One of the results of suburban expansion has been an increasing number of wild visitors to many gardens. Deprived of habitat and impelled by hunger, wild animals including deer explore landscaped yards for edibles. While longtime gardeners can confirm from experience that hungry deer will eat almost anything, observation by county extension agents and agriculturalists suggests that even hungry deer make choices. Knowing the plant characteristics deer dislike or avoid will help you create a varied, attractive shrub-filled landscape that discourages destruction by deer.
While there appear to be no absolutes, deer do not eat absolutely everything. One complicating factor to generalization, however, is that deer may avoid a plant in one area and eat it in another. Accept the fact that there will be some trial-and-error in your early landscaping of a deer-populated area. Use strategies that maximize your chances of growing shrubs without severe impoverishment. Contact your local county extension agency, botanical garden and native plant organizations to find out what deer tend to avoid in your area. Add to your advice by consulting local nurseries, remembering, however, that they have a stake in your purchasing plants, and shrubs are especially expensive to buy and replace.
Regional online studies can add to your fund of planting ideas and offer advice on deer eating habits. Some lists include annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees all together, but all indicate some level of deer resistance or susceptibility to damage (the long Rutgers list is even color-coded). Although plants come from a wide variety of families, some common characteristics become apparent.
Some Reliable Generalizations--Feel
Deer appear to avoid plants that are uncomfortable to eat. Thorns, prickers, even fuzzy stems and leaves lower a plant's appeal to deer. Like humans, deer are drawn to smooth-surfaced fruits and vegetables, tender stems and leaves. Mouth-feel is likely to be one element in the tendency of deer to avoid ornamental grasses. Holly, Japanese yew and buddleia all present uncomfortable mouthfuls to grazing deer.
Deer appear to be put off by strong fragrance, which appears to explain the relative lack of appeal of lilac bushes. The distinctive odors of arrowwood viburnum, bayberry, daphne and boxwood may account for their relatively low levels of damage. It now becomes possible to speculate that less discernible odor combines with uncomfortable mouth-feel to make potentilla and rose-of-Sharon undesirable. Fragrance and taste, of course, are somewhat unreliable predictors of deer behavior--fragrant tulips and lilies are apparently delicious.
Generalizations--Taste and Toxins
Deer avoid toxic shrubs, and these may have a place in your landscaping, if not easily available to young children. As the Oregon State University Extension points out, several of the most well-known deer-resistant plants are poisonous, at least during one phase of growth. Both American bittersweet and mountain laurel appear on the Oregon State toxic list. Checking with your local extension service will help confirm whether the varieties of shrubs you want to plant have toxic phases or properties.
Enhancing Deer Resistance
Despite the wide variety of deer-resistant plants available for landscaping, it may be hard to stay within the strictures of a local list. Shrubs can be costly. Even bought singly to test the interest of local deer, shrubs that deer like are both cumbersome and expensive to replace. A backyard without a mock-orange like your grandmother's just seems empty. To accommodate special treasures or keep existing plantings safe, try deer-repelling strategies like mixing human hair clippings with mulch, spraying plants with rotten-egg-smell repellent solution, or using netting or fencing. Homemade solutions abound and success depends in large part on the time you can devote to implementing them. You may, however, find one or two methods that help keep deer away or at least send them on to eat in another yard.