Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Bambi & equally destructive friend
            That Bambi is so cute. What kind of monster doesn’t love Bambi?

            Answer: anyone whose landscaping becomes a collection of flower- and foliage-denuded sticks the morning after the Bambster and a herd of his closest friends mosey through.

            In all fairness, it’s not Bambi’s fault. As suburbia expands, humans insert themselves into deer territory without making any accommodation for the original residents. Left to their own devises… (Is it “devises” or “devices”? “Devises” fits the meaning better, but people say “devices.” I switch back and forth. Please advise.) Anyway. Left to cope with this environmental sea-change on their own (how’s that?)—since they aren’t the ones with the bulldozers, the poisons, the dogs and the guns—the deer sensibly adapt. Some move on, the rest move in. And why not? Landscapers seem maddeningly slow to recognize that instead of providing pleasant outdoor spaces for people to live and play, they are actually building bovine buffeterias. (No, deer don’t technically fall into the bovine class, but consider this: cows are ruminants too. I just couldn’t pass up the alliterative opportunity.)

Dwarf Indian hawthorn, a.k.a. deer candy
            When Tim and I started working in St. James Plantation in Southport, NC, 14 years ago, the preferred landscape contractors had a complement of about 20 different shrubs they used. All the damn time. (We got so we could reliably identify one company’s work solely by the presence of star anise—Illicium anisatum—a nondescript sort of shrub whose only advantages are that deer refuse to touch it and you can’t kill it with a backhoe.) About 30% of this meager palette topped the deer-depredation charts: Indian hawthorn, pittosporum, euonymus, aucuba, azalea and camellia. Occasionally, one of the more imaginative designers would toss in some daylilies and/or roses—for dessert, I assume. Other de rigueur deer tempters included hydrangea and loropetalum, whose tender new growth nocturnal grazers simply adore.   

'Happy Returns' daylily, a.k.a. deer candy
            Not that landscapes improved all that much once the deer-light dawned for many of our colleagues: hawthorn and pittosporum were out, aspidistra and ornamental grasses—neither of which contribute to stunning four-season foundation plantings—came in.

            But I digress. Tim and I signed up to speak to the local DAR chapter at their March meeting. I asked the program chair what topic she’d like us to natter on about: Revolutionary-era garden plants still in use today? A riff on colonial potagers? Herbs used as medicines by our forebears? “Any of those would be very nice,” she said. “But what we could really use is a list of deer-proof plants.”

              Oh. Okay. We can do that.

          Brainstorming for an hour one Saturday afternoon (putting off house-cleaning again), the intrepid Fitzes came up with dozens of candidates across the spectrum of annuals, bulbs, perennials, groundcovers, vines, shrubs, trees, herbs and ornamental grasses. Frankly, once we got rolling, we were amazed how many plants met our criteria.

          A caveat before continuing: Nothing—NO THING—is deer-proof. The gentle foragers will eat anything—ANY THING—when facing starvation. Resistance is the best we can hope for. A few winters ago, the ornamental cabbages and kales coloring our clients' containers got nibbled down to nubs, to Tim’s and my utter amazement and dismay. Then there were the full and shapely 25-gallon spiny-foliaged lusterleaf hollies (Ilex latifolia) we planted just before Christmas one year. We returned to the site after New Year’s to find them leafless as far up as our scrubby deer could reach, leaving only ridiculous-looking pom-poms at the tops. (We replaced them with wax myrtles, at appreciable cost to the business.)

            The point is, keep your expectations low and you’ll be fine.
            Deer-resistant flora share certain morphological characteristics.

1.     Plants whose sap resembles latex (viscous, white, sticky) reliably repel grazers. Examples include Confederate jasmine, any Euphorbia, alyssums, butterfly weed, many sedums and Sandankwa viburnum (V. suspensum).
Sticky-sapped Confederate jasmine

     Latex-y Euphorbia hybrids
'Ascot Rainbow' & 'Blackbird'

2.    Another resistance trait is strong scent (not necessarily fragrance, mind you). This category encompasses almost all the culinary herbs, marigolds, lantanas, sages, agastaches, alliums, catmints, wax myrtles, pines, cedars and the like. 

Fight 'em with smell--
       'Copper Canyon' marigolds...
...and pineapple & Mexican bush sages

3.   Thorns and spines act as deterrents, especially when they poke out of leaves, as they do in a pair of my favorite ornamental solanums, S. pyracanthum and S. naranjilla, a.k.a. bed-of-nails. Pyracantha, barberries, prickly pear—or indeed any cactus—agaves, dasylirions and rugosa roses discourage any outside interference, ruminant or human. (A note of sympathy: regular rose thorns pose no problems Bambi and pals: they just nip off the tasty blooms.)

Bed-of-nails' foliar defenses
             A forbidding line-up
of agave, prickly pear & dasylirion

4.    Fuzzy, raspy, fibrous and/or leathery leaves fall low down on the deer hit parade. Think evergreen oaks; many of the little-leaved hollies (Ilex crenata and I. vomitoria) as well as the super-spiny ones, like ‘Carissa’ and ‘Rotunda’; junipers and most other conifers; artemisias and lambs-ears; lantana; mature loropetalum; hollyhocks; leatherleaf and ‘Chindo’ viburnums (V. rhytidophyllum, V. awabuki ‘Chindo’); most succulents; yuccas; and any grass-like plant (although not necessarily the flowers thereof, as daylily lovers learn to their sorrow).
               'Blue Pacific' junipers
 do a number on Bambi's tender mouth
Lambs-ears don't please the palate either


5.  Deer have enough smarts to avoid poisonous plants: you should reciprocate by seeking them out—that is, if your pets and children are beyond the put-everything-in-their-mouths phase. Daffodils qualify, as do most ornamental solanums, lantanas, rhubarb foliage, artemisias and oleander. 

...as are oleanders
Daffodils are poisonous in all their parts...

Enough for today. I’ll be posting more (plus many more pictures) on the subject as the week rolls on and our date with the DAR draws nearer.
Thanks for dropping by.