The Buck Stops Here: How to Outsmart Hungry Deer

9 Nov

By Earl Nickel
Special Contributor

Gardeners whose yards are often visited by deer face a perplexing problem: how to keep these normally beloved animals from munching all their vegetables and/or ornamental plants. Deer usually stay in parks or open spaces, plentiful with their native food sources. But prolonged drought has driven a greater number of deer into city gardeners’ yards in search of both food and water. Equal opportunity feeders (unlike certain other critters that only target one type of plant), deer will munch on anything they can reach that is edible. That means almost anything and everything in your garden, be it fruit or flower or a vegetable, is fair game.

So how can you keep Bambi from using your garden as a snack bar? Here are three approaches that work:

BARRIERS

The simplest and most effective way to keep your garden deer-free is to erect fencing to physically prevent deer from getting to your yard. Sometimes this is impractical, especially if there is too large of a space to cover. But where there is a narrow entrance, you can erect a temporary gate made of chicken wire, netting or bamboo stakes. Make sure it is at least 8’ tall as deer can jump anything less than that. You can roll back this temporary gate during the day, as deer mostly arrive at night. Just keep your eye out for the brazen few who are looking for a mid-day snack. You can also employ fencing around immature trees to prevent their tender trunks from being savaged.

DEER SPRAYS AND PELLETS

If you can still find it, powdered Coyote urine is the most effective olfactory deterrent. Unlike all other sprays or pellets, which work due to unpleasantly scented concentrated oils, coyote urine sends a message to invading deer that a predator is nearby. While there is a strong smell when you first open the product, it soon dissipates to human senses. If that isn’t available, I can recommend two other products. Based on customer feedback, Deer Stopper has worked quite well. You spray it on the plants, then refresh it every two weeks. Alternatively, blood meal can be used as a fine granular application. Here again, it’s the strong scent that deters adventurous deer. You can apply it next to individual plants or make a thick line or circle to protect a particular bed.

I also recommend minimizing water sources in your yard. Deer often come into yards looking for a much needed drink then hang around to snack.

DEER RESISTANT PLANTS

The first thing to know is that outside of a handful of poisonous plants, deer may at some time eat all plants. I’ve learned through direct feedback that a lot of the plants on “deer resistant” lists are not always safe to plant in deer infested gardens – in other words, they’ll eat almost anything if they are hungry enough. But all is not lost. Deer know to steer clear of poisonous plants so those are always a safe bet. Two other categories are worth trying – plants with a strong scent and plants that have tough or spiny foliage.

FEARFUL FIVE

Fast-growing “Family Jewels Tree” (Asclepias physocarpa) can easily reach 5′ in its first year!

Start with everybody’s favorite MilkweedAsclepias. Whether you’re planting the native A. speciosa or A. fascicularis or Mexican milkweed (A. curassivica), Monarch butterflies will find it, even as deer stay clear. Euphorbias, with their poisonous sap, are also a great deer-proof choice for a sunny or part shade location. Amazingly diverse in form and size, most share those fabulous heads of chartreuse flowers. E. characias ‘Dwarf’ has especially large heads while E. ‘Blue Haze’ has lovely bluish-gray foliage to add to its appeal.

Euphorbia characias ‘Dwarf’ produces exceptionally big blooming balls on a tidy, compact shrub. Great for bouquets!

Anything from the Solanum (Nightshade) family is safe and a few are appealingly exotic. S. pyracanthum features eye-catching orange spines along its stems while S. quitoense ‘Naranjilla’ offers tropical foliage and curious orange fruits. The highly ornamental S. ‘Navidad, Jalisco’ resembles a purple potato vine and that’s because it is one. Curiously, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are also nightshade members and thus deer-proof.

Massive wisteria-like clusters of glittery purple blooms cascade off vining Solanum valerianum ‘Navidad, Jalisco’.

For part shade there is the always lovely Foxglove (Digitalis), which comes in a variety of pinks, reds, purples and, of course, white. Want something taller? Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia) is a fabulous and fast growing ornamental, featuring those distinctive large trumpets of nearly every color imaginable. The fragrant, peach-colored ‘Charles Grimaldi’ is a favorite of many a gardener.

Gloriously fragrant night-scented pendulous blooms cover Brugmansia ‘Charles Grimaldi’, a fast-growing small tree/shrub.

SMELLY SELECTIONS

Gardeners with lots of deer-deterring experience love Salvias and Annie’s grows a fabulous selection in every color imaginable. Richly scented natives S. clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’ and S. apiana (White Sage) are great additions, while fruity S. elegans (Pineapple Sage) and S. dorisiana (Fruit-Scented Sage) display brilliant red and magenta flowers respectively.

One of our favorite sages, California native Salvia clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’ boasts outstanding fragrance and gorgeous whorls of lavender blooms irresistible to hummers!

The delicious pineappley scent of Salvia dorisiana’s tropicalesque heart-shaped leaves make this South American sage a “must-rub”!

Yarrow (Achillea) is an excellent deer resistant selection. This California native is drought tolerant and selections such as A. ‘Red Velvet’ and Rosa Maria’ add a pop of color while A. ‘Salmon Beauty’ offers an ever changing palette of pastel colors.

