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
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.
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: