Gardening with Deer
Deer grazing in the fields with little fawns following their mothers in the spring is a lovely sight. But why they have to leave fields of green grass and forests with young shrubs and come and eat the plants of the gardens that we have, with great effort, cultivated is harder to accept. However, they do—evidently many of those cultivated plants are tasty— and it has changed how we garden.
In my experience, the ways to prevent deer from destroying your plantings more or less reduce to three: creating physical barriers, applying sprays, or making plantings that deer find unpalatable. Of the three, the first two are sometimes necessary (unless you are willing to grow only vegetables that deer don’t like, and I have yet to find any, you must have a fenced vegetable garden), but are costly in time and materials. The third, creating plantings that deer don’t find tasty, is the best and most sustainable plan for most of the landscape.
Creating plantings that deer find unpalatable can be an interesting challenge. It is like creating a painting with a limited palette—a discipline that encourages the artist to explore just what can be done with a few colors—or in the medium of gardening, a few plants. The bank of daffodils at Creekside, pictured above, shows how simple and beautiful deer-proof planting can be.
For the early spring garden hellebores, daffodils, aconite, and Siberian scilla are all safe bets. We think back fondly to the days when we used to have tulips our borders; if we want to have them now we must enjoy them in pots. The few that still try to come up in the borders usually get decapitated before they can bloom.
For later spring peonies, catmint, and salvia are gorgeous in the sunny border and very reliably unattractive to deer. Later in the summer the purples and blues of the buddleias (butterfly bush) and caryopteris (blue mist shrub) with ornamental grasses and some echinacea have also performed well and attract a multitude of butterflies.
How to keep yourself from planting those things that the deer will eat? Whenever I get tempted to plant something that the deer will probably eat I force myself to imagine what that plant will actually look like after the deer have munched on it (rather than the lovely flowering image in front of me in the catalog) and that usually curbs the impulse to buy it.