As rural areas fill with new housing for an expanding human population, wildlife must find new living areas and sources of food. Eventually, population pressure and deer hunters will decrease the number of deer looking for food in settled areas, but in the meantime, deer and other animals graze in backyards on conveniently sized shrubbery. Encourage deer to move along by planting shrubs that are deer-resistant.
Deer browsing is part of a larger management problem that, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, led to thousands of vehicle injuries costing over a billion dollars in 1995. Additional hunting seasons, urban hunting and relocation programs have done little to solve the problem. To make the situation worse, people who put food out for Bambi in the hope of keeping him away from the shrubbery simply attract more relatives to the feast.
Deer browse most actively in late fall as they prepare to survive through the long winter when food is scarce; and in early spring during rutting season. Late winter and early spring browsing can fatally wound most plants, because deer choose the tenderest shoots--which are important new growth.
Deer-resistant shrubs, like other resistant varieties, must have some quality that deer find distasteful. Barberries, hollies and junipers have barbs or thorns that make them uncomfortable to eat. Bayberries, aromatic sumac and wolfberries have a bad taste for deer. Turpentine bush has a strong scent and sticky sap. Japanese andromeda and mountain and cherry laurel are poisonous. Deer will also stay away from plants with moderate toxicity like blueberry, elderberry and common buttonbush.
It isn't necessary to fill your yard with toxic or thorny shrubs to discourage deer; and if you did, there's no guarantee the deer would stay away. Patti Simons of the Native Plant Society of Texas suggests a technique called "camouflage planting" to discourage deer. Her deer-resistant garden is designed as a whole, surrounding attractive plants with plants that are either physically or aromatically repellent. In a camouflaged landscape, flower borders would be interplanted with deer-resistant perennials and surrounded with shrubs like mini mallow, cypress and creosote bush. The unpleasant odors and tastes would disguise the rest of the garden and the deer would move on.
No plants are deer-proof. A hungry deer will nibble anything, including a toxic shrub, before moving on. Native plants of areas where deer traditionally roam have developed natural defenses to resist their predations and may be especially resistant. Consult a local native plant society or the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's catalog of native plants to find deer-resistant varieties for a specific state. Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic gardeners should try shrubs like indigo bush, Jersey tea and coralberry bushes. Californians might plant buttonbush, calico bush or rose mallow.