Creating A Deer-Resistant Native Garden

by Cindy Gilberg


For those of us in ‘deer country’, the excitement of spring quickly wears off as deer discover and eat in our gardens. While it seems contrary to use native plants to enhance habitat for wildlife and at the same time to want to exclude deer, it is possible to accomplish both as there are many native plants that have habitat value and are deer resistant.

Deer are an adaptable species and we have moved into their territory. We often replace the original habitat with one that is a smorgasbord of delectable, well-watered and fertilized plants. The best approach is to replace these with native plants that don’t require irrigation and fertilizer, and choose those resistant to browsing deer. This is especially the case when, in dry periods of late summer, deer come into our gardens to browse on pampered plants.  Under no circumstance should deer be encouraged by putting out supplemental food since feeding them only makes the problem worse.

Plants with strongly scented leaves, such as anise hyssop (Agastache), beebalm (Monarda) and many herbs, are high on the list of plants deer avoid. Some plants are unappealing because of their foliar texture—coarse, rough, hairy or spiny. This group includes rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia). Yet others are distasteful, for example beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) Coreopsis, Iris species, leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and Viburnum. For those with shade gardens, select from the many native ferns and try golden groundsel (Senecio obovatus), wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and short sedges (Carex albicans, C. eburnea) as ground cover.  Deer steer clear of some of the small flowering trees such as red buckeye (Aesulus pavia), redbud (Cercis) and serviceberry (Amelanchier).

Fences are yet another approach and need to be at least 8-9 feet tall to be effective. Unfortunately, I have seen elaborate fences erected only to have the deer just walk up the driveway to enter the property as if by invitation. The most effective fencing is electric and many gardeners resort to this method, especially when protecting their vegetable gardens.

It is important to understand their behavior and use additional methods for creating a deer resistant garden. Deer rely on their sense of smell to determine whether an area is safe and which plants are desirable to eat. Most deer repellants repulse them and cloak the smell of otherwise edible plants. Others are scents of predators such as urine-based repellants (bobcat and coyote are common). Deer are particularly fond of young, succulent leaves and will even nibble on young plants of otherwise deer resistant ones. Protect young transplants during their first year with repellant or a wire cage.  Remember that repellants need to be applied more frequently during periods of heavy rain and when plants are actively growing (spring).

Achieve a more peaceful coexistence with deer by planning a landscape with a high percentage of deer resistant plants and have some repellant on hand. Shaw Nature Reserve (SNR) conducted a deer browse study and the plant list is included in Chapter 4 “Landscaping with Native Plants” of the Native Landscaping Manual. Deer are also the topic of a Native Plant School class on March 8th at SNR.

Many native plants make great landscape choices, working into design schemes from formal to naturalistic. Choose plants from each plant group – large and small trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowering annuals and perennials and include those that offer food at different times of the year.

Want to learn more? Here are a few events this spring to attend. Author Doug Tallamy is the keynote speaker for the St. Louis Garden Blitz March 3rd at Missouri Botanical Garden. On March 31st at Missouri Department of Conservation – Powder Valley, there will be an all day symposium devoted to ‘Naturescaping’ with in-depth information specific to Missouri native plants for creating habitat.

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Professional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. Cindy can be contacted at 314-630-1004; cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.