Kathryn Osgood


Deer-Resistant Gardens

Four different plant combos can bring a variety of colors, textures, and looks to your yard, and you won’t have to worry so much about them getting nibbled by your neighbors.

“#@!* Deer!” It’s a lament uttered often on the Vineyard by people whose gardens were again ravaged by some grazing herd of deer. A profanity or two is often all people can spit out when they see the remnants of their hydrangeas, astilbes, and phlox. As a landscape designer, I understand the anger, frustration, and confusion. We spend a lot of time, money, and energy on landscaping. For many of us, the gardens surrounding our homes are our sanctuary.

To protect themselves, many gardeners have turned to monoculture – planting only a single variety they know deer won’t eat or by mass planting whatever the deer have spared. This often makes for a drab garden, albeit one the deer bypass.

But as gardeners, we don’t need to surrender our love of color and texture because of deer. The garden can still be diverse, pleasing, and peaceful despite fewer plant choices. It is a challenge to design beds with a limited palette, but the results can be just as exciting to the eye and spirit. Before getting started, here are some truths to bolster your psyche:

Deer eat everything! Begin with this assumption, and you won’t be disappointed. Deer may eat just about every plant, but that doesn’t mean they like every plant. It is just that deer prefer some plants over others, the way kids might choose ice cream over broccoli – they may eat both, but given a choice, ice cream wins every time. The best question to ask when deciding on plants for your yard is what plants do deer not prefer. The answer to this question is much more promising and varied than you would think and combining these plants can provide a pleasing year-round landscape you can enjoy but the deer won’t. Nurseries on the Island can provide lists of plants that are deer resistant, but don’t believe everything you read.

Deer are curious about your (their) environment. Deer don’t look at a bottlebrush buckeye plant and say to themselves and the fawns trailing behind, “Dears, that is Aesculus parviflora, we don’t eat that.” They are extremely curious and will sample things by nibbling until they find what they like and don’t like. After all, their survival depends on finding enough food to eat. They are quick studies. They will sample a new shrub or flower in their territory (i.e. your yard) to assess the palatability. Even deer-resistant plants are susceptible to these taste tests. Deer-repellent sprays or fencing will keep them off the new arrivals until they are established in the landscape and the deer ignore them.

New plants may need time to settle in. Have you ever noticed that the mature rhododendrons at the edge of the woods are rarely bothered, but the one you put against the foundation to hide a vent or air-conditioning unit is stripped clean of leaves and buds. It is the new-kid-on-the-block syndrome and for a while at least, the deer will pick on it. Given time, they will most likely ignore it the way they mostly ignore the ones in the woods.

What to plant

Short of fencing-in your entire yard and living within a Sing Sing prison–like surround of wire, there will always be deer passing through and perhaps feeding on the plants in your yard. The following plant combinations are some that I’ve found (for the most part) deer don’t prefer to eat. I have experimented with these in my own gardens and find them to be deer resistant (not deer proof) year after year. These combinations also provide color, texture, and visual interest. Though limited by selection, the landscape is not a homogenous one.

1. Electrified foliage. Berberis thunbergii (Japanese barberry) is a densely rounded shrub that comes in a range of foliage colors from the yellow ‘Aurea’ to the purple-red ‘Atropurpurea Nana’ and mottled ‘Rose Glow’. The small, oval leaves and dense habit make it an excellent choice for foundation plantings and borders. It also looks great against lichen-covered landscape stones and walls. The deep red tones of ‘Atropurpurea Nana’ are stunning with chartreuse foliage like that of Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, a Japanese grass whose spiky, arching leaves provide a pleasing contrast. Many tall shrubs or perennials could be used as the third element in this combination. Try Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush) or better still a tall perennial catmint variety such as Nepeta sibirica. I like the silvery leaves and blue blooms rising behind the compact forms. In midsummer, this is an electric combination pleasing to the eye but not to deer.

2. Go native woodland. I recently discovered A. parviflora (bottlebrush buckeye). Gardeners have, for some time, overlooked it, but recently nurseries have begun to stock this hardy medium-sized shrub that is native to eastern woodlands. In midsummer, it produces erect white “brushes” atop oblong leaves that drop around the flower like a peeled banana. It is a great plant for transitional woodlands or under a canopy of taller oaks. Mix it with other woodland plants such as Viburnum opulus, Aronia x prunifolia, and Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’, and these shrubs create a diverse under story year-round that will not interest the deer but will attract birds and prove visually stimulating in winter.

3. Got grasses? Of all the plants in the garden, grasses are perhaps the most useful and utilitarian. They come in a variety of colors, textures, and sizes from dwarf to giant; they provide year-round visual interest and their habit and form complement every other plant. Oh, and deer don’t care for them one bit. In mass plantings or as fountain-like accents, grasses are an economical choice for any garden. I’ve already mentioned H. macra; other popular varieties are Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’. ‘Hameln’ is a short grass growing to twenty-four inches. It looks fabulous in mass plantings and tolerates both wet and dry soils. I have planted it with Spirea japonica, a near continuously flowering small shrub, and around Betula nigra, the river birch much loved in yards, with swaths of Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage) behind. Around this base of plants, a variety of perennial flowers can be added to accent the mottled, peeling birch bark. Achillea millefolium, or yarrow, is a stout, deer-resistant perennial with long-lasting blooms, as is Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’.

4. Made in the shade. For shadier areas, Athyrium goeringianum (Japanese painted fern) looks great. Its silver and pink foliage picks up the pinks in red oak bark and contrasts the moss growing on stone walls and tree trunks. To accentuate the arching, curved fronds of fern, use scalloped-leafed coralbells (Heuchera sanguinea ‘Mocha’) and H. macra. There is a ton of color in this flowerless combination. Add Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Crimson Beauty’ for an additional element in a woodland ground cover with unusual spring flowers.

We have grown to love the rhododendrons and hydrangeas in our yards, but we don’t need to rely on these for our gardens to be beautiful. If the phlox gets chomped and the echinacea mowed by deer, there will be other plants where our eyes can find refuge. And hopefully, if we must exclaim, Deer!, it will be in appreciation of the creatures’ grace and beauty in our yard, not out of fear or anger that the critters are going to ravage the plants.