No matter where you garden, chances are good that you struggle with deer damage. Deer are a constant issue here on my rural 5-acre GardenFarm™ north of Atlanta, GA; but they can be just as prevalent in the midst of urban spaces too. Gardeners often turn to deer-resistant plants as a solution. The fact is, those options are just as vulnerable to a hungry deer. Today, we explore how to protect your garden using deer-resistant design.
These beautiful creatures are very adaptable – and determined, not to mention they can wipe out some of our treasured plants in just a few hours. Losing those battles can really take the pleasure out of gardening.
My guest, renowned landscape design expert Karen Chapman, moved to a rural property in the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, and her eyes were quickly opened to the impact deer would have on her garden plans. Her desperation became an inspiration. Over time, she began to recognize that a thoughtful design can effectively redirect and even deter deer encroachment.
She recently wrote a book – Deer-Resistant Design, Fence-free Gardens that Thrive Despite the Deer – featuring 13 gardeners across North America who have found creative solutions for growing the plants they love with little or no damage. Here’s the kicker: They found success without installing a deer-proof fence, and let’s face it, those are expensive and can be a real eyesore.
Maybe you’re not keen on the idea of building a deer-proof fence either? I hear you. I’ve been avoiding building one around the perimeter of my property. So, I’m all ears for any creative solution which will help me (and my beloved Oakleaf hydrangeas) live in peaceful co-existence. Fortunately for gardeners like us, Karen is a wealth of information on how to work with a deer’s natural behavior pattern and outwit their appetite.
Deer Resistance Can Be Misleading
Search the internet for plant varieties that deer won’t eat, and you’ll find a nearly endless number of lists identifying deer-resistant plants. They may be less appetizing, but that doesn’t mean deer won’t eat them. There is no such thing as a deer-proof plant. The fact is, even those resistant varieties will become victim to any deer with limited food choices and an empty belly.
Karen found those lists to be more frustrating than helpful. They were a laundry list of varietal names but offered no guidance on how to incorporate the plants into a landscape.
Not one to compromise on design, Karen was determined to find ways to create beautiful gardens with strong aesthetic appeal that would hold up to continual deer visitations.
Karen recommends that deer-resistant design starts with a focus on hardscape. Why? Deer create garden chaos. Is something in bloom? You can bet the deer will nip off every flower in a flash. A neatly pruned hedge can be decimated overnight. The pathways, walls, patio, etc. in a landscape are all elements which are impervious to the incisors of a deer.
It’s these inedible elements which will create a sense of order, distracting the eye from any damage to the surrounding plant life.
You might have already learned the hard way that a feature or specimen plant in your garden is an opportunity for heartbreak thanks to deer. Even just a few nibbles on that lone specimen stick out like a sore thumb, and the form can be permanently impacted.
Instead, stick with non-edible focal points, like a water fountain or even a container. Plants in a container arrangement can be replaced more easily if they are munched beyond the point of no return.
In other words, consider what can be incorporated in your garden that deer are unable to effect, and use those elements as your foundation.
Choosing the Right Plants
Once you’ve planned your hardscape elements, Karen suggests determining your color palette as the next order of business. It will help you navigate the overwhelming list of deer-resistant plants. Plus, a cohesive color scheme enhances a feeling of order which can hold up to deer damage chaos.
The best color schemes are limited to a small scope rather than every shade under the rainbow. For example – stick with blues, purples, pinks, and whites for a cool palette or various shades of red, yellow, orange, and even a touch of purple for a sunset theme.
Once you identify deer-resistant plants which fit the color palette and conditions of your landscape, don’t just buy one or two. Purchase enough that you can plant in drifts. It’s nearly inevitable that the deer will do some browsing, but they won’t get to all the plants in a larger grouping. So, any damage done will be less noticeable and easier to recover from.
Karen’s go-to list for deer-resistant plants is from Rutgers. Varieties on this list are rated from A through D according to their resistance. Plants deer will head for first are rated as a D (severely browsed), while the plants receiving an A ranking will only be on the menu when a deer is really desperate.
The ranking system isn’t a guarantee – just a reflection of average behavior. A plant’s vulnerability to deer will vary based on a number of factors.
Plants ranked as A or B on the Rutgers list are the best options as foundation plantings for your deer-resistant design. They may take a hit in seasons to come, but these varieties are the least likely to suffer a deer death blow.
Sometimes, deer nibbling can work for your benefit. Spirea is an example in Karen’s landscape. She loves the orange tones of new growth on spirea shrubs. In fact, she prefers it to the pink flowers which come on later in the spring. Even though spirea is ranked as B by Rutgers, the deer in Karen’s area are inevitably drawn to feast on the flower buds. In the process, they are inadvertently pruning the shrubs and encouraging the plants to send out new orange growth for Karen.
