Someone once shared a theory for discouraging deer from eating all your favorite plants — and that is to convince neighbors to use all the plants that deer love to eat, such as hostas, azaleas, pittosporum and roses. It’s not a bad idea and would probably work beautifully, but it would not make you very popular in the neighborhood! There are actually no plants that qualify as deer proof. Deer seem to eat anything if they are hungry, and it’s amazing how many suburban neighborhoods have local herds of deer wandering around in the dark.
In 1994, my very first job was planting a foundation garden in Gregg Park. We worked very hard and planted a pretty group of youpon holly, dwarf pittosporum and tender boxwoods. I was so proud of my first “front yard” garden and went back the next day to photograph my hard work, but the plants were gone. I was convinced that they had been stolen, so I almost didn’t get out of the car. I could not believe my eyes when walking up to the now empty foundation beds. The plants, every single one of them, had been chewed down to the ground. What a dramatic introduction to gardening with deer. We pulled out the remaining root balls, and I got busy with my anti-deer gardening research!
Let’s explore some of the plants that are less attractive to deer; not deer-proof but at least not at the top of the deer grocery list.
I am a lover of turf grass and think it is absolutely essential in most gardens. It must be healthy and beautifully maintained, and once it gets strong and thick, it is really one of the easiest components of the garden to take care of. Thank goodness most turf grasses such as Zoysia and St. Augustine seem to be deer resistant. This is great news for gardeners. Imagine if deer discovered turf grasses and began to graze on them like cows. That would certainly change the appearance of many suburban neighborhoods. For areas under trees or patches where turf grass will not grow, there are some hardy ground covers to consider.
Pachasandra (Pachasandra procumbens) — Pachasandra has beautiful dark green leaves that grow in clusters. It makes a pretty skirt under tall trees and shrubs and works well on gentle slopes. The soil must be loose and loamy for it to get a good start. It is easier to plant 4-inch cups rather than 1-gallon pots of Pachasandra. The smaller plugs seem to acclimate faster and begin to grow together. Plus, when planting under trees, there are usually tree roots to contend with. Mulch with pine straw or small hardwood mulch and, in two or three years, it should be a thick, dark green mass.
Aegopodium (Aegopodium podagaria) — Aegopodium is also known as “ground elder” or “bishop’s weed.” It is a perennial ground cover that can grow to 12 to 14 inches high. The stems are stout and erect and support small white flowers that bloom two or three times per year. The flowers are very attractive to pollinators, which is an added bonus. This ground cover is not as dark green as pachasandra and is more attractive when used in close proximity to dark green shrubs. It is also very effective to use as a trailing vine in a container planter where deer also tend to nibble. There is a variegated form, which has a nice white variegation that is pretty in the evening garden.
There are quite a few annuals that seem to be deer resistant in contrast to the many annuals that seem to invite deer to dinner! Let’s discuss some of the easiest to grow.
Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum) — Ageratum is a popular annual that is a member of the aster family that grows 12 inches tall. The violet blue flowers add a cooling color effect to the spring and summer garden. It is a great plant to add to the edge of a perennial or annual bed. The leaves and flowers will cascade over the edge to soften the border. It can also be planted in containers or hanging baskets. It is most effective if planted under an evergreen shrub in a container. It will soften the base of the shrub and cascade over the side of the container.
Dusty Miller (Centaurea cineraria) — I cannot say enough good things about Dusty Miller. It is a perfect annual for containers and in a mixed border. The silvery leaves and fuzzy texture add so much variety and beauty wherever it is planted. It lasts forever in fall and winter plantings, and it also thrives in spring and summer combinations. It is truly one of my favorites, and I have never seen any damage done by deer.
