As discussed in last week’s edition of Turf’s Up the relationship between garden plants, gardeners and deer is a complicated one. There are so many factors which determine whether plants will be left alone, browsed lightly or chewed down to the roots.
However there are definitely plants that deer will leave alone in most circumstances. Plants which are strongly-scented or have a strong taste, those with prickly stems or thorns, plants with grey foliage and those which contain toxins that are harmful to deer top the list. Although it’s hard to believe at times, there are plants that are safe from chewing.
Here are ten choices for garden plants in areas where deer are regular or intermittent visitors. Some might prove to be actually deer proof in your garden, all will be at least deer resistant, keeping in mind that “it’s complicated.”
1. Acer (Maple)- My four-legged visitors spent a few August afternoons resting under the shade of our “Autumn Blaze” maple this past summer, but aside from initial browsing on one branch left it alone. The tannins in the leaves are not good for many herbivores.
2. Berberis (Barberry)- Colourful foliage and heat tolerance make this a winning shrub in the Okanagan. Small thorns on the stems and bitter, unpalatable leaves also make it a very unpopular snack for deer.
3. Amelanchier (Serviceberry)- Ever wonder why the leaves aren’t stripped off this prolific native shrub by deer? All parts of the plant contain a high concentration of a toxic substance which generates cyanide early in the growing season. Our visitors also left our shrub alone despite resting near it.
4. Narcissus (Daffodils)- Deer love tulips and several other bulbs, but narcissus are full of toxic alkaloids, as well as calcium oxalate crystals which cause swelling of the mouth. They won’t go near them.
5. Ornamental grasses-The stiff, sharp-edged foliage of most ornamental grasses is a definite turn off and some contain toxins.
6. Lavender-Humans love the aromatic oils found in lavender, deer are repelled by the smell. The foliage is tough and dry also.
7. Snapdragons-One of the very best annuals to grow where deer are present, they contain alkaloids which affect respiration, blood pressure and heart rate. Definitely not on the menu.
8. Perovskia (Russian Sage)-Another woody perennial with strongly-scented foliage and a bitter taste. Deer won’t go near it.
9. Chamaecyparis (Cypress)-Deer will lightly browse junipers and yews if they’re hungry but for some reason they never touch any of the cypress family, making them a valuable evergreen alternative for gardens visited by deer.
10. Salvia (Sage)-a large family of annual and perennial plants, their scent and their taste lead deer to turn away.
This is just a small sampling of plants that deer don’t like. A complete list is available from the book “Deer-Resistant Landscaping” by Neil Soderstrom, published by Rodale Press. It is the most comprehensive publication I know of regarding controlling deer and other pesky critter populations in gardens.