Gazing outside your window to see a mother deer and her fawn is a beautiful and peaceful sight — that is until you realize that they are eating your favorite flowers. Watching your landscape investment eaten up by a pair of hungry herbivores — no matter how cute they are — can be a blood-pressure raising event.
Unless, like Master Gardener Nancy Palmer, of Lewis County, WA, you have learned to live with the doe-eyed pests. In fact, she says, the deer in her spacious forest garden have become welcomed guests.
She enjoys watching them walk through her garden, speaks affectionately about the fawn that was born just beyond her back porch last year, and has learned to live with the nibbling ways of the gentle creatures
But her zen-like, peaceful relationship with the native nibblers did not occur overnight. It was only after a long struggle and a deepening awareness did she realize that learning to coexist with the deer wasn’t just the right thing to do — it was the only real solution for the survival of her woodland gardens.
Years of Trial and Error Experimentation
Seven years ago, when she moved into her new home in a wooded area, there was very little in the way of a formal garden space. In fact, the only plants growing in her backyard other than the native flora and fauna under the evergreens, was a clump of rhubarb just outside her back door. She pulled up the rhubarb and it grew back. She cultivated and planted new beds and the deer ate the plants.
“I used to get angry and frustrated,” said Palmer, “They’re just pests, really. But I finally decided to just go with it.”
Palmer’s deer-tolerant garden has evolved over the years through experimentation. She found that some of the plants recommended as deer-resistant in gardening books were actually quite palatable to the forest creatures in her own backyard.
“Everybody’s garden is different,” Palmer said, “You have to experiment to find out what works for you.”
There is no such thing as an absolutely “deer-proof” plant, said Palmer, “The only truly deer-proof plants are those the deer haven’t found yet or can’t reach.”
Tips from Nancy
Plants can only be called “deer-resistant,” never “deer-proof.” If the herd is large enough and food scarce enough, deer have been known to eat almost anything, Palmer said.
But even so, there are some plants that are much less palatable to deer and some places to put a plant that makes it less desirable.
For the tastiest of treats or “deer candy,” as Palmer puts it, plants such as roses, hostas, geraniums, lilies and others, must be planted near a main doorway or behind an eight-foot fence to survive. Deer will do almost anything to get at their favorites. And nearly every ornamental tree that keeps its leaves in the winter is a target for deer, says Palmer.
“For those, I put a fence around the tree until it gets large enough to withstand a little nibbling,” she said.
Plants at the outer edges of a garden are most at risk. Some plants, she notes, are more able to tolerate a little nibbling because they recover quickly through quick growth.
Keep an eye on new plantings, Palmer recommends, deer may taste the plant just to see if they like it, but then move on to more palatable fare once they discover something they like better. Young deer can do quite a bit of damage to your garden as they sample plants, developing their palate, nibbling, tasting and then spitting out those they don’t like.
Palmer will often surround more deer-desirable plants with those she knows the deer won’t eat, a kind of “camouflage” gardening technique.
Discourage nibbling by choosing plants with unpleasant tastes, textures or scents. Plants that tend to deter deer have thick or leathery leaves, or have fuzzy, or spiny textures. Strongly scented plants — such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage — will often deter the deer and have the extra added bonus of providing beautiful flowers.
Although, in the end, a deer fence is your best insurance against lasting damage to your landscape, planting deer-resistant plants is the more aesthetically pleasing choice.
“Try it, keep an eye on it, and learn to live with a little nibbling,” as Palmer says.