Gardening In Deer Country

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Protecting Plants While Sharing

Until last week’s wind and relentless rain battered blooms and leaves away, the new plantings in my island bed were looking surprisingly mature. The back half of the large, horseshoe shaped bed was planted in February of 2015, the front was planted this February, in mounded beds of sandy loam topped with fish compost and dairy manure. In all, we brought in 80 yards of sandy loam and some 40 yards compost and manure. In this salubrious mixture, the woody plants are growing slowly but very strongly, while the perennials and grasses are thriving.

So, however, are the deer. Indeed, since the wind whipped away all lingering foliage, I can plainly see a narrow track cutting through the remains of my stockpiled heap of digested dairy manure. This slender trail leads into the back of the island bed, ducking under the sweeping lower branches of a Blue Ice Arizona cypress. Now I understand why two of an otherwise flourishing swath of Euphorbia Ascot Rainbow faltered, fell, and eventually failed; the deer path cuts smack between them. Each time I carefully reset the euphorbias, they would end up flat on their faces, but I was too busy blaming my resident mole family to realize that the pressure was coming from above the soil, not below.

Deer Daunting Deterrents

Since we see deer daily, I planted the outer perimeter of these new beds with plants that deer do not favor. For starters, I ringed the sides of the upper bed with privet honeysuckle, Lonicera pileata, a handsome evergreen that grows into a dense mound, ranging in size from about 3 feet high by 5 feet wide to nearly twice that in rich soil. Between the clumps, I tucked in a new Dutch form of catnip called Meow that gets 3 x 3 feet and blooms continually from late spring into autumn.  Across the back of the bed I transplanted some huge clumps of Fatsia japonica that were plastered across the front of the house. Between these, I placed a combination of evergreen and deciduous barberries, from Rose Glow to Berberis Darwinii. Sadly, these barberries are not growing as fast as I’d hoped, and the deer have wriggled between them very successfully.

In the front bed, I used a mixture of the privet honeysuckle, evergreen barberries, and sacred white sage, Salvia apiana for the perimeter hedge. These are growing fast, but so far, they aren’t big enough to keep the deer from strolling in to sample the salad bar. They ignore the soaring Joe Pye and the towering Thunderhead thalictrum in favor of the tender frills of my Tiger Eye sumac, which in other settings they’ve never bothered. I thought I had successfully hidden some soft coral roses salvaged from my Mom’s behind huge clumps of a particularly vigorous heritage rhubarb, but no such luck. This rhubarb is locally famous as a relic of a long-ago islander whose penchant for homemade rhubarb wine caused her husband to toss her beloved plants over the fence, where the neighbors happily grew the monster on and passed it around the island.

What’s A Gardener To Do?

In my experience, very little is truly deer proof. Plants deer gorge on one year may be ignored the next, while plants they have disdained for years suddenly become irresistible. Young deer are more adventurous than their elders, happily taste testing almost everything that comes their way. To be lastingly effective, deer fencing must be at least 8 feet high, and 10 feet is better. That’s why my preferred solution is to provide an assortment of plants that I don’t mind sharing and to plant them out elsewhere. As the deterrent shrubs grow, they slowly habituate the deer away from their accustomed superhighways while providing acceptable fodder to lure them elsewhere.

For instance, deer adore our native red twig dogwood, which normally grows to 8 feet high and wide. I was able to use this pattern to advantage years ago. The planning department ordered me to put in an 8-foot visual screen of plants to hide my garden school parking lot from the road. The local police department, however, ordered to me plant a screen that was no more than 3 feet high. To satisfy both requirements, I used our native red twig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), which was on the planning department’s list of acceptable choices. That got me the vital permit required to open our school. The helpful deer kept the dogwood trimmed to a height of 3 feet, which made the police happy and allowed a clear view of the road from the parking lot. The presence of ample twiggy dogwoods also reduced depredation on many other, more ornamental plants, which were barely touched when the deer changed their traffic pattern. I consider this win-win planting.

Deer & Dog Roses

There are of course other good solutions. In one garden I know, a thoughtful young boy planted a hedge of “dog” roses around his mother’s garden. These were not the wild dog roses of England’s’ hedgerows, but a mixed assortment of free give-away roses that nobody really liked much. He figured (quite rightly, as it turns out), that the deer would nibble these and leave the choicer ones inside his mom’s beloved garden alone. Another neighbor’s woodland garden is similarly protected by an irregular “hedge” of recycled plants, including many roses, that distract the deer from the garden’s more valued flowers.

By offering a small smorgasbord, gardeners can generally escape the wholesale damage that occurs when deer find a concentration of one special plant they really love. Rose gardens are notable for attracting deer with sorrowful results. When we incorporate our roses and lilies and other delicious plants into naturalistically layered gardens, where they share the borders with many other kinds of plants, the delicious are less likely to be found than when they are temptingly massed. It’s silly to set tasty plants out like a salad bar, then get angry when something takes us up on our offer. Mixing deer-favorite plants into mixed borders makes them harder for pests to find. However, if you really, really want to keep the deer away, get a dog. Or two.

This entry was posted in Garden Prep, Gardening With Children, Pets & Pests In The Garden, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Gardening In Deer Country

  1. Kim says:

    Between fencing and spraying (and making like a whirling dervish running and screaming at them – my homemade version of having a dog) I’ve managed to minimize the eating problem. But I’m still learning about how to manage during rutting season – where the damage is much more severe and lasting.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      I’ve had good luck using heavy duty metal tree stakes to support wire cages. The bucks seem to prefer the metal stakes to trees once they try them a few times.

  2. Shannon says:

    Thanks, Ann! Lovely article mentioning so many wonderful plants…some of which I do not grow but would love to have in my garden.

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