by Eric Stewart
Like cattle, deer are ruminants, cud-chewers, creatures designed solely for churning grass, leaves and twigs into a frothy, vegan pulp with their 34 teeth and four stomachs. Previously associated mainly with Disney animation, hunting, and road hazards, these graceful creatures are unwelcome guests to most yards in our region—converting hedges, shrubs and planting beds into an all-you-can-eat buffet. As such, D-E-E-R has become a four letter word to most gardeners. Short of installing extensive fencing (or landmines), what is one to do?
The answer is fairly straightforward: plant stuff they don’t like. Surprisingly, there are many options out there if one knows what to look for. When looking for deer-resistant plantings, think of another four letter word: H-E-R-B. Deer generally avoid plants whose leaves boast strong smells and tastes, or plants with highly or oddly textured foliage. Anything with grayish or silvery leaves is also usually a safe choice, as are hardy grasses. Here are a few of my favorite deer-resistant plantings with which I have had great luck in keeping Bambi at bay—both in my own garden and those of my clients.
Agastache – A decorative though well-behaved member of the mint family that features spiky purplish-blue flowers atop three to four foot tall, semi-woody stalks. The leaves are wonderfully fragrant and the seed heads attract goldfinches. This plant is great for sunny borders, and it reseeds readily, assuring that you always have lots of its cheery blooms in years to come.
Artemesia – Silvery-gray plants grown for their unusual foliage color and texture. Members of this family are ideal for sunny borders and are drought tolerant. “Silver King” grows tall and spreads rapidly, so give it plenty of room; “Silver Queen” is less rambunctious. “Silver Mound” forms a wonderfully soft cushion that invites touching.
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra) – A wonderful spring-bloomer that features sprays of unique heart-shaped, drooping flowers in pink or white. Great for part sun to shady spots, it quickly grows to form a large clump. Its only drawback is that it dies back in mid to late summer.
Catmint (Nepeta) – These mounding perennials are wonderful for edging beds and spilling over stone retaining walls. The aromatic foliage is a soft gray-green and the flowers are purple and somewhat resemble lavender. “Walker's Low” grows to about 12 inches tall and wide. “Six Hills Giant” matures to over two feet tall and features especially attractive purple flowers, ideal for the middle of a sunny border. Catmint makes a wonderful companion planting for daffodils and other spring flowering bulbs as its foliage kicks in just as the bulbs are petering out. Catmint, it is said, actually repels deer, so it also works well planted as a deterrent in front of other plants that deer might otherwise favor.
False Sunflower (Heliopsis) – This is another great plant for sunny areas. It stands about three feet tall and covers itself in bright yellow-orange blooms from June to frost. This is one of the standout performers in my own garden. Like Agastache, with whom it makes a wonderful companion, False Sunflower also reseeds readily.
Lamium (Dead Nettle) – This is an ideal plant for tough areas—including dry shade. There are many varieties of this low-growing groundcover. Most feature variegated foliage of green accented by white, silver or chartreuse. Another member of the mint family, this plant spreads nicely but not invasively. “White Nancy” features white and green variegated foliage and white flowers. “Beacon Silver” sports green and silvery foliage with pink blooms, and my favorite, “Purple Dragon” features green and silvery foliage with purple-pink flowers. “Anne Greenway” features yellow-green variegation and pink flowers, but I have found it to be far less vigorous than other varieties. All are ideal for brightening up shaded or partially shaded areas. Given too much sun, the foliage tends to scorch.
Aconite (Monkshood, aka Wolfsbane) – You don’t have to be a fan of Gothic novels or old horror movies to appreciate the virtues of this wonderful plant. When mature, it forms a large clump bearing three- to four-foot spikes of intense blue-violet or white flowers resembling delphiniums. The individual flowers look like little conquistador helmets or monks’ hoods, from which the plant gets its name. It is one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, and soon sends up tall spires that begin to flower in late summer. In my garden, the show continues until Halloween. Better yet, this plant thrives in almost any light condition, from sun to medium shade. Be warned however, all parts of it are poisonous. As such, it is perhaps not a good choice for use around toddlers.
Crocosmia – When not in bloom, the foliage of this plant resembles a tall, wide-bladed grass or Siberian Iris (both of which are also great deer-resistant perennials). These plants grow from small bulb-like structures called corms. Just as with both iris and decorative grasses, Crocosmia “Lucifer” is impervious to deer and other garden pests, and has a nice presence in the garden. The real show, however, takes place in June and July, when tall arching stalks appear and are soon covered in dozens of hanging trumpet-shaped flowers of a shocking fire-engine red. This plant, given lots of sun and well-drained soil, is a real show-stopper. It also possesses a charming devil-may-care attitude as it thrives despite heat and humidity. Please note that “Lucifer” is perfectly hardy in our climate zone; however, other varieties are not and require lifting in the fall.
These are just a few of my favorite deer-resistant perennials that are suited to the Catskills/Hudson Valley region and are easily obtained locally. Please note that aside from plants that are outright poisonous, deer may eat (or at least sample) most anything if they get hungry enough. Try out these plants in your own garden, and let me know what you think.
Eric Stewart is a garden designer, writer and fine artist from Accord, NY. He may be reached at Greenman Garden Design, 845-687-9166, on the web at greenmangarden.com or via email at email@example.com.