Happy gardener, happy plants, and happy deer – that’s what I call peaceful coexistence.
Other deer-resistant favorites in Karen’s landscape include lavenders, sages, sweet alyssum (which offers rabbit resistance too), gaura, calycanthus (also known as Carolina sweet shrub), and weigela (available in lots of forms, colors and sizes).
I love calycanthus. Unfortunately, so do the deer in my neighborhood in spite of the fact that Karen’s calycanthus never get a nibble. That just goes to prove there are no guarantees when it comes to deer resistance. Deer tastes vary by region, by season, and by the availability (or lack) of more appealing options.
Designing Around the Deer
Groupings of a single variety of plant will camouflage any unlucky individuals which lose a leaf or two. On the other hand, using several of the same type of plant to create a mini-monoculture design element – like a hedge of boxwood or arborvitae, will have the opposite effect. Any section which goes missing during a deer visit will be immediately apparent.
A better solution for privacy barriers and hedges is a blend of plant species – a mix of various evergreen and deciduous plants together. Sure, the deer will come and probably snack, but they will prefer the taste of some of the hedge plantings over others. Since they won’t go after everything, the damage will be lost in the diversity of foliage and form.
A good landscape design always incorporates layers, but staggered plant heights do a great job at camouflaging deer damage too. No matter how heavily deer browse, the layered look will remain – maybe a little more layered than you would like, but no one else is likely to notice.
Sometimes, it’s not browsing that causes damage to your plants, it’s the impact of the physical presence of deer. Have you ever noticed that they tend to stick to a particular route through the landscape? That pattern can work to your advantage. If you can learn it, you can design accordingly.
Areas of a garden can become worn by constant foot traffic – but also by the hooves of regular garden visitors. You can disguise the damage in those spots with durable ground covers like elfin thyme, Corsican mint or any of the other “step-able” varieties.
In her book, Karen featured a Portland-area garden regularly trampled by huge herds of deer and elk. The gardener planted a meadow area, which drew the animals away from other spots in the garden. Typical meadow plant varieties are able to recover more quickly from being trampled than other categories of plants – like ornamental grasses or herbaceous ornamentals. The herds still visit, but they do much less damage.
A gardener in Michigan used a dense row of deer-resistant plants to keep deer moving along. The strategically-placed hedge serves to sort of tell the deer “there’s nothing to see here”, so the animals don’t linger to feed on more attractive plants near the home. The row size and layout cleverly funnels the deer to a tasty meadow at the perimeter of the property. How smart is that?
Karen used a similar approach in her own landscape. She strategically placed a group of large, thorny shrubs right at the spot where deer tended to enter a large border planting. That single change to the border encouraged deer to move around rather than cut through and chow down on the bed.
If you live in deer territory (and let’s face it, we all do), are you stuck abiding by one design aesthetic to achieve deer-resistance? Nope. Karen believes that any style – from cottage to contemporary – can be designed to minimize deer damage (or disguise its telltale signs). As a gardener, you just need to invest a little time observing, planning and coming up with creative solutions.
Of the 13 gardeners Karen featured in her book, the only real commonality for their success was determination. There wasn’t a specific plant or principle they applied to co-exist with deer. Instead, they knew what they wanted, and they were tenacious about trying different approaches to achieve the desired result.
None of the featured gardens utilized exclusion fencing or other barriers. Like me, some preferred not to see obtrusive fencing in the landscape they loved. For others, the cost of fencing was prohibitive or HOA restrictions took the barrier option off the table.
With persistence, these gardeners found ways to keep rose gardens and even a hosta collection. They found ways to shield the plants they love from the ever-present threat of deer.
Take the New York gardening couple who loved hosta and daylilies, for example. Those are two plants deer will do anything for, but this couple had made up their minds. They were going to find a way to keep their plants off the menu.
After some trial and error, they developed their own potent and effective deer repellent. They diligently apply this concoction every two weeks. It takes effort and time, but it suits their garden goals and brings them joy.
They also apply Milorganite® every year as the hosta are emerging in spring. It isn’t sold as a deer repellent, but gardeners across North America have found Milorganite to be effective at keeping deer at bay.
All their efforts are paying off. Karen found zero evidence of deer damage to the New Yorkers’ extensive hosta collection during her visit.
If a repellent is a solution that fits your garden style, bear some key points in mind. First – timely and consistent application is crucial. As fawns enter the world and new plant shoots are tantalizingly everywhere, a strategically-applied repellent can teach the youngsters that your plants don’t taste as good as the plants down the road.
