Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Gardening with Deer

This month on Garden Designers Roundtable, we explore the topic of Gardening with Deer. Rather than discuss deer-resistant plants, types of fencing or books that deal with the subject, all worthwhile topics, I thought I’d look at design strategies you can use — regardless of where you garden — to help make your garden less inviting to deer.

A Little Secret & A Balancing Act

White-tail deer in Stamford, CT

I think they already know the secret...

Here’s a secret no one wants to tell you — no plant species is totally immune to deer browsing. When natural food sources are scare, deer will eat anything. You can try to exclude, deter, spray, scare and confuse them all you want. But the cold hard truth for most gardeners is that if there are deer in your neighborhood, they will eventually find their way into your garden.

Like most other gardening-related topics, dealing with deer in your garden is a delicate balancing act that demands each gardener find their own comfort zone along a continuum. Some gardeners may decide to spend thousands of dollars to fence in their entire property (be careful…I’ve seen them damage a garden that is ‘protected’ by 8′ fence) while others may throw down their bottles of Liquid Fence in frustration and decide it’s simply not worth the time, trouble, or expense.

Deer in garden in Stamford, CT

On the way to the buffet...

Most of us fall somewhere along that continuum. Keep in mind, none of these design strategies are fool-proof but they can help you create a beautiful garden with a wider palette of plants that will not be routinely devoured by deer.

Also, some of these design suggestions for dealing with deer in your garden are not exactly wildlife-friendly. So if you’re like me, and consider your garden a haven for most wildlife, just keep that continuum in mind and decide what will work for you, in your garden.

Designing Around Deer

♦ Plant more native plants. Studies in Connecticut show deer tend to prefer exotic ornamentals over native plants. Regardless of where you garden, chances are pretty good, the same is true.

♦ Use highly deer-resistant plants further away from your house and along deer pathways. Site those plants that deer consistently browse proof closer to house or areas that pets may frequent

♦ Deer don’t like to jump into an area that they can’t clearly see. Plant tall deer-resistant evergreens near property lines or deer pathways. Take away the landing pad.

♦ Consider walling off certain small areas of your garden, such as intimate seating areas, dining areas, and play spaces. This should keep the deer out and allow you to expand your plant palette. Just keep in mind, fencing is not fool-proof either.

♦ Deer do not like anything that affects their footing or their ability to make a quick getaway. If possible, incorporate level changes into your garden by using terracing, steps, and berms. And when choosing hardscape materials, consider using rough, uneven surfaces in areas of your garden that deer frequent.

♦ Wear blinders when plant shopping. Ok, this is not a real design strategy, but it is important when creating a deer-resistant garden. Stop impulse buying and learn to love plants the deer don’t like. If you have shade, develop a passion for ferns, not hosta. Like spring-flowering bulbs? Think daffodils, not tulips. Ask a local independent garden center for a list of deer-resistant plants and then start shopping.

♦ When establishing a new garden bed or border, stick with highly deer-resistant plants. After a few years, it’ll be safer to mix in some less-resistant plants once the deer have learned to leave the bed alone.

♦ Ornamental grasses and herbs are very deer-resistant. Create meadows with seed mixes of regionally appropriate grasses and wildflowers  or adapt traditional herb-intensive designs, like knot gardens, to fit your garden’s style.

♦ Plant browse-susceptible plants in containers on an elevated deck or terrace.  This is not a guarantee against deer browsing but it is a little extra insurance.

Maintenance Matters, Too

♦ Deer seem to prefer heavily fertilized plants that are rich in nitrogen, carbs, minerals and salts. Rather than fertilizing your plants so they become deer candy, feed your soil so your plants are healthy but not full of excess nutrients.

♦ Clean up acorns and fallen fruit from under trees. You wouldn’t leave food lying around on the floor in your house, right? Don’t do it in your garden, either.

♦ Remove invasive understory plants that provide shelter and cover for deer.

♦ Limb up the branches of trees that are not deer-resistant to a height of at least 6 feet. This will keep precious foliage, flowers and fruit out of their feeding zone.

♦ Protect young trees and shrubs, when they are especially susceptible to deer browsing. This allows the plants to get established and trains the deer not to eat them.

