Tax On Plants

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Manipulating Deer

Today is tax day and the local deer seem to have figured that out. The deer tax is paid in foliage and flowers, sometimes fruit, but as with all taxes, it would be easier to bear if we got a say in how the tax is collected and what it pays for. (Right?) A trampling herd of deer ran riot last night in several nearby gardens, browsing heavily on newly emerging peas, nibbling hydrangeas to the ground, and dis-budding the roses. This morning, I noticed two moms with twins as well as a few single girl hangers on wandering through the carnage. Perhaps they were feeling the need for some spring tonic in the form of fresh greens….

Given the rate of local development, I definitely understand the pressure woodland critters are under. When their own habitat gets turned into million dollar McMansions by the dozen, hundreds of trees and shrubs are stripped off the land, leaving a barren wilderness. As the giant houses are built, tiny gardens are inserted with a handful of token plants that do little or nothing to replace the mature woodland that’s been lost. Add that to the trend for “parking out” wooded properties, removing the abundant understory in favor of bark mulch and a few rhododendrons, and animals’ options vanish fast. When we set out our tasty, tempting smorgasbords in spring, what’s a hungry critter to do?

Plant A (Hedge)row For The Hungry

One thing we can do to help is not remove every scrap of native vegetation when we tidy up our yards. Instead of ripping out all the underbrush, we can edit, trim, and (definitely) remove recent deadwood that’s likely to burn should a fire sweep through. (I know, nobody wants to think about that, but please do. Rotting, crumbling old nurse logs may smoulder but winter blow-down can burn like a bonfire.) Make a few wandering paths but leave the healthy native stuff as intact as possible/practical. Where space allows, I love to embellish the woodland edges with lovely natives, from manzanitas, flowering currants, and wild roses to Indian plum, Salmonberry, and Ocean spray. If these lovely plants aren’t already present, add some for your own pleasure and that of the wildlife around you.

In rougher areas, we can add extra plantings of preferred deer fodder like redtwig dogwoods, which offer lively winter-stem colors and (usually) can grow faster than the deer can chew. Once they’re full sized, deer can browse the lower branches with impunity. If deer are chomping your roses, plant wild ones as a barrier hedge; rose hips feed birds and other creatures, and their bushy stems provide shelter as well. Salmonberry is too eager to spread in prickly thickets to invite them into the garden proper, but those thickets make excellent bird habitat in out-of-the-way areas and are great in mixed hedges that protect gardens while supporting wildlife.

Don’t Tempt Fate

Once we create areas where deer are welcome, we need to consider ways to keep them away from places we don’t want them. I’m always amused by lists of plants deer love and plants deer hate, especially since quite often some of the same plants appear on each “definitive” list. Clearly, deer in one area eat things that deer elsewhere don’t. They can also change their habits, perhaps as one herd moves away and another drifts in. For many years, I grew azaleas and peonies without ever seeing deer damage, but one year, both groups were gnawed to the roots. In a former garden, the resident deer family eagerly ate the new growth on ivy (that was a new one on me). I’ll never forget the time a curious deer devoured most of a large and extremely toxic angel trumpet (Datura). I kept waiting to find a dead deer in the nearby woods, but apparently the toxin isn’t as potent for deer as for humans.

Though young deer will eat pretty much anything, mature deer are (usually) more discriminating. And if there are no reliably deer-proof plants, there are less preferred ones. Generally speaking, deer don’t like hairy, smelly, waxy, dense, or highly textured foliage. So far, I’ve never seen deer eat sword ferns, or ornamental grasses, or eucalyptus, or madrona, or cedar, or Doug fir (though they often like Thuja). Anyway, I prefer to coax deer to stay in certain areas rather than try to keep them away from obvious temptation. I’ll plant lots of preferred browse to entice them to non-critical areas, then use less preferred hedges (often informal and never clipped) to steer them away from the garden proper. With no guarantees, here’s my current list of plants my local deer rarely eat (all of):


Allium Ornamental onions
Begonia Begonia (tuberous)
Crocosmia Crocosmia
Dahlia Dahlia
Endymion Spanish bluebells
Freesia Freesia
Fritillaria Crown imperials (specifically)
Galanthus Snowdrops
Gladiolus Gladiola
Hyacinthus Hyacinths
Narcissus Daffodils
Scilla Squills
Polianthes Tuberose

