GARDEN VISITORS ask me all the time, pointing to this or that: “Is it deer proof?” Well, truth be told, I usually have no first-hand idea, because after they devoured or disfigured the first decade of my garden efforts here, I got smarter, and got a fence.
As Propagation and Plant Development Manager at Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut, Adam Wheeler has to know which ones have built-in deer resistance, because most customers aren’t living behind 8-foot protection (which by the way, doesn’t deter woodchucks and rabbits, so I am not off the pest-control hook).
I called Adam for advice about a hugely popular subject that he calls:
‘I like it, I love it, and the deer don’t eat it!’
Read along as you listen to the May 30, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below, and learn about some of Adam’s favorite conifers, small trees, shrubs and groundcovers that resist deer. (That’s Adam, below–and did I mention he also grows giant pumpkins in his spare time? I’m not sure what a deer would think about taking a bite from one of those.)
my deer-resistant plant q&a with adam wheeler
Q. Have you managed to outsmart Bambi so far this year?
A. So far, so good.
Q. Really! Well you know me, I am in my barricade [laughter]. Deer cannot get in. But bear come in pretty regularly, as you know, then this week a male bobcat was in the backyard hunting, having a wonderful time—and I have had gray fox all spring, two adults. It’s like “Wild Kingdom,” but no deer.
A. It’s amazing how we want some wildlife and some we don’t want.
Q. And we don’t necessarily get to choose. First, can we clarify what we mean—or at least what you mean, since I’m sure you’re asked about this all the time at the nursery—by deer resistance, or deer proof. I hate to ever say deer proof because I have seen them standing on their hind legs in the snow eating all the lower branches off spruce trees with stiff needles–which cannot be tasty.
A. It’s kind of a hard concept to really define, but I really prefer to think of it as a spectrum, rather than a yes and no. A lot of people like to say, “Is this something that the deer will absolutely not touch?” or, “Is it deer candy?”
Really it is a spectrum so there are plants that they favor more than others.
And you’re right on that just because something is deer-resistant, doesn’t mean that it’s deer proof. In reality just because they don’t eat it, doesn’t mean they won’t lay on it, or rut up against it with antlers, or do some other things to it.
Q. [Laughter.] Oh, my goodness.
A. So it is a challenging to really define, but there are some plants that they treat more like candy, and others that are more like Brussels sprouts to me. I’m not a big Brussels sprouts fan, so that’s the other end of the spectrum for me.
Q. Oh, that’s Andy-proof—or, I mean Adam-proof. Oh, I just said Andy—that’s so funny, because of course your colleague is Andy of Broken Arrow. Andy-proof, Adam-proof, whatever. [Laughter.]
You look for new, exciting, rare things for the nursery. How do you learn the appeal or lack of appeal to deer? Do you take the word of the people who might have the plant you’re hoping to coax them to share with you, or do you have insights like visual cues? Or do you test them?
A. It’s sort of a multi-faceted approach. There are certain qualities that plants have that tend to deter deer. Plants that have really fuzzy foliage, as an example. I always tell people to embrace the prickle or thorns—those plants that are armed with thorns or spines are often not attractive to deer. And then things that have a very pungent kind of fragrance: garlic as an example, or all the Allium—the onions, or mint or lavender. Those plants often deter them as well.
So if we look at a new plant and it has fuzzy foliage and a pungent fragrance to the foliage, then that’s giving us some clues about its potential resistance to deer. Also we rely a lot on thinking about the family tree—so if we know that if it’s a close relative of a resistant plant, then that gives us some sense as well.
But ultimately, it comes down to trialing it in gardens. There are five or six of us at the nursery that are quite happy to plant samples in our own landscapes and just see how they do. Certainly my own home landscape has quite a bit of deer pressure, so that it kind of my mad scientist’s lab, where I can test a lot of things and see how they work I the real-world scenarios. [Above, deer-resistant Allium with deer-candy Hosta.]
A. And then everything else always comes with hopefully good recommendations from colleagues and friends as well.
Q. Normally I would have volunteered for the woodchuck and rabbit testing, except now that I have my fox and bobcat in residence, I don’t think I can be a good testing site for even that—because I think that’s what they’re eating. [Laughter.]
So some plants, even beginning gardeners have heard, “Oh, you can plant Allium, and some bulbs like Narcissus that we’re told are “poisonous,” and then you mentioned those that are aromatic, like artemisias, which sometimes are a little fuzzy or silvery as well.
On the other side, let’s talk about some plants are deer candy—that have no resistance whatsoever, and are like a neon sign. [Laughter.]
A. I think everyone know about hosta. Customers will come in and say, “The leaves are all gone; I’m just left with stalks.” It’s a nice spring salad for the deer.
There are a number of conifers, like Hinoki cypress [Chamaecyparis obtusa] or the arborvitae [Thuja], that are way up there on the deer favorite list. Taxus, the yew, are also quite high up there. Unfortunately there is quite a large list that are high up there on the deer happiness spectrum.
