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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Herbs

Problems with Deer (page 3 of 4)

by Karen Jescavage-Bernard

Deer Repellent Plants

Lists of deer-resistant ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers are available in commercial and government publications. Because different species of deer prefer different plants in different regions, no single plant list works for every garden. Western gardeners can still have evergreen hollies, but the evergreen choices in eastern gardens are limited to spruce and leucothes. In mild winter regions, good evergreens are boxwood and acuba. Norway maples are safe in eastern landscapes, but deer devour them out West. Consult regional plant lists compiled by local extension services.

Plants' resistance to deer depends more on the number of deer in the area and on the climate than it does on the types of plants. Except poisonous species, no plant is deer-proof. Foods that are ordinarily indigestible or even allergenic to deer may become daily menu items in situations of severe stress from weather or scarcity of other food. And if deer can digest a new food, your formerly repellent plant moves off the safe list and onto their regular menu.

Although thorns and briars pose no problems to them, the fibrous or fuzzy foliage of ferns, ornamental grasses, tarragon and wormwood (Artemesia), lamb's ears (Stachys) and borage-family plants like bugloss (Anchusa), borage, heliotrope, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia), forget-me-not (Myosotis), and lungwort (Pulmonaria) seem to be difficult for deer to swallow. Because silver and gray leaves are often furry and pungent, these plants are good deer-repellent choices for many gardens.

"Bad-tasting" to a deer means lemony, minty, sagey, spicy, or bitter. Pungent herbs are good garden choices. You can also plant some of the peppery flowers of the mustard family: alyssum, Arabis, aubrietia, snow-in-summer (Cerastium), dame's rocket (Hesperis), candytuft (Iberis), nasturtium, pinks, carnation, and sweet William, Lychnis, soapwort (Saponaria) and Silene.

Deer also avoid plants that people consider medicinal and poisonous: foxgloves (the plant source of the cardiac drug digitalin), poppies (the plant source of opium), daffodils, and lily-of-the-valley. Herbals and other literature on toxic plants list many other plants that are beautiful enough to include in the garden, but unappetizing to deer.

Give transplants tough love. Many young plants are lost to deer because fertilizer or ample watering made them temptingly tender. Nitrogen is the basic building-block of protein for deer and one of the "big three" plant nutrients, along with phosphorus and potassium. Fertilizer makes for numerous green leaves, but at the expense of weak cell walls. Feed the soil, not the plants, to make flowers and shrubs less appealing to hungry deer.

Newly purchased plants are also especially vulnerable to deer damage. Besides being coddled at the nursery with fertilizer and water, they face transplant stress. Cove them with floating row covers or temporary cages until they acclimate and reducing fertilizer will often get them safely through a critical period.

Because deer are browsers (brush eaters) rather than grazers (grass eaters), the sight of deer grazing the lawn may be a sign of excess soil nitrogen, either from fertilizer or even from leaking sewage. Amend your gardening and home-maintenance practices accordingly.

Plants in the wrong place for their sun, soil, and nutritional needs are the first to bebrowsed. Move your sun-loving plantings out of the shade and shade lovers out of the sun.

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