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

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.