Shrubs & Subshrubs

Abelia Abelia
Berberis Barberry
Brugmansia Angels trumpet
Buddleia Butterfly bush
Buxus Boxwood
Ceanothus California lilac
Cistus Rockrose
Cotoneaster Cotoneaster
Daphne Daphne
Datura Angels trumpet
Erica Heather
Escallonia Escallonia
Gaultheria Salal
Hypericum St. John’s wort
Ilex Holly
Juniperus Juniper
Kerria Kerria
Lavandula Lavender
Mahonia Oregon grape
Nandina Heavenly bamboo
Picea Spruce
Pieris Lily-of-the-valley shrub
Pinus Pine
Potentilla Cinquefoil (usually)
Prunus Laurel
Rhododendron Rhododendron, Azalea
Rhus Sumac
Ribes Flowering currant
Rosmarinus Rosemary
Salvia Sage
Sarcoccoca Sweetbox
Senecio Sunshine (specifically)
Skimmia Skimmia
Spirea Spirea
Syringa Lilac
Viburnum Viburnum


Acanthus Bear breeches
Aconitum Monkshood
Achillea Yarrow
Agastache Hummingbird plant
Alyssum Basket-of-gold
Artemisia Artemisia
Aster Aster
Aubretia Rockcress
Bergenia Leatherleaf
Chrysanthemum Chrysanthemum
Crambe Sea kale
Digitalis Foxglove
Echinacea Cone flower
Erigeron Fleabane
Eryngium Sea holly
Euphorbia Spurge
Ferula Fennel
Gaillardia Blanket flower
Geranium Geranium
Helleborus Hellebore
Iris Iris
Kniphofia Poker plant
Lavatera Mallow
Lupinus Lupines
Meconopsis Welsh poppy
Monarda Bee balm
Nepeta Catmint
Oenothera Evening primrose
Papaver Poppies
Penstemon Beardtongue
Perovskia Russian sage
Phlomis Phlomis
Phormium New Zealand flax
Pulmonaria Lungwort
Rheum Rhubarb
Rudbeckia Black-eyed Susan
Santolina Lavender cotton
Scabiosa Pincushion flower
Stachys Lambs ear
Thymus Thyme
Verbascum Mullein
Verbena Verbena


Alyssum Sweet alyssum
Calendula Pot marigold
Clarkia Farewell to spring
Cleome Spider flower
Eschscholzia California poppy
Heliotropus Heliotrope
Lobelia Lobelia
Myosotis Forget-me-nots
Nasturtium Nasturtium
Nicotiana Flowering tobacco
Papaver Poppies
Pelargonium Geranium
Petunia Petunia
Ricinus Castor bean
Tagetes Marigold
Verbena Verbena
Zinnia Zinnia

Good luck!


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2 Responses to Tax On Plants

  1. Beckie says:

    Thank you for the wonderful list of plants that deer may not be interested in eating. I really appreciate your knowledge and for sharing it with us!

  2. l danielle brown says:

    Hedges are right on. The same thing is happening where I live in SLC, though in addition to having had McMansions rape away all the foothill habitat across northern Utah, down in the valleys we’ve lost most of our fertile farmland to developers too. In town what they do to restore a semblance of plant life is to cover whatever narrow bands of soil are left with plastic weed cloth and gravel or bark mulch and then stick in a few Bradford Pears. Urban homeowners show of the “green” bona fides at that point by killing everything in their front yards and covering them with the plastic mulch and rocks and a couple of sage plants or by converting their (tiny) front yards to tiny raised vegetable beds — not enough to do ought but supply a few salads and tomatoes through the summer, but at the cost all those beautiful yellow roses that pioneers carried across the country a hundred and fifty years ago, along with every other “merely ornamental non-native” that used to feed massive amounts of insect life downtown. When I was little, a long time ago my babysitter grew tomatoes among her back yard roses and cukes on the fence behind her close line and asters and zinnias everywhere and in the summer the air was thick and noisy with insect life. We’d help her put up tomatoes and pickles at the end of summer and she grew enough for her household through the winter until the next spring. It was so beautiful and it’s all gone.

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