Let’s Consider the Deer

Fences make good gardens, especially when certain plants—roses, lilies and hostas—are considered “deer candy.” Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

A reader recently emailed me, saying “I live on [location omitted] with five wooded acres between me and the CHPL [Chapel Hill Public Library] where multiple deer live. Hellebores, Sarcococcas, Irises, and Daffodils are impervious to their taste, but a tad variety would be nice to have. I hate to fence in a shrub to have it. Can you recommend a source for deerproof[ing] most shrubs?”

This, of course, is the number one question in gardening circles. How can we fend off the overpopulation of deer from our plantings? There are innumerable lists available that always come with this proviso: If the deer are hungry, they will eat almost anything.

There are some other factors involved, however. How tame are the deer that your garden is supporting? I live in downtown Chapel Hill where our deer are so tolerant of our presence that they calmly nibble in front of us. When the deer learn to coexist with us, it is harder to have the garden you desire.

A dear friend of mine, living in a relatively new development in Alamance County, finds that her deer are quite skittish when faced with humans. Consequently, she’s had some notable success in warding off the deer with deer sprays whereas my deer simply shrug off the various sprays before taking a big munch. She recommends Deer Stopper II but stresses that her deer are very uneasy when spotting humans.

Another consideration is this: Make sure that you’re not confusing rabbit demolishment with deer ravaging. Rabbits can be terribly destructive in a garden but appear to be more susceptible to various rabbit sprays on the market. One effective, albeit quite smelly, spray is Liquid Fence Deer & Rabbit Spray.

There are many lists citing deer-proof plants on the Internet. The best advice that I have found to be pertinent to our area is from the Chatham County Extension Center (click here to download).

Poisonous plants are always good bets in repelling deer as deer instinctively know to avoid them—please note that I’m not advocating poisoning these deer creatures (pun intended, or rather, pun courtesy of my editor). One of my neighborhood deer once took a big swipe out of the mildly poisonous Helleborus foetidus (a.k.a., Stinking Hellebore) but never returned for seconds. Daphnes, alas, have such a short life span that I cannot recommend them, but one of its relatives, the long-living Edgeworthia fares beautifully outside my fence where the deer roam.

There are two species of Edgeworthia: E. papyrifera and the more widely available E. chrysantha. Some horticulturalists argue that they are one and the same, although my E. papyrifera has smaller leaves and a shorter growth habit than E. chrysantha. Edgeworthias relish morning sun and afternoon shade. The bell-like buds will magically open in March, emitting a delicious aroma that lasts for a good four weeks or so.

Deer will leave Lantana “Miss Huff” alone, so enjoy the long bloom time. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Another plant I highly recommend, one that the deer leave alone, is Lantana “Miss Huff.” I love this shrub as it has a long bloom time, the flowers change colors as they age, and the deer never bother it. The one caveat to successfully growing this plant is to wait until the late spring when you see new growth appearing around the roots before cutting off last season’s dead branches.

I have had good luck in growing asters outside the fence. Aster ageratoides “Ezo Murasaki” is one that I described in “The Importance of the Perennial Border,” but be warned that this is an aster that insists upon taking up space. When searching for asters, be advised that the Aster genus was recently split into two; American asters now come under the heading of Symphytrichum.

There are suitable bulbs you can plant aside from daffodils. Crinums can coexist with deer although they may be hard to find. The largest of all the bulbs, crinums require full sun, and please give them room to expand. Two sources for crinums are Plant Delights and Jenks Farmer. Amarcrinums are also successful and can be obtained in the spring at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.

I have also had luck with the hardy Hippeastrum, a.k.a., amaryllises. I’ve had some growing outside my fence that have returned for seven or eight years. Plant them in the spring after our last frost date (generally around April 15) and cover them with mulch after the first frost. Be sure to check their zone hardiness as not all Hippeastrum are suitable for planting outside in our 7a zone.

One piece of advice I learned the hard way: Unless you are willing to create a barrier, cast away those dreams you have of achieving the perfect garden. For years I tried to grow, disguise, and spray daylilies, all to no avail. The deer always found them.

The plants I would also add to this to-be-avoided list are roses, lilies and hostas. Deer will edge their way through the thorniest rose to swallow that perfect bloom. All parts of the lily are edible and from past experience nothing can get past the deer when it comes to hostas—and a chewed-up hosta is not only a sad sight but, with a few exceptions, it will not fill out again.

Since deer tend to avoid most herbs, Lavendula “Phenomenal” is a good choice for co-existence. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The deer have left my camellias alone and my correspondent tells me that she’s had success with planting gardenias. Members of the allium family are good bets so plant Allium “Millennium” with abandon. Deer also avoid most herbs so this is a good time to become enamored with Lavendula “Phenomenal.”

The most efficient way to handle the deer problem is to erect a barrier. Most of my garden is within a six-foot fence with an eight-foot fence running along one side. Deer are masterful jumpers but have never jumped the fence. My neighbor also has a fence, but both of us were careful to maintain the long-established route the deer used between our two properties. If we hadn’t done so, the deer would have begun jumping both our fences, so it is very important to know where the deer routes exist and to not block them off.

Alas, the deer are here to stay. Fences do make for good gardens, and they certainly make gardening more enjoyable; but do remember that there are some great plants out there that can raise a little hope that deer and some gardens can coexist. You just have to say goodbye, farewell to known deer candy such as roses, lilies, hostas, and daylilies if a fence is an impossibility.

Here is my correspondent’s recipe for a homemade deer spray:

  1. Boil for 10 minutes in one gallon of water 1/4 cup hot pepper flakes and 2 tablespoons of cinnamon
  2. Cool. Strain if using a sprayer.
  3. Before spraying, whisk in 1-2 egg yolks only.
  4. Clean sprayer.
  5. Here’s a version to avoid a clogged sprayer. Boil. Cool. Pour into a clean, empty plastic gallon milk jug. Add egg yolk(s). Shake well. When needed, pour some in a bowl and use your pastry brush to bless all your plants.
  6. Formula seems effective and stays effective without refrigeration.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.

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