If you miss the application window (which is just as the plants are emerging), deer will probably beat you to it and develop a taste for your garden. Allow that to happen, and it will be an uphill battle the rest of the season. Deer are more difficult to deter as they mature and develop a bigger appetite.
Regular re-application of repellents is necessary for effectiveness, so be sure to read the package of the product you purchase for recommendations on frequency. The cost of these solutions can add up quickly, so you may consider applying to only your most vulnerable or treasured plants. Some gardeners apply only around the perimeter of their property.
Karen met another gardener who got creative with a deer-deterring barrier. He didn’t want fencing material to obscure his views, so he wisely used fishing line instead. He weaved the transparent line back and forth between trees at the perimeter of his property. It’s nearly invisible, but the deer are keenly aware of it.
So far, the fishing line barrier has been surprisingly effective at keeping the four-legged visitors out. I think I may need to go shopping for fishing line for the GardenFarm.
I applied a creative solution around my vegetable garden. The raised beds are laid out in close proximity to each other in the space. Knowing that deer don’t like restricted areas (because of their poor depth perception), I surrounded my raised beds with a 4′ split rail fence. The interior of the fence is lined with black, vinyl-coated 1″x2″ galvanized fencing, buried several inches into the ground. That prevents small critters from getting in, but it also keeps deer from crawling under the split rails.
This design was a risk for me, but it has paid off. Deer pass by the garden every day, but none have ever attempted to jump in to feast on the bounty inside.
Here’s one that might be obvious – a dog. Karen’s golden retrievers were diligent about disinviting the deer who were interested in snacking on the plants near her home. When she lost them both to age, the deer realized the coast was clear, but their browsing days are numbered. Karen recently adopted a puppy and is training her to follow in the footsteps of her guard dog predecessors.
When Love is in the Air
Deer will browse on plants, lay on plants, and walk on plants – but there’s a very special behavior that only occurs in fall. Bucks entering their rut phase rub their antlers against the bark of young trees to remove the velvet layer. The marks and scents they leave behind also lets the ladies know they are in the neighborhood and in the mood.
Unfortunately, the cambium layer – which transports water and nutrients up and down a tree trunk – is very near the surface. As the deer scrape against the trunk, it doesn’t take long for the cambium layer to be damaged, and that disrupts the tree’s transportation system, which can cause death when the damage extends around the trunk’s entire perimeter.
It’s not just trees at risk. In the southwestern states, deer have been known to rut against and kill agave too.
The best form of protection against rut damage is a physical barrier. Fortunately, it’s only necessary during the short seasonal window, but it will save you from an expensive replacement. Metal caging – like chicken or poultry wire strung around support posts – will keep deer from reaching the trunk or the agave. My go-to barrier for trees is corrugated plastic tubing. It’s cheap, easy to store and easy to install. Whatever you opt to use, be sure the barrier extends high enough to protect lower tree branches too.
Karen is a renowned container gardener. She wrote the book on container design – literally – and joined me to discuss that topic a few weeks back. So, suffice it to say that she wasn’t about to surrender her gorgeous containers in her deer-riddled landscape.
She doesn’t limit herself to deer-resistant plants for gracing her container arrangements. For Karen, anything goes when it comes to containers. She’s not afraid to use some top botanical treats for discerning deer.
So, she relies on deer repellent to protect all her container selections. The arrangements are small (relatively speaking), so it’s easy for Karen to keep up with a consistent application schedule.
She’s had good success with Liquid Fence but, because of its sulfur scent, she prefers Deer Out which doesn’t leave a foul smell. It also doesn’t hurt that Deer Out is resistant to the rain. Even in the rainy Pacific Northwest, Karen has found one application will last for 3-4 months.
Now, it’s your turn. Spend some time observing the deer wandering through your piece of paradise – not with cringing frustration but with an eye for behavioral patterns. You may just notice something that you can use to your advantage.
Have you discovered any successful strategies for living in harmony with neighborhood deer? Your ideas just may be the ticket for other gardeners too. I hope you’ll share your tips in the Comments section below.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. A deer-resistant garden will require a combination of strategies. Embrace your creativity and if you find yourself in need of inspiration, I highly recommend Karen’s book, and be sure to listen to our conversation by clicking the Play button in the green bar at the top of this page. You can laugh along as we share our deer battle stories.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – my newest online course! Just $47 for lifetime access.
Deer-Resistant Design, Fence-free Gardens that Thrive Despite the Deer – by Karen Chapman