by Dave Waltzer
Anyone who has planted a garden in an area frequented by deer will agree that the experience can be mildly frustrating, expensive and, at times, demoralizing.
I have been landscaping in deer-inhabited areas for 18 years, and my knowledge of deer-proof plants has been acquired in the crucible of experience. In my first year as a landscape contractor, I worked for a developer in the Marin Hills where herds of deer ran free, ranging through gardens like hoofed locusts.
The deer were so brazen and aggressive that they would eat plants sitting in the bed of my truck, fresh from the nursery. To add insult to injury, they would chase my dog up and down the hill and try to stomp him to death.
I quickly discovered that relying on published "lists" of deer-proof plants, or on the knowledge of landscape architects most of whom rely on those aforementioned "lists", was no recipe for success.
I remember working off an architect's plan that called for 100-plus Ceanothus Griseus, "yankee point." Thinking that the architect was familiar with the area, and the ceanothus were native to parts of California, I figured that this was a safe bet. The next morning, I returned to find every one of the ceanothus munched down to the stem, with many of the plants yanked out of the ground as well.
Just because a plant is a native does not mean the deer won't eat it. After all, what do they live on out in the wild? Native plants, of course!
The best way to keep deer out of your garden is, of course, with a fence. The next best way is a dog or a mountain lion. We shall assume, in this article, that neither fences nor dogs, and certainly not mountain lions, are an option for you.
There are various potions and pills on the market that either make your plants smell or taste bad to deer. One popular product is called "liquid fence," and it makes your plant smell like it hasn't bathed in a year.
It works fairly well, until rain or sprinklers wash it off. Its chief drawback is that it causes your garden to smell like a gas station restroom. And believe me, you'll be sorry if you accidentally spray some on your shoes. Another drawback is that it leaves a scent that repels deer but tends to attract neighborhood animals that would otherwise choose a fire hydrant but now find your plant a preferable place to mark their territory.
There is also a pill that one can bury around the roots of a plant that works systemically to give the plant a very bad taste. Do not handle this pill with your bare hands, it will do that same to you.
Your best bet is to choose plants that deer do not like to eat. I have found that a good rule of thumb is to use plants that have very aromatic leaves. Crush a leaf between your fingers; if it gives off a strong smell, the deer won't eat it.
Interestingly, most plants that have a medicinal use are also deer resistant. Mullein, yarrow, feverfew, sage, chamomile and thyme are a few examples. Want a deer-proof garden? Buy a copy of Culpepper's "Complete Herbal" and use it as a reference as to what plants the deer won't eat.
Since there is not enough room in this article to give a comprehensive list of deer-proof plants, I have chosen to focus on four specific families whose plants are deer resistant: