The Plants That Deer Eat Last
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Question of the Week © 2023 Mike McGrath
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Q. Sherrill in the Poconos writes: "We have been planting bushes outside a bow window in the front of our house. Thus far, all the bushes we have planted are surrounded in netting/and or wire to keep the deer from eating them. We would like to eliminate that if possible. Can you give us ideas on which would be the best bushes, evergreens and some plants with color that will not be feeding the deer?"
A. First, I want to congratulate you on protecting your newly installed plants. Most people who write or call us have already lost many plants to these ravenous stomachs on legs before they think to ask for help. So--you may not like the look, but you are way ahead of the game.
Second, I want to explain to listeners afar that "The Poconos" is a mountainous region that begins roughly two hours North of Philadelphia; it's a popular tourist location in the summer for its cooler temps and numerous lakes and in the winter for skiing. Although many people call it 'the Pocono Mountains', there is no mountain with that name. But with its heavy forestation, streams, lakes and homes that are mostly spread out, there are MANY deer. And every deer eats six to ten pounds of greenery a year, with a special craving for your hostas, arborvitae, azaleas, and hostas.
If you're unsure if Bambi is causing your buffet to be missing parts, plant a hosta. If it's gone the next day, you got deer. In fact, few of us don't got deer. If you don't like it, move to Sitka Alaska, where the deer get no bigger than medium-size dogs. Or Phoenix, where there are no deer, but humans have to hide in Refrigerated Rooms for the summer and tall buildings have 'heat deflectors' that look like giant playing cards butting out of the top floors so the windows don't explode.
Anyway, when we--meaning I--researched this topic awhile back, I looked at a LOT of lists of "deer resistant plants" and found the list compiled by the Mohonk Mountain House resort in New York State to be the most reliable. That list was on the Cornell website but now appears to have been recently (just this year) replaced by a smaller one "compiled from a variety of sources". I liked the old one better, but heck--I still long for the era when you could call TI6-1212 and get the correct time.
Stop laughing, you whippersnappers! And if anybody can find that long-ago link, please send it to me and we'll update this article. Then we'll go buy nickels at the Automat.
Anyway, Cornell correctly warns that no plant is "deer proof". If deer are hungry enough they'll eat the plastic bumpers on your car. That's why the top category on their new list is called "plants that are rarely damaged by deer". These include the woody plants boxwood and spruce; Annuals like ageratum, cleome, four o'clocks, morning glory (d'uh--they're poisonous, or at least hallucinogenic--and who wants to deal with a tripping deer?!), salvia, datura (which is really toxic), snapdragon--and to my amazement, parsley and basil, which I would expect the deer to use as salad greens.
Perennials in this section include Bee balm (maybe the deer just don't want to get stung), butterfly bush, daffodils (the perfect spring bulb--so toxic that even Evil Squirrels leave it alone!~), a plant with the great name "interrupted Fern", hellebores, Gas Plant (excuse YOU, Bambi!), those roadside wild "Tiger" daylilies (that's why there's so many of them!), Bleeding Heart, Astilbe, and quite a few more.
The next category is plants "seldom severely damaged by deer, which is starting to get close to Weasel Words. Then comes "Seldom damaged", then "occasionally" and finally, "please provide water and napkins" (well, that's what it SHOULD say!).
In a nutshell (which the deer would probably eat), your best bet are plants that are toxic, like daffodils and hellebore or incredibly tough and thorny, like hawthorn and holly. But be aware that deer have browsed on my thorniest roses and raspberry canes, but typically only on the succulent new growth. (If they start eating my 30 year-old tree-like rose canes I'm taking the ferry to Sitka!)
That eating of thorny plants makes an important point--perennials that are tough and thorny when mature still need to be protected while they're young. And hungry deer will browse on the new growth of older plants, especially early in the season. The only substitute for eternal vigilance is an eight-foot-tall professionally installed deer fence. Not nearly as bad as it sounds, the mesh fencing is invisible from most angles and remarkably effective.
There are other deer-proofing strategies, each with their plusses and minuses. Motion activated sprinklers are great, but they don't work in the winter (especially up in The Poconos!). I really like the Wireless Deer Fence--look it up online. And deer repellants can be very effective if you use them right--that's at full strength or stronger early in the season, when young deer can be trained to eat your neighbor's rhododendrons...