There is nothing more heart-breaking than walking through your garden with a glass of wine at the end of a long workday, and realizing that all of those exotic-looking lilies you lovingly planted as bulbs in the fall are toast. Gone. Every bud and bloom devoured. It’s a common problem in the South, and as native habitats shrink, deer are present even in cities as large as Atlanta. These graceful creatures love nothing more than visiting your garden in the wee hours of the morning to see what delights you have planted for the season.
While deer grazing is discouraging for gardeners, there are a number of strategies that, if used consistently, can minimize damage. Deer netting, granular and spray repellents, and fencing are all part of the game plan. Smart plant choices can work well, and if you have the patience to experiment with a deer-resistant plant palette, you may come up with some good choices for your area. Keep in mind that it may take more than one growing season to come up with a selection of plants that will please the gardener and repel Bambi.
As frustrating as deer damage can be, I am determined to grow a good variety of plants in my own Georgia garden. Over time, I’ve learned to plant lots of herbs and plants with aromatic foliage such as rosemary, creeping thyme, germander, and chives, along with showier flowering plants such as salvias and asters, which deer typically avoid. I have experimented with small starts of ‘Sheffield’ chrysanthemums used as a groundcover under woodland plants that I’m determined to have in my garden. When planted at the base of shrubs such as oakleaf hydrangeas and beauty berry, the strong-smelling foliage seems to help turn the deer away, especially in summer when there is plenty of available food elsewhere. (There are open fields where deer graze less than a mile away from my home.)
All that being said, there are times when deer will eat plant material they have ignored in the past, and this is when things can go sideways. In the past few years deer have nibbled on my abelias, camellias, and various other plants that are considered deer-proof. In my experience, this seems to happen more often in early fall when mating season begins and again in mid-winter, when food sources are low. Deer behavior can be unpredictable, and in my own Georgia garden I’ve come to expect damage from time to time, though I use all of the tools in my deer-fighting arsenal, including a fenced area where I grow plants that would otherwise be eaten to the ground.
So what can be done? First, I decide what I will protect with stakes and fishing line (in winter), 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 before flowers form, 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 as 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. In spring, when the deer have a wide variety of food available in the fields and woods outside my neighborhood, I remove the protection completely and use repellents on plants that might be tempting, such as oakleaf hydrangeas.
As the seasons pass, I’m also finding places to tuck in taller showy plants, such as Japanese anemones, behind or between shrubs so the deer either can’t reach them or won’t notice them. I often protect vulnerable or expensive plants by growing them in containers placed where the deer won’t be able to get to them, such as my raised deck and screened porch.
Thankfully, one of my favorite perennials, the Lenten rose, is toxic to deer, so I can plant them wherever I have a bit of afternoon shade. Irises, euphorbias, daffodils, foxgloves, amaryllis, and alliums are also safe bets, due to their chemical makeup. Many ornamental shrubs are considered deer resistant and most have either leathery leaves (hollies, viburnums) 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, in that magical moment when a tiny fawn or two will make their appearance at the edge of the woods.