Oh Deer! Deer Resistant Gardening Strategies with Karen McGrath, Landscape Designer

Let’s face it – I am all about habitat and environmentally friendly and responsible gardening. I am. I love birds, bees, butterflies and the like. But, let’s also face the fact that we live in deer country. And Oh Deer! (%^&*^%$*!!), this can be a harsh reality for a gardener. What to do? Throw in the gardening towel? Set up a tree stand, get out your rifle, paint your face, put on your camo and look through your venison cookbooks while you wait for deer to venture back to your decimated garden? (Although your HOA and/or neighbors might object to this second option.) Photo: Hungry deer heading toward my garden.

Ask the question “How should I deal with ravenous deer decimating my garden?” in mixed gardening company and you will get some seriously interesting answers, ranging from little bags of human hair hung throughout your shrubs and trees, to sprinkling human urine all around your garden (again, maybe not the best if your neighbors are quite near), to bags of Ivory soap, to radios blaring soft rock or talk-shows in the garden all night, and on it goes.

Deer “repelling” products available commercially are many, not inexpensive and not completely reliable. If you’ve tried them, you will nod your head in sympathetic agreement with the understatement that they do not smell great while you are applying them. In my former garden, I used Liquid Fence and it did seem to work for the most part, the only caveats being that I had to apply it fairly regularly and it smelled so vile going on that it became more and more difficult to talk myself into making yet another application. Once dry, it was hard to detect the odor, but while still wet it was bad, and Lord help you if the wind was blowing while you were trying to spray your plants with the stuff. Photo: Hungry deer looking disdainfully at California sage (Artemisia californica).

And then, of course, there’s the very tall, very sturdy, very expensive and not very attractive fencing solution.

Karen McGrath, owner of Karen McGrath Design: Landscapes for Outdoor Living, based in Redding, has worked with many clients in rural and suburban areas where deer are an issue, and has done some in-depth research and experimentation into the issue. She recently completed a design project for a large rural property that involved a small kitchen garden, an herb garden and ornamental plantings along extensive walkways. After looking over her various solutions to the plague of deer, I asked Karen to tell us a little bit about her approach to handling them, which involves using multiple strategies, local research, and the path of least resistance. Photo: Karen McGrath.

Karen is not a proponent of putting an 8 – 10 foot fence around your entire property because of the expense and the look and feel of it for the average garden. “The first thing I would recommend when looking at your property is to determine what exactly you want to plant that the deer definitely WILL eat – your vegetable garden for instance, and locate these plants in a portion of your property where you can physically keep the deer out – this is the part of your yard around which you will want to use a fence or hedge or other barrier.”

“Look at your property and use existing elements to help with your physical barrier,” Karen suggests. “The walls of your house can act as one or two sides of the barrier. If you have a slope, use it to your advantage. Deer generally don’t like to jump over something if they can’t see to the other side, so a wall or fence that has hedge plants obscuring the view to the other side will help – and if this is placed in a way that the deer would be going up-hill to get into your enclosed space, it will be even more effective.” In one of her designs, Karen took this idea up a notch in her design called for the construction of a ha-ha, or dry moat, on the outside edge of an enclosed garden space. “A ‘ha-ha’ is a historic design element that English landscape designers used in large estates, the ditch creates the slope beneath an enclosure to help deter the deer.” Photo: Deer resistant Artemisia, manzanita and bunch grasses below the Sundial Bridge in Redding.

For planting the rest of the property, Karen tells us, the one thing you can be sure of is that deer in one place have very different eating habits than deer in another place – so while lists of so-called deer-proof plants are helpful, they only go so far. “Deer are like kids – some eat spinach, some don’t. Who knows why? And while many native plants are deer resistant, not all native plants are deer-proof in all places by a long shot. In general, deer don’t like strongly scented plants – such as rosemary, sages, lavenders, but even these they may browse on, especially in spring when tender new growth looks good to them.”