Q. And we should say, because people are listening in many different places, that deer don’t have like a dietary list that all the deer in the world adhere to. There are regional differences, and when they are hungry because of drought or other pressure, they will eat things they wouldn’t normally eat in a bountiful year. So there are a lot of regional and seasonal differences.
A. It’s often just a matter of how hungry or desperate they get.
Q. Shall we talk about some woody things that do the job of resisting deer?
A. There are a number of plants we can talk about, but I want to preface it by saying that as soon as I throw out recommendations, someone comes back and says, “Oh, I’ve had the deer eat that in my yard.” So keep in mind that we are talking resistance, not proof-ness.
Q. And also they will browse—as in taste, try, nibble—but not necessarily decimate; there are also degrees of damage.
A. We can talk about some larger conifers.
Q. Great, because that’s one where when they disfigure them, you can either have lost the plant completely, or it’s impacted for a very long time.
A. We find that many of the hard pines—which are the two-needled pines, where the needles are bunched in bundles of two—tend to be reasonably resistant. So the Japanese red pine, or the Scotch pine, or Austrian pine all show reasonable levels of resistance. Douglas fir.
A. Yes, and its many cultivars have pretty good resistance built in there. There is a plant called plum yew.
A. I always say it looks like a yew on steroids. Big bold needles. That plant has proven to be quite resistant to deer browse, and offers a really good alternative to the regular yew, which is deer candy.
Q. I can’t grow the spectacular upright forms of that, which get splayed open and damaged by snow load in my garden, but I do really well with the prostrate forms. Just like with the Taxus, there are different sizes and shapes; some even groundcover-y. [Above, the ‘Prostrata’ form in Margaret’s garden.]
Q. So Cephalotaxus is a genus to look into.
A. Yes, and spruce tend to be high up there on the deer-resistance spectrum, and there are many different species in the whole spectrum of cultivars, and both large- and small-growing.
I also think when you’re talking about bigger plants, it’s useful to think about the deer-browse level. Deer are only so tall, so if you can get even a susceptible plant through those early years, and get it above the browse level, it magically becomes resistant. They only browse up to about 6 or 7 feet tall.
Q. When nurseries plant things or advise people, do they advise to wrap it when the plant is younger, or put a pen around it?
A. That’s often one of our recommendations if you suspect you have a hungry deer population. It’s always of value to put a cage around the young plant, especially in high feeding seasons. In fall or early spring it can be really useful to help get those plants up to size.
Looking at some deciduous trees, there are a lot of options. Some of our maples, like the paperbark maple [Acer griseum]—which is exquisite for that amber-colored bark [above]—do quite well. Our native red maple or swamp maple, and the sugar maple do nicely, too.
We find that there are many native plants that do wonderfully. It’s kind of as if they’ve learned to co-exist with the deer in one way or another.
River birch, as well as some other birch species are pretty good. One of my very favorite—and I think underutilized—large shrubs or small trees is the Chionanthus, or fringe tree.
Q. Oh! You know I like Chionanthus, and it has beautiful creamy fringe-y flower—fringe tree!—in late spring.
A. For us they are just coming into bloom in late May or early June [above].
Q. They’re beautifully fragrant flowers—and there are male and female plants, and the male flower look slightly different.
A. And big crops of olive-sized blue fruits in the autumn on the females.
Q. So it’s good to have a he and a she and enjoy those fruits. Mine gets yellow fall color too, but I don’t know if that’s typical.
A. I think yellow is typically the rule for that one.
Q. I didn’t know it was deer-resistant.
A. The dogwoods—it’s dogwood season now, and both the flowering dogwood and Kousa dogwood show good resistance.
Q. I never would have guessed that. I can say that Viburnums don’t show resistance, or at least the ones I grew, because in the old days when I had no fence, I would come up on the weekends and pull into the driveway. I had one of those leatherleaf types, and it would be like, “Where’s my viburnum? It’s gone again.” [Laughter.] They would eat the wood.
A. Often the first thing they go for is those big, fleshy flower buds. Often the thing you want—those flowers—they go for.
Q. They even ate the twigs of fruit trees.
A. My favorite tree that I would not garden without is the Japanese Stewartia, and that shows good deer resistance. That’s a real outstanding multi-season-interest tree with just outstanding camouflage bark.
Q. Peely, kind of, and July-ish camellia-like white flowers (as its name implies, Stewartia pseudocamellia). And fall color [above, flower and fall foliage details].
A. And orangey-red fall color. A nice small specimen tree that gets maybe 25 to 30 feet tall.
Q. That’s another one I never would have guessed.
A. There really is quite a diversity when you start to dig in.
Q. But these are some of your favorites.
A. If you want to move on to some shrubs, the Aronia, or chokeberry. Both the red and black chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia and Aronia melanocarpa. They’re both beautiful native shrubs, that do excellent with deer browse.
