I’ve spent years designing flower displays for customers who live in areas where deer are an issue, and there are a number of strategies I use to keep them at bay. Deer netting, granular and spray repellents, and fencing are all part of the game. Smart plant choices can help, and more often than not, experimentation is necessary. Deer may nibble one flower bed at the edge of a property, while leaving others alone. Rosemary, thyme, and other plants with aromatic foliage, mixed with ornamental plants, keep the deer guessing as to which plants are releasing the scent, and I’ve had luck with this strategy.
All that being said, there are times when deer will eat plant material they typically dislike, and this is when things go sideways. In my experience, this seems to occur in early fall (mating season) and again in mid-winter in southern gardens, when food sources are low. What is even more puzzling is that deer will feed on tough evergreen leaves sometimes, even if you are supplying them with a food source, such as feed corn.
Deer behavior is so unpredictable that in my own Georgia garden, I’ve come to expect damage, though I use all of the tools in my deer-fighting arsenal, including a fenced area where I grow anything the deer would eat to the ground (such as peonies.) This season, despite a generous food source provided by my kind neighbors, deer have been nibbling on abelia, camellia, viburnum, distylium, roses, and azaleas.
So what can be done? When it’s apparent that it’s going to be one of those winter seasons, I decide what I will protect with stakes and fishing line, and what I will treat with both spray and granular repellents. Fall-blooming camellias will bounce back, and branches stripped of some leaves will likely recover. Plants with buds, such as spring-blooming camellias, native azaleas, and rhododendrons must be protected now, and I do this by using wooden stakes and fishing line to stop the deer from moving through the area. By stringing clear fishing line around the perimeter of an area, you can create a nearly invisible barrier the deer can’t see, and what they can’t see will startle them when they brush against it. You’ll need to check your lines every few days for a few weeks, as the deer will have to learn which areas are now off limits, and you may have to replace a few sections from time to time.
As frustrating as deer damage can be, I am determined to grow a good variety of plants in my Georgia garden, as this is where I experiment with plant combinations and new varieties. Over time, I’ve learned to plant lots of herbs and plants with aromatic foliage such as rosemary, creeping thyme, germander and chives, combining them with plants I’m trying out such as ‘Skyscraper’ salvia. I also use perennials such as ‘Sheffield’ chrysanthemums for fall blooms with a bonus. When planted in my borders, the strongly-scented leaves of the mums seem to keep the deer away. I have even gone so far as to place starts of these perennials at the base of shrubs such as oakleaf hydrangeas and beauty berry, and they do seem to keep the deer from bothering them during the growing season.
I “hide” plants such as Japanese anemones (which the deer love) behind or between shrubs, so the deer simply can’t reach them, or can’t find them amongst other aromatic plants. I also protect vulnerable or expensive plants by growing them in containers, placed in various places the deer won’t go, such as my raised deck or screened porch.
Thankfully, one of my favorite perennials, Lenten rose, is toxic to deer, so I can plant them with abandon wherever I have a bit of shade. Iris, daffodils, foxgloves, amaryllis, and anything in the onion family, such as allium or chives, are also safe bets, due to their chemical makeup. Many ornamental shrubs are considered “deer resistant” and most have either leathery, undesirable leaves (holly, camellia, viburnum), or have strongly-scented leaves or stems (vitex, caryopteris).
With some creativity and experimentation, you can co-exist with deer and the other creatures who were here long before we arrived, with our lawns and fences. While I have moments of exasperation with my pansy-loving animal friends, I know that in spring all will be forgotten, when a tiny fawn or two will make their appearance at the edge of the woods.