In choosing your plants for the unenclosed portions of your garden, “I would suggest taking a walk or drive around your own neighborhood. See what the deer are not eating in other unenclosed settings and you are sure to have some success.” Photo: Left: Deer-resistant rosemary, and Right: Deer-resistant ferns and hellebores.

Below is a list of some deer resistant plants that Karen has had luck with in the North State: Photo: A floriferous deer-resistant planting of California fuchsia and pink buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.).

Achillea millefolium – YARROW
Aloe – ALOE
Arbutus – MADRONE
Arctostaphylos – MANZANITA
Artemisia – WORMWOOD
Berberis – BARBERRY
Buddleia – BUTTERFLYBUSH
Callistemon – BOTTLEBRUSH BUSH
Calocedrus decurrens INCENSE CEDAR
Cercis -REDBUD
Cistis – ROCK ROSE
Coreopsis – COREOPSIS
Cupressus sempervirens ‘Glauca’ – ITALIAN CYPRESS
Euphorbia – EUPHORBIA or SPURGE
Grevillea rosmarinifolia – ROSEMARY GREVILLEA
Hesperaloe parviflora – RED YUCCA
Kniphofia – TORCH LILY
Lavandula – LAVENDER
Muhlenbergia rigens – DEER GRASS
Phlomis russeliana – JERUSALEM SAGE
Phormium – NEW ZEALAND FLAX
Rosa rugosa – RUGOSA ROSE
Rosmarinus – ROSEMARY
Salvia – SAGE
Santolina rosmarinifolia – LAVENDER COTTON
Sedum – SEDUM
Solidago – GOLDENROD
Tulbaghia violacea – SOCIETY GARLIC
Yucca recurvifolia – YUCCA
Epilobium/Zauschenaria – CALIFORNIA FUCHSIA

In addition to the plants listed above, in my home garden, the deer browse the tops of landscape roses but don’t eat them to the ground, they also leave Woodwardias – giant chain fern, Mahonias (Berberis) – Oregon grape, Loropetalums – Chinese fringe flower, toyon, iris and peonies alone. Photo: Deer-resistant and native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

Karen also recommends the books “Deer in My Garden: The Yucky Flower Series” (Garden Wisdom Press; two volumes – perennials & sub-shrubs, and groundcovers & edgers), by Carolyn Singer, who lives and gardens in Grass Valley, California. These books can be purchased at Lyon Books in Chico. Photo: Deer-resistant lavender.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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6 Responses

  1. Avatar Margaret Vincent says:

    There is something to be said for articles of this sort that attempt to console the masses of mountain gardeners who simply cannot not give up the dream of a beautiful garden despite living where deer may well outnumber humans (include me in the count). But I can't help but think there is a disservice when we avoid the reality that there are no truly deer-proof plants and the ONLY way to prevent deer browsing is to build a fence. Garden-store solutions are unreliable. Deer often get used to dogs. And we've all experienced the agony of a random deer attack on a precious plant after a long period of inattention that lulled us into thinking the coast was clear. If the plant in your yard is more attractive than the ones outside your yard, it will be chomped, regardless of what the books tell you about it's unpalatability.

    I'm not saying everyone can afford to build an effective fence, I'm just suggesting we think about how we promote expensive, often ineffective solutions when they probably won't work in the long run.

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      So true, Margaret, thus the title Deer Resistant Gardening Strategies rather than Deer-Proof – 🙂 Deer populations are a a dilemma across the country – I particularly liked Karen McGrath's approach to fencing or physically barring deer for some portions your property and then working around them to the best of your ability in the remainder – this seemed to me a balanced approach to some expense and some living with the reality around us. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Avatar Pat j. says:

    I love the deer in my yard so it doesn't bother me when they chomp on the roses, etc. I consider it pruning.

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      I welcome the pruning, which the deer do to my landscape roses, it's the outright removal of some of landscape plants that gets me down – now my pink flowering ribes goes behind the garden fence instead of in the salad bar at the front of my garden fence….:)

  3. Avatar kelly says:

    hello all

  1. March 13, 2010

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