants listed above. Good luck!