Creating a Deer-Resistant Garden

If you garden around deer, you understand how difficult it can be to create a garden that is visually pleasing to people while at the same time being as unappealing as possible to deer.  We all know the best strategy for keeping deer out of our gardens and away from our plants is to erect a deer fence. But let’s face it, that is not an option for every gardener, either from a financial or an aesthetic standpoint.

If  Only Deer Could Read

While lists of deer resistant plants abound, they are only so helpful. First of all, the deer don’t read them. They don’t know that plants like lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) are widely touted as being deer resistant. All are recent deer favorites in my garden. That’s another inherent problem with lists of deer-resistant plants, what’s deer resistant in my garden might not be in yours. And vice versa. Finding the right deer-resistant plants for your garden is truly a case of trial and error.

Sorry for the quality, I took this early one morning. What you don't see are the other two deer just outside of the frame on the right. UGH!

The best advice I can offer, regardless of where you garden, is to start off with a palette of deer-resistant plants for your region and then pay close attention. A great place to find a list of locally deer-resistant plants is at your independent garden center or check with your local Cooperative Extension office.

There are so many factors that influence ‘browsability’ of plants, including the time of the year, extreme weather conditions and the taste buds of your deer. Knowing a little bit about deer and their likes and dislikes can go a long way towards helping you create a deer-resistant garden.

Keep ‘Em Guessing

◊ Deer are creatures of habit. More than likely, they enter and exit your garden at the same points and follow the same general path around it each time. That means a deer-resistant plant located on a known deer pathway may see more damage than the same plant located elsewhere in your garden. Take notes about what’s happening in your garden and transplant deer favorites if needed.

◊ Deer seem to like plants that have been over-fertilized. According to some scientists, deer are attracted to the excess nitrogen in some plants. Rather than adding all sorts of extra fertilizers to over-stimulate your plants, simply top dress  with compost once a year to provide your plants with the balanced nutrition they need.

◊ Deer do not like to navigate grade changes in a garden. They dislike anything that affects their footing or hinders a quick getaway. Use berms, terracing and steps to deal with natural slopes in your garden. Make it as difficult and uncomfortable as possible for the deer to cruise around your garden.

◊ There are certain times of the year when deer browsing is especially intense so you’ll need to be extra vigilant. These include times of drought (deer get almost 1/3 of their water from the moisture in plants), heavy snow coverage (when deer can’t access their usual food sources they often turn to typically resistant plants to survive), and spring when plants are pushing out new growth.

◊ ‘Hide’ deer candy among deer-resistant plants. This seems to work best if you use highly fragrant deer-resistant plants, like herbs.  I have to admit I’ve had limited success with this strategy, but I know gardeners who use this camouflaging  technique all the time.

◊ It can be more difficult to protect perennials than shrubs or trees, so design your garden with as many shrubs and trees as possible. Simply limbing up susceptible trees out of deer browsing range, typically about 5′ – 6′ off of the ground, can greatly expand your plant options. This is an especially effective strategy if you are a wildlife gardener who plants fruiting tree to attract birds, such as crabapples, service berries or hawthorns.

◊ As you’re waiting for newly planted perennials and shrubs to fill in, fill gaps with deer-resistant annuals. Teach deer early on that there’s nothing yummy in your garden.

A Last Resort

Forget the Belgian block apron, install a cattle grate instead!

And here’s another tip that probably is not for everyone (kind of like a fence) but it seems to work. Install a cattle grate at the entrance to your driveway. This one, that from a distance looks very similar to the ubiquitous Belgian block aprons seen in this area of southwestern Connecticut, protects a 5-acre property that is full of deer goodies. The property is surrounded be a deer fence so the only access point for deer is straight down the driveway.

Since deer hate to walk on uneven surfaces, the cattle grate keeps them away from delicacies like apple, pear and cherry trees. Not to mention a lush veggie garden and plethora of plants that will never be found on anyone’s list of deer-resistant plants.

For more tips on creating a deer resistant garden, especially for your west coasters, check out Gen Schmidt’s post, Putting Your Deer on a Diet.

So tell me…what strategies for deterring deer work in your garden?

Before you leave, don’t forget to check out my post on Deer Off deer repellent. If you’d like to be eligible to win a free bottle of Deer Off, leave a comment on that post, too.

12 thoughts on “Creating a Deer-Resistant Garden

  1. Debbie, thanks so much for the excellent tips. The cattle grate is an idea I have never heard of before!! It’s brilliant! I mean, obviously not for everyone, but still – great last resort for certain types of garden area.

    • Gen, That cattle crate was a new one for me, too. It is a bit disconcerting to walk over, the distance between the concrete rungs is farther apart than you might imagine. I have big feet and I still have a hard time finding the right place to put my feet in order to navigate the area without falling over!

  2. Well if I can’t install the grate, I’ll keep trying my methods. Actually the deer have no problem navigating walled beds, berms and patios with steps in my garden. I think if they want it they will come. So I use my deer spray and keep a close eye on the little buggers…great advice.

  3. Debbie, deer in my area of CT navigate walls and steps quite well. They’ll rest their front hooves on an open porch/deck to reach container plants. In addition to planting as many deer-resistant plants as possible, spraying with fish emulsion, positioning windchimes and occasionally Iris Spring soap (deer are supposed to dislike the scent), and judicial single plant caging, we have motion dectector alarms placed in strategic areas. I’m alerted to possible deer presence when the alarms go off and I chase them away.

    Your advice for each gardener to watch deer activity in their own yard is right on the money. We cannot stop them completely – even fenced yards are sometimes breached – but a greater understanding of how deer act allows us to design gardens that are less likely to undergo browsing.

    FYI, deer have browsed lilac and forsythia in my yard for more than a decade now. This year they started eating Ladies Mantle and a host of other annuals and perennials previously left un-browsed. Cattle grates are a relatively common sight in many deer fenced yards in my area. And … hiding deer-candy plants such as tulips, hosta, impatiens or coleus among deer-resistant plantings may work for some regions but it doesn’t fool the deer in my south-central CT neighborhood one bit.

    • Joene, Thanks for sharing your experiences with deer. It seems like the more I hear from people, the more I realize there really is no ‘normal’ behavior for deer. That’s the crux of trying to figure out how to minimize their impact on our gardens. I have just resorted to the soap trick, haven’t used it in years, to protect my Miss Kim lilacs. The deer can have at the forsythia, if they’ll leave the lilacs alone!

  4. Ha, I had to laugh at your comment about how deer need to learn to read! Isn’t that the truth!
    I am rather lucky in that my neighbor seems to have all of the plants that the deer like to eat, so they are usually lured away from my yard. (My poor neighbor, though!) And I do use Deer-off for certain plants for a short time, like when my lilies are in bloom. The Deer-off works really well, thankfully!

    • I should have included that on the list of ways to create a deer-resistant garden…get your neighbor to plant all the deer candy so the deer will leave your garden alone!

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