Cleome (Cleome sp.) — Cleome is an old-fashioned plant that is greatly underused. It comes in the prettiest shades of pink, white, cream and dark pink. It is tall and strong and adds a wispy and gentle movement to the garden. It is so easy to grow from seed, so broadcast seeds in the fall in the perennial garden. It is also a joyous surprise to see where the Cleome will sprout and bloom in the late spring. It is drought resistant once it is established and will re-seed from last year’s plants. It is definitely at the top of my list of deer resistant annuals.
Notice that I have not discussed impatiens, pansies, violas, etc. There is a reason for this. Deer love them and will devour them, and they will tell all of their “deer” friends where to find them.
No garden is complete without perennials, and luckily there are some beautiful and tough varieties that seem to be resistant to deer … so far.
Hellebores (Helleborus sp.) — Hellobores are lovely and rewarding plants to include in the perennial garden. They are one of the few prolific bloomers in the winter garden. There are many varieties and hybrids that bloom in a myriad of colors, from creamy white to dark red. They are low growing with strong stems and interesting foliage. They are becoming quite popular, and many of the new varieties are showing up in our local garden centers.
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) — I am so happy to include Russian Sage in this list of deer resistant perennials. It is actually not a sage at all but is closely related to them. Russian sage makes a bold statement and is admired for its silvery, fragrant foliage and its lavender flowers. It is easy to grow, does not need much moisture to thrive, and it can grow in thin soils and blooms from late spring until late fall.
False Indigo (Baptisia australis) — Baptisia is another favorite perennial. Baptisia is actually a member of the pea family. It is a flowering, herbaceous perennial with pea-like flowers. The foliage is a light, silvery green and the blossoms are a beautiful, Wedgwood blue. Butterflies and moths are attracted to Baptisia blossoms, adding another reason to include it in the perennial garden.
Ferns are a popular and useful plant to add to gardens in the Midlands. We have so many majestic trees in our neighborhoods that we must find plants that will thrive in the shade of these trees. Ferns are the answer, and there are many varieties which are deer resistant.
Holly Ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum) — Holly ferns are prolific in the Midlands. They are native to eastern Asia and have adapted beautifully to our climate. Holly ferns grow in crevices, stream banks and under tall trees. It is common to see Holly ferns creeping up through the cracks of walls and steps. This adds so much charm to the garden. Holly ferns require fertile, moist soil, but they are easy to care for once they are established. I cut mine down to the ground every winter to get rid of any fronds that are damaged by the cold. It is so wonderful to see the new, green fronds unfurl in the spring.
Christmas Ferns (Polystichum arcostichoides) — Christmas ferns are another interesting fern to add to the mix. Christmas ferns are perennial, evergreen ferns with serrated light green fronds. They are a perfect complement to Holly ferns and thrive in the same environment, preferring the same type of soil and light conditions.
Japanese Painted Ferns (Athyrium goeringianum) — Japanese painted ferns are another perfect complement to the other two ferns listed. If you have a shady area with loose, loamy soil, a combination of Holly, Christmas and Japanese Painted ferns would be a perfect solution to a deer prone area. The silvery variegated fronds of the Japanese Painted ferns add color and texture to the combination. The silver green fronds are beautiful in the evening garden. They are also a good choice for a container combination for a shady spot on a patio or terrace.
Certainly no garden is complete without beautiful, evergreen shrubs. They are the backbone of the garden and provide structure and continuity. Here are some to consider for gardens plagued by deer.
Carissa Holly — Carissa holly is one of the very few evergreen mounding shrubs that are deer resistant. My favorite shrub to use as a foundation plant is Dwarf Pittosporum, but the deer will eat it to the ground in a matter of hours. When I am designing a garden and deer are a problem, I will substitute Carissa Holly where I would normally specify a dwarf pittosporum. Carissas have dark green leaves with a sharp spike at the end of each leaf which is, I guess, what protects it from deer. It is a carefree shrub once it is established and can be pruned into a round or square shape.
