Photo courtesy of jonnnnnn
"All plant material to be low water and deer resistant, however, plants cannot be guaranteed deer proof."
Above is an excerpt from my standard contract when designing for clients who co-exist with deer. The fact that I feel the need to legally protect myself from deer-induced disappointment is a good indicator of how unhappy, angry and downright crazy people get when deer ravage their gardens. Of course, choosing deer resistant plants is the first line of defense, but here are a few other strategies to consider.
Fake ‘em out
The police say that one of the best strategies to avoid getting robbed is a well-lit front yard. Burglars aren’t interested in a challenge, and will by-pass you in favor of an easier target. Turns out deer are opportunists as well. As anyone who has dealt with deer knows, plants touted for their resistance vary in effectiveness. But there is also a school of thought that while some plants are generally avoided (think ornamental grasses), other plants go beyond resistance and actually repel deer. This category is made up of plants with an herbal or medicinal smell, like salvia, catmint, rosemary and other strong-smelling herbs. By mixing some of these in with less resistant plants, if you’re in luck, the deer will simply go elsewhere to dine and never notice your delectable blooms. It’s almost like hiding the chocolate pudding in a little fortress of broccoli.
Deer repelleing salvia combines with deer resistant lamb's ears and carex to help keep the deer from noticing a Just Joey rose.
And as long as I’m on the topic of odor, if you have a native or low water garden and are in a drought year (or years) the herd’s hunger will increase while their pickiness simultaneously decreases. If your plants are established, STOP WATERING! Irrigation keeps the plants from forming protective resins that render an otherwise repellent odor (to the deer, anyway) odorless. California native gardeners can check out the Las Pilitas Nursery site for additional deer-proofing strategies.
Wait ‘em out
Deer are most destructive to young plants, which can easily be chomped down to the roots before a deer even realizes the plant doesn’t taste good. Fencing in young plants or using deer repellent for the first few seasons is one way to get plants strong enough to handle the occasional munching. Once a plant is old enough to withstand losing some of its foliage, nibbling can actually be a benefit. If you’ve ever wondered how the Ceanothus cultivars that are native to California are kept in check in the wild, now you know.
Share the Wealth
Fencing is the easiest way to keep deer out entirely, or at least make it difficult enough they are more likely to leave you alone (see fake ‘em out, above). But fencing your entire garden can be expensive, and in the areas where I design, usually the deer were there first. I’ve occasionally been surprised by a client’s decision to build an expensive home in a rural area, then complain about deer and other wildlife. A nice compromise is to fence part of the yard, and leave the rest for habitat. That was the strategy we used in this Mediterranean hillside garden, and it’s been an effective way to give the homeowners the best of both worlds. The fence was left open by mistake one evening, but hey, the roses were ready to be pruned anyway.
Looking for more ideas to banish deer? Check out what other Roundtable members have to say on the topic: