Sunday, April 17, 2016

Growing a Deer-Proof Garden

A Home in the Woods

I live in the northwest corner of the continental United States, in a tiny little town near Puget Sound. My home is a farmhouse is in the midst of a forest, off a one-lane dirt road. A nature trail leads from my back door to an ephemeral stream, a field of wildflowers, and 10-acres of wetlands.


My home is surrounded by an amazing variety of plants--trees, shrubs, herbs, and flowers.



And deer visit my garden every day.

But No 12-Foot Fences

Life is a series of decisions, choices, and compromises. The same can be said for gardening in deer country. After several decades of trial and error I have accepted that I will not have a rose garden, nor will I grow tomatoes. Carrots and cucumbers, potatoes and pole beans, Spring peas and squash--I purchase those at my local produce stand. Pansies can be enjoyed...in a high-hanging basket. I will not tip-toe through the tulips. However, despite these "absences", my garden is not devoid of texture and color, beauty and joy.

Plants that Bambi Will (Usually) Avoid

Although a ravenous deer will eat almost anything, deer are typically very selective about what they will eat. Usually, deer will not touch a plant that:
  • is thorny (except for roses)
  • has a strong scent
  • has prickly or hairy leaves
  • are poisonous (...how do they know?)
So with those identifiers in mind, how can we come up with a list of deer-safe plants?


Thorny Plants

Barberry (berberis thumbergii) is a thorny shrub that will accept full or partial sun. It can grow up to 8 feet in height and about 7 feet in width. Barberries respond well to pruning if you want to keep their size in check. Spring-summer growth is purple-red or chartreuse depending on cultivar. In Autumn leaves deepen to a dark reddish-bronze color and stems are covered with dark red berries.



Holly (Ilex) is a broad category of over 400 plants--most are evergreen but some varieties are deciduous (that means that they lose their leaves in Autumn). Their leaves are glossy and spiny and their red berries attract birds. English ivy is one of my favorites because of its variegated leaves--dark green edged with cream color. However, English ivy (Ilex aquifolium) can become very large (up to 30 feet tall and 15 feet in width) if not pruned. Provide full sun to part shade and moist but well-drained soil in a sheltered site. In hot climates, English holly grows best with some afternoon shade.


Plants with a Strong Scent

Strong-scented plants fall into two categories (in my humble opinion)--those that smell good to me, and those that don't. In my little part of the universe, plants that smell good (but are seemingly off-limits for deer) are:

  • rosemary (Rosemarinus)
  • oregano (Oreganum)
  • chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
  • garlic (Allium sativum)
  • thyme (Thymus)
  • sage (Salvia)
  • sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
  • sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritime)
  • lilac (Syringa)
Those that don't are:
  • marigolds (Tagetes)
  • Shasta daisies (Chrysanthemum x superbum)

Prickly/Hairy Leafed Plants

This topic is a bit less easy for me to discern--Lambs Ears (Stachys byzantina ) and Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria ) are obviously plants with prickly/hairy/fuzzy leaves. Deer will always pass them by. But, there are some other plants that appear to be off-limits. Do they have hairy (enough) leaves? I'm not sure. But here is my list:
  • Bleeding Heart (Dicentra Formosa)
  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
  • Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica)


Bleeding hearts are graceful woodland plants that do best in light shade in well-drained soil. Their ferny foliage appears in early spring, followed by pink or white flowers that are arranged along the stem like little hearts. They self-sow easily, so if you want to keep them from spreading (they can become invasive) remove the flowers before they go to seed.







Lungwort is a perennial herb that normally grows up to a height of one feet. The plant bears wide oval shaped leaves at the base, while the upper leaves are relatively smaller marked with irregular color pattern, especially white spots. The lungwort plants also bear bunches of pink-purple colored flowers. It is not uncommon to find pink and blue flowers growing from the same plant, hence the nickname "boy/girl plant".






Forget-me-not is a delicate baby-blue biennial flower which flourishes in woodland dappled shade. It is a self-sower and will return year after year.




Poisonous Plants

Plants that are poisonous to us are also (probably) fatal to our hooved friends. Rhubarb it a wonderful vegetable, but the leaves are lethal.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a perennial that grows from rhizomes (a root-like stem). They have large leaves which are triangular in shape. The leaves are poisonous, but the stems can be eaten. They are crisp like celery with a strong, tart taste. Most commonly, the plant's leaf stalks are cooked with sugar and used in pies and other desserts.

Foxglove (Digitalis) is a biennial plant, meaning that it has a 2-year growing cycle. In the first year leaves form a rosette close to the ground, in the second year and final year a tall (2 to 5 feet) spike of numerous tubular blooms in shades of white, cream, pink, and orchid.

Foxglove easily reseeds, so in just a few short years one plant can produce several dozen offspring.


And Then There are the Ones That Don't Fit Any Category



Columbine (Aquilegia) is a perennial flower that is very easy to grow from seed and will self-sow. They come in a large variety of colors (white, cream, yellow, pink, purple, and combinations of those colors). They are loved by hummingbirds and are excellent in cut flower arrangements.








Daffodils (Narcissus) are a sure sign that Spring has arrived. Bulbs planted in Autumn will bloom in late Winter or early Spring. They are hardy and grow in most areas in North America except for Southern Florida. Flowers are usually yellow, white, or orange with six petals and a trumpet-shaped corona. Each stem will bear from 1 to 20 flowers.








Hellebores (helleborus) appear in winter, when everything else in the garden is slumbering. Hellebores are my white (and pink, and purple and green and burgandy) knight. They love shade, they grow larger every year (in four years mine have tripled in size). There are 15 species of hellebore, and hundreds of varieties.







Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) is a durable evergreen fern with tall, stiff, slightly arching, spear-shaped fronds in dark green. They are happiest in moist soil with light shade, but will tolerate full sun and dry conditions. Mature ferns can easily reach 3 to 4 feet in height with a 3-foot wide span. To keep them looking tidy, I cut off the old fronds in early Spring, before the new fronts unfurl. Yes, it means that for several weeks you live in a fern-less world, but the payoff is amazing. Old fronds can begin to look a bit shabby--broken by winter snow or brown on the edges from Summer heat.


Removing them allows the new fresh fronds to come forth in all of their glory.

By the way, the cut fronds can be laid down on pathways that you might normally cover with beauty bark. In a few short weeks they will be dry and brown and they will eventually return to the soil.


Primrose (Primula) is another sure sign of Spring. There are over 400 varieties with numerous combinations of flower forms and colors, including white, pink, orange, red, purple and striped.



And my favorite!

The name Rhododendron comes from the greek words "rodon" which means "rose" and "dendron" which means "tree", hence Rose Tree. Rhododendron flowers are usually produced in trusses.
Most people think of rhododendrons as big leathery-leafed shrubs with white, pink or purple flowers. There are 800 species and more than 10,000 varieties. Sizes range from dwarf (a few inches tall) to giants that can reach as much as 80 feet in height, and the combinations of colors is almost limitless--white, pink, red, magenta, peach, orange, apricot, salmon, lilac, deep purple).




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