How to Build a Deer-proof Garden

Deer resistant plants

Yellow cedar fence
Yellow cedar fence
vicious guard dogs :)
vicious guard dogs :)

Design a deer-proof garden

Any gardener who has ever tried to garden where deer live knows that you can’t really deer-proof your garden. A high degree of deer resistance is probably the best that you can hope for!

There are a number of strategies for preventing the walking venison from laying waste to your ornamental or food producing gardens. I employ several on my .32 acre property.

The most effective strategy by far is fencing, but it needs to be serious fencing! My fence is solid yellow cedar, a little over 6 feet tall. Yes, the deer are perfectly capable of jumping a 6 foot fence, probably without breaking a sweat (do deer sweat? They must, I’ve never seen one panting!), but because they can’t see through the fence to make sure they’re landing somewhere safe, they don’t jump into the yard. There isn’t even a little hill nearby where they might, if they were clever (and they are), peer into the yard to see if the coast is clear.

Of course the smell of my two vicious guard dogs probably deters them from bounding over the fence, just in case the slavering hounds are laying in wait, ready to attack.

Whatever the reason, in the two and a half years we’ve been here no deer has seen the inside of my backyard, and thank goodness for that, it’s a veritable smorgasbord for long-legged rabbits. As long as we continue to remember to keep the gates shut we should be okay!


In the beginning...
In the beginning...

The front garden, well that’s another matter… I don’t imagine the neighbours would take too kindly to my erecting a solid 6 foot fence. So I am doing my best to build a beautiful ornamental garden that can survive nightly visits from the local herd. One of my strategies is to keep a small pile of stones just beside the front door so that when I’m still awake for their midnight munchie run I can step outside and pitch rocks at the marauders until they decide I’m annoying and saunter along to the neighbours.

I did try yelling and screaming, but people kept calling the RCMP figuring that I was assaulting my husband and kids, and the effect on the deer was negligible. They’re supremely unconcerned about the screeching harridan on the steps, they know I’ve seen the Youtube videos of deer attacking dogs and old men, and am too cowardly to actually chase after them.


What seems to work the best is planting stuff that they don’t like to eat. Fortunately, my encyclopaedic knowledge garnered through decades of horticultural experience has given me infallible expertise on the subject of deer-proof plants…

YEAH, RIGHT! If only it were that easy. I have had decades of experience, and it has taught me that deer will eat just about anything if they’re hungry enough, and just because they didn’t like something last week doesn’t mean it won’t be tasty next week!

So I built my front garden using a variety of plants deer are reputed to dislike, and I constantly assess and shuffle plants around if they are being too heavily browsed. Several rhodos have had to be replanted in the back yard because they were apparently quite tasty.


Picea omorika 'Bruns'
Picea omorika 'Bruns'
Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cream Ball'
Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cream Ball'
Abies pinsapo glauca
Abies pinsapo glauca
Pinus thunbergii 'Banshosho'
Pinus thunbergii 'Banshosho'

Deer-proof Conifers

Many conifers are unpalatable to the graceful vermin, despite holding their foliage year round. In my experience, spruce are completely untouched, so I have planted several, including:

· Picea orientalis aurea (Golden Oriental Spruce);

· Picea sitchensis ‘Papoose’;

· Picea omorika ‘Bruns”;

· Picea abies ‘Gem’, and

· Picea abies ‘Acrocona’.

A couple of these will mature into largish trees (orientalis and omorika), but the rest will be shrub-like. Papoose is very tiny, and cute to boot!

I have a lovely Blue Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo glauca) with soft powder blue needles curving tightly into uniformly cylindrical branches, and a Korean Fir (Abies koreana Horstmann’s Silberlock) bearing extremely recurved needles with showy silver-white undersides.

There is a Golden Irish Yew (Taxus baccata fastigiata) standing sentry on one corner, and a pair of Weeping Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’in sturdy concrete planters flanking the garage door.

My conifer collection also includes;

· Cedrus deodara ‘Feelin Blue’;

· Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’;

· Cryptomeria japonica ‘Jindai Sugi’;

· Cryptomeria japonica 'Tenzan'

· Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cream Ball';

· Juniperus conferta 'All Gold';

· Pinus thunbergii 'Yatsubasa', and

· Pinus thunbergii ‘Banshosho’.

During the winter months these conifers provide much needed structure and interest. Many gardens are bereft of conifers, or possess only a few needle bearing plants, because novice gardeners are drawn to flashier plants with big colourful blooms. Don’t make this mistake when designing your garden, there are so many interesting options, varying in size, shape, colour and texture, and conifers will really pull their weight come winter.

Berberis 'Crimson Pygmy' fall colour
Berberis 'Crimson Pygmy' fall colour
Corylus avellana contorta
Corylus avellana contorta
Iris reticulata sheltered under the contorted hazel
Iris reticulata sheltered under the contorted hazel

Deer-proof Deciduous Trees and Shrubs

Also indispensible to the overall structure of your garden are the deciduous trees that provide shade, windbreak and privacy. Selecting deer resistant trees is important, unless you want to “cage” them until they are tall enough that the leaves are well out of reach. You might consider protecting the trunks of your young trees with some sort of barrier to prevent enthusiastic bucks rubbing the velvet from their antlers and the bark from your trees. They particularly enjoy small diameter trunks which effectively scratch the crevices between prongs; this can prove fatal to a young tree.

My front garden is anchored by a tall Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) and also contains a Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonica) and a Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum). The maple hasn’t been touched because its foliage is out of reach, but the other two are lightly browsed in late summer as food supplies become scarce. I think they will be okay in a few years when they are a little taller.

