Chasing the Impossible: Deer-Proof Shrubs

By Amy Howansky

As a pro­fes­sion­al hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist and employ­ee at a gar­den cen­ter, I am asked many ques­tions about plants. One of the ques­tions I hear most often is: What shrubs can I plant that deer won’t eat?”

I group plants into four deer-relat­ed cat­e­gories: (1) plants that deer eat that you wouldn’t think they would; (2) plants that deer dev­as­tate; (3) plants that deer eat but that will revive; and (4) plants that deer leave alone.

The first cat­e­go­ry serves as a warn­ing: just because a shrub has thorns or some oth­er unsa­vory char­ac­ter­is­tic, that doesn’t mean that deer won’t eat it when they want to or, more impor­tant­ly, when they need to. Harsh con­di­tions such as pro­longed snow cov­er can make it dif­fi­cult for ani­mals to find food caus­ing them to con­sume plants that they wouldn’t nor­mal­ly. Ros­es fall into this cat­e­go­ry, as do ever­green hol­lies, white pines, and Mugo pines. These plants can still be used, but accept that there could be heavy browse dam­age. To lim­it the dam­age, install the shrubs close to the house rather than far­ther out in the yard. Then hope­ful­ly the deer will browse from plant mate­r­i­al far­ther from human activ­i­ty. Deer repel­lant sprays are effec­tive, but require mul­ti­ple re-appli­ca­tions. For win­ter pro­tec­tion, wrap shrubs with burlap. For year around pro­tec­tion, cir­cle the shrubs or tree trunks with heavy-duty wire fenc­ing. Keep the fenc­ing a few feet away from the plant so the deer can’t reach over the top to nib­ble on the foliage.

The sec­ond plant cat­e­go­ry relates to the plants pre­ferred by deer, which we call deer can­dy.” Deer eat these plants first, usu­al­ly caus­ing severe dam­age. This often kills the plants or makes them unsight­ly enough to require replace­ment. Yew, win­ter­creep­er (Euony­mus for­tunei), and arborvi­tae fall into this group. So does the genus Chamae­cy­paris (false cypress), which looks very sim­i­lar to arborvi­tae and receives sim­i­lar damage. 

Plants in the third cat­e­go­ry are those that deer eat in nor­mal or harsh years, but sur­vive the dam­age. Often, these come­back kings” are mul­ti-stemmed shrubs that recov­er from deer browse by send­ing a flush of growth to the tips of the branch­es, or to new suck­ers at ground lev­el. Think of plants that peo­ple describe as over­grown” such as for­syth­ia, Vir­ginia sweet­spire, ninebark, and hydrangea. You can risk installing these plants in deer-patrolled land­scapes because of their abil­i­ty to com­pen­sate for the browse damage. 

Deer resistant shrub
Weigela Snip­pet Lime’ is a small, deer-resis­tant, rebloom­ing shrub intro­duced by Proven Win­ners in 2019.

The last cat­e­go­ry is filled with plants that deer gen­er­al­ly leave alone, a group that plant enthu­si­asts always wish was larg­er. What makes a plant unpalat­able to deer? Some­times it is a strong scent, such as that from plants such as peony, mock orange, and but­ter­fly bush. I find box­wood to smell like cat urine, and maybe deer think the same because they don’t eat it. Thorns, like those on bar­ber­ry, may deter deer, yet some thorny plants such as ros­es are still sus­cep­ti­ble. Prick­ly leaves (juniper, Cytis­us, dwarf Alber­ta spruce) often pro­tect a plant. The slight prick­li­ness of the Green Giant’ arborvi­tae leaves com­pared to the rel­a­tive­ly smooth leaves of the cul­ti­var Emer­ald Green’ may be the rea­son why deer tend to steer clear of Green Giant’ but devour Emer­ald Green.’ While mov­ing plants around a retail nurs­ery set­ting, I have noticed that some shrubs have sharp twigs even if they do not have thorns. Spirea and poten­til­la cause more scratch­es on my arms than oth­er plants, and both are deer-resis­tant. Sev­er­al broad-leaf ever­greens are also deer resis­tant, such as Pieris, moun­tain lau­rel, and inkber­ry (Ilex glau­ca). Lilacs and weige­las are browse-resis­tant, and offer many new cul­ti­vars includ­ing dwarf forms and vari­eties that rebloom in the summer. 

Although deer will browse many plants, there are still lots of options for a deer-resis­tant land­scape. Care­ful and thought­ful plan­ning will ensure you have a yard of which you can be proud.

Summer 2022

Volume 40 , Number 2

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