Q. And they have amazing fall color, fruit, and are great wildlife plants. If you have a bird garden, plant them—for pollinators, too.
A. And ornamentally as well—and they’re super-durable. They’ll take wet soil as well as drought conditions.
One underappreciated shrub is Calycanthus, the sweetshrub. It’s one that has pungent tissues—the leaves are very pungent—so that’s probably the trait that brings in the resistance for the species.
Q. And the flowers are very distinctive. [Above, flowers of C. floridus ‘Michael Lindsey.’]
A. They look almost like a little maroon tulip, or rose. They often have a very sweet, fruity fragrance to them, and there is also a yellow-flowered form. And they’re shrubs that prefer a little bit of shade. I have one right next to my sunroom, and they flower in May, so when I open the sunroom to air it out in springtime the fragrance wafts through the house.
Q. I’m putting it on the list! Now I have a list I can tell people, because they ask me all the time. [Laughter.]
A. Red-vein Enkianthus [Enkianthus campanulatus], which is actually a Rhododendron family member. Rhododendrons are usually more enjoyed by deer, but this relative goes against the grain, and is quite resistant. It’s a sizeable shrub that gets maybe 10 feet tall or so, and has the most beautiful red-and-white striped flowers in May. It also gets really nice red fall color.
Q. That’s a plant I have never grown. You showed it off at the recent workshop we did together, and I thought, “Why have I never grown this genus of plant?” That might be in my future.
A. You should try one; you are not alone. There are a lot of people out there who have never tried that species.
Q. And not just for its resistance to deer, but for its other wonderful qualities.
A. Absolutely. And Fothergilla—we find it’s pretty good with the deer browse. It has those beautiful white kind of bottlebrush-like blossoms in the spring, and is good in shade or sun. [Above, F. major in bloom.]
If you’re looking for an evergreen shrub, inkberry holly (Ilex glabra). A lot of the hollies tend to be more on the “eat” spectrum, but the inkberry has shown good tolerance to browse.
And another evergreen shrub: Leucothoe.
Q. I didn’t know that would be deer-resistant, either. What about some herbaceous thing—people are crazy about groundcovers. I think of maybe Epimedium and hellebores—are they? Again, I have no first-hand experience [because of my fence].
A. Absolutely. Those are kind of classics, but Epimedium I have seen occasional deer browse on it, when they get desperate, of course. Other groundcovers that are resistant are Alleghany pachysandra, Pachysandra procumbens.
Q. It’s a beautiful plant—it has a variegated leaf [above, leaf and flower details].
A. Sort of a silvery-mottled, overlaid leaf. Creeping thyme is another good groundcover—again, with that pungent fragrance when bruised. Lily-of-the-valley, if you want to handle lily-of-the-valley.
Q. If you want a thug that you have to tell, “Stop!”
A. There are some fun forms of it, though—some variegated forms that are a little better behaved.
Q. And I love it–I’m not condemning it. In the right place. fine. But it isn’t a good neighbor for other perennials.
Are there any of the larger-scale perennials—you know I’m crazy about big leaves.
A. Ligularia tends to be quite good, and I’m a big fan of the Japanese Ligularia, with big heavily dissected leaves.
Q. You’ve got me growing them. They’re great.
A. And the shrub mints—the Leucosceptrum, a group of plants that most people aren’t familiar with at all, but there are a couple of shrub mints that are larger, almost-shrubby herbaceous plants that work wonderfully in a little bit of shade. Those have that pungency to the tissues, and they’re quite good. [Above, gold-leaf Leucosceptrum japonicum ‘Golden Angel.’]
Q. Quick question: As I mentioned, I do have rabbits and woodchucks that come under the fence. Is there any correlation in your mind to what they eat or is it a totally different palette?
A. For me, when I see the little guys—the rabbits and such—I often find that what they eat is also very close to where they’re nesting. But there are a lot of plants that have toxins in them…
Q. Like the Narcissus we discussed that nobody eats; right.
A. …so there are certainly some commonalities but potentially there are also some differences.
Q. We’ve got to figure it out someday. [Laughter.]
A. This gardening thing.
meet adam wheeler and learn more
THE PLANTS mentioned in our short interview are just a few of many possibilities, by no means a comprehensive list. To learn more:
- Visit Broken Arrow Nursery, in Hamden, CT
- Talk to Adam June 4 at my Garden Conservancy Open Day and plant sale
- Hear Adam June 18 at his deer-resistant plant talk at Spencertown Academy, during their annual Hidden Gardens tour and garden marketplace (Note: Both June events are in Columbia County, NY)
- Margaret’s fence 101, plus more “deerproofing” information
- Regional lists of deer-resistant plants
- Flower bulbs deer and other animals don’t eat
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 30, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).