By Ann Marie Cunningham
On Saturday afternoon, January 26, a full house at the Rye Meeting House heard prominent horticulturist and prolific gardening writer Ruth Rogers Clausen describe what to plant if deer are devastating your garden. Clausen herself gardens in Thornwood, NY, “where deer abound”: she described catching sight of a deer standing on its hind legs to reach her bird feeder. That cheeky deer may have inspired her most recent book, 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs that Deer Don’t Eat (2011 paperback, Timber Press, $19.95).
Clausen passed out a list of what she called “the right plants” that usually don’t appeal to deer, and showed her own beautiful photos of many of these plants. Listeners were riveted by Clausen’s enthusiasm for her subject and her wry turns of phrase. (When a plant’s name is changed, “it’s just a nuisance!”) Her passion for gardening is such that for her, “the gardening season begins on New Year’s Day,” and “ends on New Year’s Eve.”
At present, the good news for gardeners, says Clausen is that “in my experience,” deer don’t like snowdrops. Besides many more examples of what to plant in a garden that won’t attract deer, Clausen offered some general guidelines and insights into deer behavior.
* She began by emphasizing that “I cannot ever guarantee that anything is deer proof. Maybe barbed wire. “ There are no hard and fast rules for keeping deer away from your garden, because “deer resistance changes wherever you are,” from neighborhood to neighborhood. A plant that deer won’t touch in your neighbor’s garden may be eaten in yours. Different herds of deer have different tastes. The time of year matters, too: in spring, deer are likely to be “extremely hungry” after the winter, and especially voracious.
* Don’t “invite deer in” to your garden with massive plantings of what they love: roses, rhododendron, magnolia, hydrangea, daylilies, coleus. For example, don’t line your driveway with hostas (“the ultimate deer candy,” Clausen writes), or yew hedges, which deer adore. Put these deer favorites in planters on a deck or high up in a hanging basket, where animals can’t reach them. Clausen added that some gardeners think that surrounding hostas with sage or another plant that deer seldom go for, can outwit them. Clausen herself is dubious: “It may work.”
* Don’t use a lot of fertilizer on your garden, or allow lawn fertilizer to leak into your beds. The result will be soft, lush growth, which deer prefer. Tough, leathery stems and bristly or fuzzy, hairy leaves keep deer at bay. Help your plants grow lean and fibrous by avoiding fertilizer.
* Deer have a very keen sense of smell, and they avoid strong-smelling flowers like lily-of-the-valley or lilac, and aromatic leaves like the needles of the rosemary plant. Deer can detect poisonous plants, like fox glove or Euphorbia, and will avoid them. But deer are very curious, and will chomp on anything new whether or not they are hungry, so your young spring plantings need protection.
* Do some research: there are large families of plants that deer usually don’t eat, including hellebores, peonies, narcissi, mint, many herbs, ferns, irises, ornamental onions. Many of these plants also attract butterflies and bees, a boon to your garden.
* Butterfly bush, or Buddleia, does not attract deer. But in some places, notably the Pacific North West, it has become invasive. If you plant it, use the sterile variety.
* Vegetable gardens should be protected from deer with two four foot-high fences, spaced about three feet apart. You can plant herbs in the open space. “Deer don’t like the idea of being caught between the two fences,” Clausen says. “Think like a deer!”
* If you put in all the right plants but still find they are being nibbled, don’t assume it’s always deer at fault. Groundhogs/woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, moles and voles can take their toll on your garden.
Clausen wishes all those who garden in deer country like Rye the very best of luck, and hopes you will garden “deer free!”
Ann Marie Cunningham is a science journalist and a volunteer for the non-profit Committee to Save the Bird Homestead, which operates two adjoining historic properties on the banks of the Blind Brook estuary – the Meeting House and the Bird Homestead. For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-967-0099.