Sure, they’re cute with those big eyes and expressive ears, but when it comes to deer-proofing your garden, they sure can be infuriating pests. Short of building a fence high enough that they can’t jump it—at least 8-feet tall—there are no permanent solutions. Although, if you’re feeding them – you might want to stop that.
Still, like any animal, deer have their particular food dislikes, and planting things they find distasteful can keep them at a distance as long as they can find enough to eat elsewhere. It turns out that deer apparently have sensory-integration issues, and especially hate plants that have fuzzy leaves, strong fragrances, and those that are poisonous—if a deer eats something that makes it feel ill, it’s not likely to snack on THAT plant again.
Lamb’s Ears – The soft, fuzzy leaf of this hardy perennial is a major walk-away for deer. They don’t like the texture.
Plant in spring, spacing plants 1 to 3 feet apart, depending on the variety. Prepare the garden bed by using a garden fork to loosen the soil to a depth of about 12 inches, then mix in about two inches of compost. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the pot the plant is in. Carefully remove the plant from its container and place it in the hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Carefully fill in around the root ball and firm the soil gently. Water thoroughly.
Too much standing water captured within the leaves can result in leaf rot. Avoid this by dividing dense growth. Divide your plants every 3 to 4 years as new growth begins in the spring, lifting plants with a fork and dividing them into clumps. An annual shearing renews the plant, removes all the dead leaves, and makes this plant grow neat and compact. Apply a layer of compost each spring, followed by a 2-inch layer of mulch to retain moisture and control weeds.
Oriental Poppies – These happy blossoms may make your neighbors flock to your garden, but the deer will definitely keep their distance from them. Poppies contain alkaloids that are toxic to deer, as well as other wildlife.
There are few rules in caring for oriental poppies. A great location is essential. Once planted, these bloomers don’t like to move. Don’t plant them in soggy ground. They hate wet feet. Fertilize them, but only once a year. Plant them with other favorites whose growth habits will cover the garden bald spots when your poppies go dormant in the heat. Oriental poppies love the cooler temperatures of early spring and fall. Their bright blossoms open just as most spring bulbs are finishing up for their season, and before the summer flowers come into their own.
Yarrow – Yarrow is a hardy perennial wildflower that loves the heat, and thrives in hot, dry soil. As an added bonus, deer won’t touch it because it has a bitter taste.
Yarrow is most often propagated by division, so you’ll most likely be buying your yarrow as a plant. Space your plants 12 inches apart if you’re planting more than one. You can also start your yarrow herb from seed. Start seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before your last frost date. Sow the seeds in moist, normal potting soil. The seeds should just barely be covered by the potting soil. Place the pot with the yarrow seeds in a sunny and warm location.
Sage – You may love sage’s distinct scent, and find it comforting. Deer, however, with their delicate sense of smell, find it overwhemlingly stinky. The leaves’ soft texture is also a reason deer turn their noses up at sage. Definitely add this one to your container garden, or place a pot of it on your deck or patio if deer are terrorizing your patio plants.
Sage thrives in well-drained soil, and it prefers a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Resist the temptation to over-fertilize; the sage might grow a little faster, but its flavor won’t be as good. Plant sage in medium to full sun. Sage is a fairly drought-tolerant herb, and even when the leaves look wilted, a little water perks the entire plant right up. Wait until the soil is dry to give it a thorough watering. Sage grows in a round, bush-like manner, and individual plants should be spaced two feet, or more, apart. Plant sage near carrots, strawberries, tomatoes, and cabbage. I have a few planted within my perennial garden, as well as near my tomatoes. Because the beautiful blossoms attract pollinators, let your sage plants go to flower.
Narcissus – Deer hate these popular, fragrant spring bloomers! They contain calcium oxalate, a compound that causes a burning sensation when ingested. Protect plants that are prime “deer candy,” like tulips, by planting them with narcissus.
Peony – Peonies’ fragrance is one the top reasons gardeners’ love them—and it turns out that it’s the reason deer hate them. All the more reason to start growing more of these hardy perennials!
Grow peonies in deep, fertile soil that drains well. The soil will benefit from the addition of organic material in the planting hole. If the soil is heavy or very sandy, enrich it with compost. Add about a cup of bone meal, or crushed egg shells, to the soil. Peonies are not fussy but choose your location wisely as they are not fond of being moved. Space them three feet apart for good air circulation. Peonies like full sun, and though they can get along with half a day, they like it best in a sunny spot. Plant peonies in the fall. Peonies should be settled into place before the first hard frost. Spring-planted peonies just don’t do as well. Water thoroughly.
Lavender – While the scent of lavender is calming to people the same way sage is, deer think it stinks, so they won’t eat it unless they’re desperate.
Care for your lavender as you would any new perennial, watering deeply. Do not let the nursery pots to dry out completely. Young lavender seedlings must be looked after daily and especially on very hot days. Do not expose lavender to full sun if they are still in their nursery pots. Place them in dappled or full shade and water them as needed until they make their way to the garden and until they are settled in. Lavender prefers deep soaking watering, then permitted to dry a bit before their next deep soaking. Once the lavender is established in the garden, be sure that it is watered deeply every 7–10 days for the first two years. Once it is well-rooted, lavender is tolerant of heat and dry spells. Water lavender if there is a drought. Over watering leads to root rot which will cause lavender to die. Prevent weeds by mulching with a light-colored mulch like shells or gravel. Do not use hardwood mulch.
As long as your lavender has been properly planted it should bounce back just fine after the sticky sweet summer months. If you find graying foliage of late summer lavender bothersome, working from the base of the plant with your hands with open fingers, pull upwards stripping the dried leaves from the plant.
When the plant sends out new green foliage in April, the spent dried, gray leaves will take care of themselves. If you believe the roots are not getting proper drainage, you may take your garden fork and push it into the soil around the drip line of the plant to aerate the soil.
Planting these things around your garden areas will help keep the deer off of your other plants.
Now, get out there and grow something!