I rarely have a garden talk without deer. Living in West Virginia means living among wildlife and mostly herds of deer.
As I type, three stroll and nibble through the back; They will settle under the thicket of branches in the same spot that generations of their furry family have called back home. You could say we have a love / dislike relationship. I enjoy seeing them and worrying if they go away for a few days, but deer are ruining the garden.
Very few plants are deer-safe; When they are hungry, they are just like us and will eat anything and everything, but deer resistant options exist. These plants are not your first choice and have a better chance of survival in your garden.
Deer don’t like plants with a lot of texture, they feel funny on their tongues. They pass right by my lamb’s ear. Plant yarrow, lady’s coat, or brunnera and you should succeed.
They don’t like fuzzy leaves, and they don’t like tough or thread-like leaves. Plant a bed of irises, add peonies to your landscape (you need peonies for so many reasons, mostly they’re beautiful), try begonias, or even elephant ears.
If you have a sunny location I’ve had good luck with cone flowers, coreopsis, and shasta daisies. They devour my black-eyed Susans as soon as they reach 6 inches. I’ve had success with bee balm and like these other sun-loving plants, it attracts and feeds pollinators.
In general, deer pass on plants with a strong odor. My fragrant herb garden or the lavender and Russian sage growing in the sun are of no interest. Onions and allies are safe. I also have several boxwood shrubs, another strong smelling shrub that they will ignore and one that I like because they stay green all year round. Roses are the exception; The deer and I both love roses. You won the battle. Now my roses come from the florist.
Deer learn to avoid poisonous plants at a young age. They know to leave the ferns alone; bleeding hearts and daffodils do not attract them. Although they don’t eat them, they love walking through my ferns and can break the stems if they jump.
The ferns are planted in an area with a low fence. Although my back is fenced in, it is a fence to keep the puppy in, not to keep the deer out. Deer can easily clear a 6 to 8 foot fence. Funny story, when I first installed my fence, it disrupted their way through my garden. For the first week or so I would find white fur on top of the gate, a reminder that no gate would stop them from where they wanted to go.
I learned not to plant their favorites like hostas or tulips. When I have a tender, young plant or treasure that I want to keep and see grow to maturity, I wrap it in black plastic deer net and check it out frequently. It’s not uncommon to find new plantings or, in some cases, toss the net across the yard like they’re spitting it out after not liking the taste or texture.
Spraying with a deer deterrent works, but you have to be diligent. I even suggest switching brands from time to time so they can guess the smell (remember, they don’t like strong scents). Heard how to place deodorant soaps and even human hair in the garden will keep them away. I doubt that will work.
When a puppy roams the garden, it doesn’t scare them. They seem to know their limits, and I swear they even know their schedule. I love this stupid puppy but she doesn’t keep the deer away.
When planning your garden and purchasing plants, most labels will state whether they are deer safe. A quick google search will give you long lists of planting options. When choosing plants, remember to take into account the sun, shade, and moisture levels of your area.
My stag (yes, my stag) challenges me in the garden. They ate and destroyed more plants than I could ever list. After all these years, I am still learning not to accept my first choice and plant it, but rather plants that least seduce these graceful but hungry creatures that call the little house on top of a big hill home.
Jane Powell is a longtime master gardener for the West Virginia University Extension Service in the Kanawha County Chapter. She is the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Find her blog “Gardening in Pearls” at gardeninginpearls.com. You can contact her at email@example.com.