Doghobble (Leucothoe spp.) — Doghobble has gone out of fashion, which, in my opinion, is quite a shame. It is truly an unappreciated plant. Native to the East Coast and basically carefree once established, it grows to 4 feet tall and has a graceful arching habit. Doghobble is an excellent choice for erosion control and looks beautiful cascading down a hill. It has become difficult to find Doghobble in our nurseries, but it’s definitely worth the effort to locate it. Maybe if many of us start to ask for it, it will become fashionable and popular once again.
Pieris (Pieris japonica) — Pieris is a lovely small shrub with light green to dark green leaves. It has clusters of drooping white, waxy flowers that appear in late winter and early spring. It has an informal shape and is a nice complement to the other two shrubs discussed above, Carissa holly and Leucothoe. A combination of these three shrubs would make an interesting, deer resistant foundation bed.
We must have trees in our garden as they give the garden a vertical frame and add so much movement, shade and texture. Whether they are evergreen, flowering or deciduous, they are a very important component in the landscape.
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) — I was so happy to discover that Mimosa trees were considered deer resistant. These have always been some of my favorite trees, which, like Doghobble, have gone out of fashion. I intend to bring them back into fashion and have started to include them in many of my garden design plans. Mimosa trees, which are sometimes called Persian Silk Trees, are natives of Asia and grow to 25 feet tall. They thrive in full sun, grow quickly and will add bursts of long lasting pink, fluffy blossoms to the landscape.
Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) — Allegheny Serviceberry is a small tree that thrives in the Midlands. Serviceberry is a deciduous tree with interesting textured bark. The tree is covered with small, white bell-shaped blossoms that appear in late spring. This is a wonderful tree to add diversity to the landscape and is a great choice for a small, suburban garden.
Wax Myrtle (Myrica) — Wax Myrtle are very popular small trees and thrive in Zone 8 gardens. They are salt resistant, so they are very prolific along our coast. They grow to 20 feet tall and are a great tree to limb up into a standard form. Wax Myrtles are evergreen trees that produce small black berries that are very nutritious for our native birds. A pleasing combination is to use three to four standard form Wax myrtles and under plant with the ferns listed in the group above. They should all thrive in the same conditions and will be a beautiful, leafy deer resistant combination.
I was surprised to find so many wonderful choices for deer-prone garden areas. All of the plants that we have discussed above are very complementary to each other and could be used together to create an interesting, relatively carefree, deer-resistant landscape. So, don’t be discouraged. There are lots of great choices. Start your planning now for a beautiful, healthy, lush garden using deer resistant plants. Eventually your deer will become your neighbor’s deer.
Chores for the June Gardener
June is one of the most delightful months in the garden, albeit a busy one. Here are some helpful hints:
• If you are lucky enough to have a compost pile, add all the flowers that need to be deadheaded and any cool season vegetables that have “bolted.”
• Side dress remaining vegetables with a soluble organic fertilizer or organic tea.
• Keep basil pinched back so it does not flower. Harvest leaves for salads and pesto.
• Cut out any “water sprouts” that emerge on tree branches, such as flowering cherry trees.
• Prune gardenias after they bloom to get them back into shape. • Be on the lookout for any pests or mildew and treat accordingly.
• Monitor your irrigation system or hand watering. It can get really warm in June, and tender, young plants can die from stress.
• Cut blooming perennials and annuals for bouquets, and dead head at the same time.
• Fertilize annuals and perennials with a water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro®. Fertilize in the early morning before it gets too hot.
• Feed your roses. Feed even the Knock-out variety for many more months of prolific bloom. Dead head and prune as needed.
• Enjoy these last few cool days in the garden.
What’s Blooming in June
Hybrid Lilies such as ‘Casablanca,’ Day lilies, Roses, Iris, Mock Orange, Buddleia, Bee Balm, Stokesia, Impatiens, Caladiums, Begonias, Black-eyed Susans, Oakleaf and Macrophylla Hydrangeas, Gardenia, Rosa rugosa, Crape Myrtle and Magnolia… to name a few.