Gardening in deer country can be challenging and I know this first hand. Here at Pine Lane Nursery we have a certain selection of plants to choose from that those four legged eating machines will leave alone (in most circumstances). This just means you have to cultivate with an open-mind and get creative with your limited options. Nevertheless, there are options so we can accept the challenge and create an interesting, colorful landscape anyway!
I am David Olson and I live in the Pinery which is home to one of the largest deer populations around. I have been trialing various plants that claim to be “deer resistant” and have found first hand that any deer resistant labeling you see on plants should be taken with the smallest grain of salt. As someone once said, “the tag says ‘deer resistant’ but remember that deer can’t read”. I have planted many things that I was certain would be ‘safe’ based on my observations but a month later they are ragged shadows of their former selves. So, it is very much a trial and error process and one of the greatest tests of patience that I know.
So far, the list of plants that I would consider nearly “deer proof” is relatively small. You have Russian Sage, Barded Iris, Boxwood and pretty much any ornamental grass to name a few. I have had more luck with perennials than I have had with shrubs. Some nice options that worked well are Snow in Summer, Agastache, Brunnera, Ajuga, and Foxglove. Some perennials and ground covers I have tried do get browsed every so often but are vigorous enough growers that they bounce back and bloom again within a couple weeks. One of my favorites that did this well was the Orkney Cherry Hardy Geraniums. I had these close to the front step of my front deck, so it was also an area they browsed less often. This leads to my next point, location. Observe the deer and you’ll be able to identify areas they traffic more often, those are areas where you’ll want more solid choices.
Last year I experimented with fencing and physical barriers. A fence needs to be at least six feet tall to stop an adult deer from jumping over. I really didn’t want to put a fence up that tall because I felt it would be visually distracting. So I used a 3 foot steel wire fence and went with one that was colored green to make it less visually jarring. I drove 6 foot stakes around the fence and secured them to the mesh with baling wire. While this deterred them to an extent, if the shrub was in reach they would just bend the fence with their neck and nip at what they could reach. The distance of the fence needs to be close enough to the plant so there is no room to jump in but far enough that they can’t do major damage if they lean in. I experimented with different ways to “beef up” security. I drove 3 foot wooden stakes at a 45 degree angle facing out through the fence and secured them at the midpoint of the stake. I figured this was about chest height on an average deer so that it would physically stop them from approaching the fence. I went a little further and strung fishing line around the 6 foot stakes about a foot above the top of the fence. The idea is that the fishing line is head height so that when they try to stick their head over the fence they feel but can’t see the fishing line and it spooks them away. I had pretty good success with this and will continue to refine it (without going full Rambo).
The issue I had this winter was the deer were destroying my young evergreens. I planted two yucca this year and was certain they would leave them alone but literally every leaf was bitten in half. I planted four juniper shrubs and they have all been browsed into oblivion. My biggest upset wasn’t even due to browsing. An overly eager buck tried to rub my little 4 foot weeping blue spruce and snapped it in half. So really the only recourse here is to protect young evergreens at least until they get bigger because they tend to leave more mature trees and shrubs alone.
Going forward I will continue to trial different plants. There are plenty of plants that I know are pretty safe in other areas like Elbert County and other parts of Parker. I truly believe I live in the worst area for deer pressure. If I say something is deer resistant then you can be rest assured it has been put to the ultimate test. So come on down to the nursery and I can help you out!
Thriving in a love hate relationship,