I have a selection of deciduous shrubs that are doing well despite nightly visits from the herd. Three different cultivars of barberry provide vibrant shots of burgundy and chartreuse. They are the first shrubs to leaf out in the spring and go out with a blaze of glory in the fall. A proliferation of spines deters deer very effectively.

My Contorted Filbert (Corylus avellana contorta) doesn’t bear any nuts but neither does it bear anything that deer want to eat, and I’ve underplanted it with gorgeous iris reticulata that bloom furiously each spring under the protection of its twisted branches.

Two different varieties of Spiraea were planted with the expectation that they would be impervious to predation, but nobody told my deer that they weren’t supposed to enjoy them, so they might need relocation. I’ll give them one more season, then reassess.

My favourite lilac; Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ suffered a little damage last year, but the blooms were ignored, so that’s all good!




Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'
Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'

Deer-proof Broadleaf Evergreens

Broadleaf Evergreens are sitting ducks for hungry deer in the winter, so they need to be really prickly, toxic, or taste very bad to survive. Rhododendrons are often touted as being deer-proof but I have had mixed results. Some of them are browsed, some are devoured and others left alone. If the deer persist in eating a certain specimen I just remove it to the back yard (which is accumulating quite a collection!).

Pieris japonica is reliably deer-proof; I have 10 plants (5 different varieties) and not one of them has been nibbled!

The gluttonous ungulates turn their noses up at my:

· Buxus sempervirens (boxwood);

· Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’;

· Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Streib’s Findling’, and

· Ilex ‘Rock Garden’, a delightful miniature holly.

The Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’ planted right at the foundation of my house has survived with minimal nibbling, but the ones further out were chomped down in late winter, they need to be transplanted into a deer-free zone.

Nandina domestica 'Firepower'
Nandina domestica 'Firepower'
Calluna 'Firefly'
Calluna 'Firefly'

My unpleasant surprise this past winter was discovering that deer will indeed eat heather! Apparently the winter blooming varieties are passably edible when starvation sets in, especially the flowerbuds.

When it comes to herbaceous plants the variety of deer resistant choices is vast, and they tend to be less expensive than trees and shrubs, so it’s easy to experiment. If your deer decide they enjoy Rudbeckia, replace them with Dahlias, and it won’t break the bank!

I have planted many ornamental grasses, bulbs, perennials and annuals in my front garden. Here is a list of those that I’ve been able to grow with little or no damage:

Black Mondo Grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' isn't actually a grass
Black Mondo Grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' isn't actually a grass
Solidago 'Golden Baby' with Stipa tenuissima
Solidago 'Golden Baby' with Stipa tenuissima

Deer-proof Ornamental Grasses and Herbaceous Perennials

Ornamental Grasses

· Fargesia murielae (Umbrella Bamboo), which I keep in an oak barrel even though it’s not supposed to be a runner;

· Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass);

· Miscanthus sinensis (Maiden grass), and

· Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (Black Mondo grass).

Herbaceous Perennials

· Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender);

· Peonies, several varieties;

· Erysimum (Wallflower) ‘Apricot Twist’ and ‘Fragrant Sunshine’;

· Agapanthus (Lily of the Nile) we’ll see if it has survived the winter;

· Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’, they nibbled on the coneflowers in their first season but left them alone last year;

· Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Little Spire’ (Russian Sage);

· Monarda (Beebalm);

· Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’;

· Dianthus ‘Frosty Fire’;

· Aubretia variegata;

· Primula ‘Wanda’;

· Pulsatilla vulgaris (Pasque flower);

· Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (Leadwort);

· Lithodora diffusa;

· Solidago (Goldenrod) ‘Golden Baby’;

· Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonlight’, and

· Rosemary.

One of my favourite pelargoniums (geranium)
One of my favourite pelargoniums (geranium)
Dahlia 'Akita'
Dahlia 'Akita'

Deer-proof Bulbs, Corms, Tubers and Annuals

Bulbs, Corms or Tubers

· Narcissi, a good selection of different colour, form, size and blooming time, because they are toxic and aren’t eaten (although occasionally a stupid fawn will bite off their heads and spit them out!);

· Snowdrops;

· Crocosmia (Montbretia) ‘Lucifer’;

· Dahlias;

· Colchicum (Fall Crocus or Naked Ladies), and

· Allium (Flowering Onion) ‘Purple Sensation’.

Annuals

· Alyssum;

· Salvia;

· Cleome;

· Zinnias;

· Coleus;

· Osteospermum;

· Snapdragons;

· Geraniums, and

· Petunias.

These lists are by no means complete, there are a plethora of options, these are just the ones that I have in my garden. You will certainly find more complete lists online. One resource I like is a database compiled at Rutgers University.

Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance rates plants using these categories:

  • A = Rarely Damaged;
  • B = Seldom Severely Damaged;
  • C = Occasionally Severely Damaged, and
  • D = Frequently Severely Damaged

If you have tremendous deer problem, don’t despair! It’s still possible to have a beautiful garden. You may need to do some research and experiment with your plantings, but if your deer take a liking to some supposedly deer-proof plant and ravage it, just get rid of it and plant something else!

Comments 1 comment

Marty 4 years ago

This is very accurate. I have been designing a Japanese inspired garden in West Virginia bordering the woods. My property is too steep, so a fence is not an option. Through trial and error, I have found that these very same plants are the same ones that work. When combined with large stone scaping, you can design a very effective deer-proof garden. Very good article.

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