Two summers ago, the deer were using Bunkey’s yard as a delicatessen. They ate his hostas to the soil line, ambled through the vegetable garden lunching on lettuce and later corn, nibbled on a few trees and just generally drove the poor man nuts. He tried every spray, human hair, predator scent and suggestion for anyone he could corner for suggestions. One day, as he was walking his neighbor’s dog, (Petunia doesn’t like dogs, too messy) he spotted a yard full of uneaten flowers and a perfect garden. Several days later he saw the gardener in her yard and got up the courage to talk to her. The 90-year-old lady was happy to share her deer proofing methods.
She started with a lesson about the enemy. Deer live about 20 years in the wild. They eat about 10 pounds of food a day. Acorns are their favorite food so a scarcity of acorns in the fall makes them look to your gardens. Like cows, they are ruminants, mammals with four stomachs that chew and re-chew their food. They have no upper incisors. This makes for messy eating as they shred their food. And no, you really aren’t paranoid; they really do find and eat your plants the very moment of peak bloom. That’s when they are the most nutritious. Because they lack those upper teeth, they prefer soft, bland tasting plants with a high-water content. Their favorites are daylilies, hostas and roses and tulips.
The only good way to keep deer out of a vegetable garden is to fence it in. A few electric fence posts strung with a heavy, clear fish line really does the trick. As Bambi approaches the lunch counter, her chest runs into the unseen line. Since she has no way of knowing what it is, she looks for supper in the neighbor’s garden. An electric fence works too, but to be really effective, bend throwaway pie plates in half, smear them with peanut butter and hang them on the line. Bambi or her friend Rocky raccoon, smell the peanut butter and put their noses or tongues on the pie plate. The resulting shock will send them into the next county never to return.
Now for the flower garden. Plant plants that are inedible to deer. You want foliage that is fuzzy, leathery, sharp-edged, spiny, prickly, strongly scented or poisonous. Oddly enough colors work too. Deer are creatures of habit so they are wary of “black” or other oddly colored varieties of plants that are usually green like silver, black or bronze colored plants. Dark burgundy or Lime Rickey, heuchera, and black lace elderberry are two examples of odd colors. Lamb’s ears, scented geranium, yarrow, spiny, strong smelling cleome, coreopsis or blue oat grass, with its needle-like tips planted around the edge of a flowerbed will yell “don’t have lunch here!”
Hellebores are full of alkaloid toxins. They have been used as poisons and a purgative and are deer resistant as are some ferns. Chinese brake fern accumulates high concentrates of arsenic from the soil. Snow drops and daffodils contain alkaloids-- deer proof. Autumn crocus is highly toxic and probably fatal if eaten by people. The crown imperial is both poisonous and it smells bad. Strong smelling plants work well too. Think Rosemary, lavender, catmint, salvias, monarda and the other mints. Peonies contain an acrid liquid. Artemisias are not only gray and hairy, they stink!
Next spring, you may want to re-plant your flowerbed to make it more deer resistant. It may not be as pretty with those spiky, stinky plants edging it, but it won’t be eaten either. The other solution is to get a hunting license and eliminate the problem
Bev Johnson is a Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension. Her column appears in the Weekend Edition.