CHOOSING DEER-RESISTANT LANDSCAPE PLANTS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
As deer have become one of the major problems in many gardens, gardeners have begun learning what plants their neighborhood deer prefer or don't like. Deer preference for your landscape plants will vary with several factors, but there are some plants generally more resistant to deer feeding.
Deer seek plants rich in protein, especially in spring and summer as young grow and bucks grow antlers. Well-fertilized garden plants provide this, energy from carbohydrates, and minerals and salts. Since deer can only store nitrogen in small amounts, they need a steady supply during peak periods.
Deer also get about one third of their water from moisture in plants, hence the reason they prefer moist and tender plant parts. This is why they often go for new growth, usually on the outer parts of plants, such as new leaves and buds, or immature stems (such as on my garden phlox in early summer!).
Certain smells of plants also attract deer, just as humans have certain generally attractive smells be it popcorn or apple pie. Other times deer may just want to sample the newest additions to your landscape.
On the flip side, deer just seem to know which plants are poisonous and to avoid, be they certain mushrooms, foxglove, or daffodils. Deer also will avoid a plant they may have tried and didn't like, or which made them sick. They also avoid plants they just don't like, much as I avoid eating liver. But hungry enough and I might even eat this.
Deer generally avoid plants with a strong aroma that hurts their delicate sense of smell, with fuzzy or prickly leaves, or with a bitter or alkaloid taste. Deer rely on their fine sense of smell as an early warning system of approaching danger. Mess with this using aromatic plants, and deer tend to stay clear. Some such fragrant plants that generally deter deer include catmint, chives, lavender, mind, sage, and thyme. Some gardeners plant these among more favored deer plants.
Lists of resistant plants are a good way to start thinking about your landscape, and to help to varying degrees, just don't rely on such plants as foolproof all the time and in all places. Keep in mind with lists of resistant plants that they will vary with expert, and region, and may even be contradictory.
Some plants that appear both on lists of plants deer like and don't like include clematis, iris, forsythia, dahlias, vinca, trillium, and peonies. This is due to the individual deer preferences already mentioned, alternative food sources, and population pressure (of deer that is, or how much food there is to go around). Which plants are resistant also will vary with year, and season. When deer are hungry in early spring after a long hard winter, most anything green (such as your tulips) is a treat. Later in the summer they may get more selective, in late summer try out some new plants so far left untouched, and fall start serious grazing as in spring to store up for winter.
Some woody plants that deer generally prefer, so you might avoid if you have many deer in your area, include yews, euonymus (burning bush), hybrid tea roses, and saucer magnolia. There are some roses less palatable (generally with more thorns), such as the rugosa hybrids, some shrub roses such as Harison's Yellow, and some Moss roses. Herbaceous plants deer generally eat include crocus, dahlias, daylilies, hostas, impatiens, phlox, trillium, and tulips.
Some woody plants generally resistant to deer include spruce, bush cinquefoil, lilacs, shrub magnolias, many spirea, and many viburnum. Some herbaceous plants to consider as resistant include astilbe, barrenwort, bee balm, blanket flower, bleeding heart, columbine, daffodil, dead nettle, false indigo, ferns, globe thistle, hellebore, hollyhock, lungwort, lupine, meadowsweet, monkshood, mugwort, peony, primrose, purple coneflower, Russian sage, Siberian bugloss, speedwell, sunflower, and yarrow.
There are many other "resistant" plants and tips on choosing them, as well as deer control methods, in the recently updated book by Rhonda Massingham Hart, Deerproofing Your Yard and Garden.
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