I invite you to check out what my fellow Roundtables have to say on the subject of Gardening With Deer:

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet:  Gossip in the Garden:  Los Altos, CA

Tara Dilliard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden, Life, Home : Atlanta, GA

31 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Gardening with Deer

  1. Debbie these are great…some I have tried, some that have worked and some that have not…I will definitely check out some new ones here. As you know I allow them to eat a few things they can’t harm like the red-twig dogwood since they are large…they seem to like native shrubs but not most of my natives as you say…their fav though is tall phlox…

    • Donna, I’ve pulled out most of my red twig dogwood because the deer just devour it…I’d prefer not to offer them anything they like, if at all possible. No tall phlox, either.

  2. Pingback: Gardening with Deer « Garden Designers Roundtable

  3. I have switched over to mostly deer resistant plants, just to save my own frustration. But one golden arbrvitae I am nurseing back to fullness I have been building a deer exclosure around the last few winters by putting stakes around it and stapling a circle of erosion control netting around it. I know they could easily tear it up but it spooks them enough thaat they leave it alone.

    • John, Frustration is usually what drives us to finally stop crossing our fingers and hoping the der won’t eat those plants we know they like. I think we all have our favorite that we’re not willing to part with…mine’s a yellow chamaecyparis and a crape myrtle and an oakleaf hydrangea and ….

  4. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable – Designing with Deer — Gossip in the Garden

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  7. Debbie – wonderful post! I especially like your ‘maintenance tips’ and am so glad you included them as they’re such an important part of keeping deer away from the garden. Had to laugh at your ‘shop with blinders’ suggestion, too. I had a client who couldn’t resist buying 4 gorgeous, large rhododendrons for her deer-infested garden. The deer were thrilled with her selection and mowed them to the ground in about 2 days.

  8. Pingback: Garden Designer’s Roundtable – Deer vs. Gardener « Personal Garden Coach

    • Thanks Susan. I do think maintenance is an overlooked piece of the puzzle but it can be difficult to follow all the suggestions if you want to have lots of insects and birds, bees & butterflies in your garden too. Since I have such a deer issue I tend to err on the side of keeping deer away and find other ways to welcome other wildlife.

  9. Debbie, some great strategies there. I haven’t used all of them and will certainly try some of them out. I hadn’t really realised that deer are so averse to ornamental grasses, so that’s extremely useful to know. Thanks for your interesting take on the topic. Lesley

    • Lesley, I almost hate to type this (Murphy’s Law an all that) but I’ve never had any deer browing on my ornamentals grasses and I grow at least 8 different species.

  10. Debbie, this is one of the best articles I’ve seen on dealing with deer in the garden. Too often people suggest deer resistant plants and sprays rather than telling people the cold hard truth. After living in an area thick with deer for several years I came to realize many of the ideas you suggest in your post were the only way to go. The hardest part was changing my idea of what I wanted my garden to be to accepting what it was.

    • Marguerite, I agree, coming to grips with the fact that you can’t grow everything you want to grow if you have deer in your garden is often the most challenging part of gardening with deer. Once you come to grips with the fact that you have a narrow palette of plants to work with – and even those are still not guaranteed — it seems to make the struggle easier.

  11. Shop with blinders! So true, Debbie. You have so many good tips here. I practice many of these in my own garden but confess to being lazy about cleaning up acorns. Luckily my neighbors are too.

    • Pam, I have to confess that I still sidestep that strategy sometimes. I am not immune to a ‘pretty face’ during my first few trips to the nursery in the spring.

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  13. the design for my garden includes a border at the back of the yard to the woods of red twig dogwood – supposedly deer resistant. Your article says you ripped out your red twig dogwoods because the deer loved them!! My yard unfortunately is populated with deer and over the years living here have destroyed so much! Now I’m not sure what to put there along with wondering what the landscape designer was thinking! Glad I found your website – lots of GREAT info!!!

    • MjBS, I can totally relate to the issues you’re having with deer. I am always amazed at the damage they can do, seemingly overnight. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and hope you’ll stop by again soon.

  14. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable – Designing with Deer | Harmony in the Garden

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