Achillea millefolium ‘Salmon Beauty’s’ color-shifting rosy-hued umbels stand tall above a lush ferny mound of foliage.

Heliotropium arborescens ‘Alba’ has all the charms of the purple species but is non-dwarfed, vigorous and especially fragrant. Good for mixed sun, it blooms over a long season in Summer and Fall. Hummingbird Mint (Agastache) has become really popular, given its low water tolerance and range of colors and scents – charms that are completely lost on deer. A. rupestris dazzles with its orangish-pink flowers and delicate foliage, while A. ‘Black Adder’ forms a strong upright bush topped with spires of vivid purple flowers.

Dense clubs of luscious purple blooms appear Summer thru Fall on Agastache‘Black Adder’ – a sterile hybrid that’s aces on bloomiferousness, but nil on unwanted reseeding.

Sunset-hued Agastache aurantiaca ‘Coronado’ brings an airy brilliance to full sun gardens. It’s delightfully minty leaves release waves of fragrance when fondled and, like many Agastaches, can be used in herbal teas.

Got shade? No problem when you have literally a dozen different aromatic Plectranthus to use. Short (P. neochilus) or tall (P. barbatus ‘White Rhino’ or P. ecklonii), large-leaved or small, Plectranthus are tough as nails, clay and drought tolerant once established and just darn pretty to behold.

The trifecta of deer resistance: Geranium maderense, Echium webbii and Plectranthus neochilus.

TOUGH CUSTOMERS

Plants also employ tough or spiny foliage as a defense strategy, making them almost inedible to deer and other animals. Most Agaves certainly fit the bill, with thick rigid leaves and often deadly leaf tips. Whale’s Tongue agave (A. ovatifolia) features bluish leaves and spiny tips. The dramatic Giant Mezcal agave (A. valenciana) and the modest-sized A. titanota ‘Blue’ are worthy additions to any dry garden.

Reaching around 6′ across, brilliantly blue Agave ovatifolia “Whale’s Tongue Agave” is exceptionally hardy – down to USDA zone 7b!

California native Ceanothus such as ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Julia Phelps’, with their dense crinkled leaves, are usually a safe bet. Cordylines feature leathery leaves that deer can’t easily bite or chew, making them an excellent choice for a sunny or part shade location. Cordyline ‘Can Can’ and ‘Renegade’ are especially lively selections, brightening containers and beds with strappy and colorful leaves.

Evergreen California native Ceanothus x impressus ‘Dark Star’ produces exceptionally fragrant blue flowers bloom in earliest Spring.

Echiums are famous for three things: being tough and drought tolerant, having exceptionally pretty blue, purple or pink flowers and for being absolute bee and hummingbird magnets. Add to that list the fact that deer dislike their tough, bristly leaves and we have a winner for the dry or xeric garden. 

Brilliant cherry-red Seussian flower towers emerge from a grouping of Echium wildpretii”Tower of Jewels”.

For shade, Hellebores are an easy, long-lived and reliable choice. They’re low and the leaves are often tough. I would stick with japonica hybrids such as the “Lady”-series and “Winter Jewels” selections like ‘Peppermint Ice’ and ‘Onyx Odyssey’, all of which add eye-catching color in late Winter, just when you need it.

One of the most floriferous Hellebores we’ve ever seen! ‘Yellow Lady’ produces masses of chartreuse blooms from late Winter to early Spring.

Helleborus ‘Blue Lady’ boasts sumptuous reddish-purple outward-facing flowers. It’s easy to grow, tough as nails, drought and clay tolerant, and hardy to USDA zone 3!

WHY BOTHER?

The last category of deer resistant plants are those that are either too wispy – largely grasses – or too low for deer to take a fatal interest. Grasses like native Carex pansa or low growing ground covers like California natives Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’, Lippia repens and Satureja douglasii or Lampranthus ‘Pink Kaboom’, Fuchsia procumbens and Rubus calycinoides are all hardy and safe selections.

California native groundcover Lippia repens quickly forms a dense mat of minute foliage. The multi-hued flowers are much loved by bees!

An evergreen grass that makes a perfect low-maintenance lawn substitute. California native Carex pansa tops out at 6″ tall and can be mowed or left free-form and meadowy.

5 Responses to “The Buck Stops Here: How to Outsmart Hungry Deer”

  1. davidandgary November 9, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

    Ok…. this is a great article…..

    Now, I want your expert opinion on those other problems: Bands of wild turkeys! They are Devi stating our yard!!!!

    Sent from my David’s iPad

    >

  2. SUZ November 9, 2017 at 9:37 pm #

    what a great blog article….helpful!…….seriously……most of the deer repellants work with repeated/diligent application…however….I was not a fan of Plantskydd (blood) after it clotted in the sprayer and exploded everywhere… the result looked like a garden massacre/ugh…….. .you guys are stars and my personal favorite online nursery……MORE verbiage please……….

  3. susan dorsey November 10, 2017 at 8:00 am #

    what about rabbit resistant???

    • anniesannuals November 10, 2017 at 12:01 pm #

      Hi Susan – Most deer resistant plants have the added benefit of being rabbit resistant as well!

      • susan dorsey November 10, 2017 at 3:07 pm #

        the rabbits eat everything but the foxglove. They like salvia, lantana, even junipers.

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