My earlier post on deer grazing in the front yard hints at the challenges posed by gardening in deer country, particularly for those who have not or are unable to fence in their entire yard. In my case fencing is not an easy option, so I’ve learned to live with the deer. This does not mean I’m above chasing them away, especially when my gardens are in full bloom … and I do regularly spread deer repellants during heavy feeding periods. But anyone who plants in unfenced areas somehow tied to open fields or forests frequented by deer knows first hand that repellants only work occasionally. So, through trial and error, I’ve come up with a list of plants the deer simply leave alone … at least in my yard … and at least so far.
Ornamental grasses top this list. The taller varieties include miscanthus variegatus (see photo in previous post and below), the ‘heavy metal’ variety of panicum, and a taller still porcupine grass (miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’). For mid-sized grasses I use pennisetum alopecuroides for their fuzzy-rabbits foot like seed heads, and the steel-blue helictotrichon, blue oat grass. I further edge many of my gardens with shorter grasses, such as various carex and dwarf sedge, and use the lower growing festuca in particularly sunny dry areas, where its tendency to self seed provides welcome replacement plants.
To complement the edging grasses, I use both flowering and non-flowering types of lamb’s ear. The fuzzy, low to the ground leaves of these plants create an eye catching edging that deer dislike. The leaves of non-flowering Stachys tend to be greener than the silvery leaves of the flowering types, but the flowering types (I think mine is the purple flowering Stachys byzantina) produce vast numbers of 12-24 inch tall flower-spikes that can look rather unruly when left untended. Since I relish these flowers – and the deer don’t – I leave them until the wind or a heavy rain knocks them askew. Once flowers have passed, I cut the stalks back to prevent seed production and further allow the plants to focus energy on leaf production.
Deer tend to recoil from chomping fuzzy or hairy leaves, which may also explain their dislike of foxglove, mullein or verbascum, echinops (globe thistle), yarrow, and artemisia, all which grow chomp-free in my gardens. Don’t be fooled by the hairy leaf rule, however, as coneflowers and bee balm both cover their tall stalks with hairy, and frequently irritating leaves, yet the deer relish the tender, ready-to-bloom flower heads of these plants. My family can attest to my frustration at watching and waiting for coneflowers to open, only to find they have become a midnight snack to marauding deer.
Still these four-legged foragers rarely munch on strong smelling plants such as lavender, sage, thyme, santolina, hyssop, rue, oregano, savory, and mints – except during long periods of snow cover when deer will hoof at any remnants of these plants in search of sustenance. Fortunately, winter browsing does not cause seriously damage. However, in the early spring, when deer are craving anything green, they will nibble on other strong scented plants such as chives, likely because chives are some of the earliest green sprouts to peek out of the ground. Deer have also grabbed an early spring snack, albeit infrequently, from my cranesbill, and during later months they have occasionally pruned back lemon balm planted in low traffic areas. But none of this browsing causes serious damage.
lady’s mantle, veronica, solidago, rose campion, astilbe, lower growing campanula
and sedum (not fall blooming sedum such as Autumn Joy which they will eat), anemone, columbine, ferns, amsonia, and most iris, of which I have many.
Daffodils and narcissi have likewise been safe … but crocus bulbs and miniature iris planted in open areas rarely reach full flower, so I tuck these away in more protected spots. And if the crocus manage to remain hidden from underground marauders in a very short time they will look like this.
The bottom line is it’s not impossible to plant vibrant, blooming gardens in locales heavily infested with deer … as long as you choose plants deer are less likely to devour.