The Deer Resistant Bed

Deer pressure is high on landscapes in Virginia, especially at the Teaching Garden.  Leslie Paulsen, the coordinator of the Teaching Garden, is the bed leader of the Deer Resistant bed, and also a volunteer for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. She has been a Master Gardener since 2004, and the bed leader of this bed since 2008.

The Deer Resistant bed is a triangular shaped garden found in the northeast corner of the TG. Its outer location puts it in the pathway of foraging deer which are common at the Monastery.  Leslie has planted plants, including natives, not attractive to  deer as they forage high protein and high moisture food sources. Feeding pressure on the entire garden is greater in the spring as adults and fawns recover from weight loss in the winter. Foraging slows down a little in the summer, but picks up again in fall. Females especially need to put on weight as they will be pregnant during the winter.

The design of the garden not only uses plants that are unpalatable, but also includes those that offer interesting leaf textures and fall foliage, such as Amsonia and Cut Leaf Sumac.  Leslie has a number of grasses that also provide color and texture, such as red and blue switch grass.  Catnip and Russian sage are examples of plants that have repellent odors, and lambs ear, with its fuzzy leaves are usually ignored. As with any garden, deer may change their minds and start eating a plant they didn’t care for before, so it is important to check often for damage.  Leslie has also selected plants that are drought resistant.

You will find Leslie at the TG Tuesdays and Thursdays. She waters the bed only as needed, and prefers to give longer and less frequent waterings. She loves the Amsonia, especially how it waves in the wind and turns a golden color in the fall. There have been some challenges with invasive plants as with all the beds, and also with aggressive plants. As neighboring pine, oak and crepe myrtle around the bed get larger and create more shade, plants will eventually have to be moved.

List of plants in this bed:   Deer Resistant Plant List 2017

White-tailed deer, (Odocoileus virginianus) native to North and South America, were reintroduced in the 1950’s for sport hunting, to supplement declining populations. Rampant market hunting in the late 1800’s reduced the white-tail population to historic low levels of less then 500,000 in the US. In 1900. the Lacy Act, the first federal wildlife law, was enacted. This law prohibited the interstate trafficking of wild game including venison. As a result of this law and a restocking program, deer populations have steadily increased to record high levels we see today. Combined with a decrease in natural predators and a move away from agricultural land to suburban landscapes, white-tail deer populations have flourished.

Deer prefer the “edge habitats” created by suburban landscapes, as human populations have moved away from agricultural land use. Human created landscapes provide a high concentration of high protein plants close to the ground where they can reach them. Combined with almost no hunting pressure or predators, deer roam almost freely munching on our landscape plants. Well fertilized garden plants provide energy from carbohydrates, minerals and salts, as well as protein. Deer also get 1/3 of their water from moisture in plants, and prefer moist and tender new growth, outer parts of plants, new leaves, buds and immature stems.

With any pest including foraging animals, it is important to use an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system. For deer management,  homeowners should consider the following options.

  • accept the damage
  • choose deer resistant and native plants
  • erect fencing (8 feet or more)
  • pick safe locations close to the house
  • use scare devices, including pets
  • use repellents

Deer are creatures of habit and a low impact way to control them is to disrupt their feeding patterns. This can be done in several ways including erecting barrier fencing in their pathways, moving containers plants, scaring with loud noises, or letting  dogs out at feeding times.

Scare devices such as lights, whistles, loud noisemakers  and scarecrows work well for a while. Deer adapt quickly (habituation) and will begin to ignore these devices very quickly. It is important to consider neighbors and HOA rules before using such devices.

Repellents have limitations since they need to be reapplied every 4-5 weeks, and after rain and snow. Deer become used to repellents within 2-3 applications, and completely ignore them if the plant is highly desirable.  There are two categories of repellents: Taste and odor. Odor-based compounds are either biological or chemical and mimic scents of predators.  These include fermented blood, feather meals, human hair, and urine from predators such as coyote or wolf.  Chemical odor-based (and toxic) repellents include mothballs, lime sulfur, creosote, nicotine and ammonia.  Taste-based repellents include hot sauce, garlic, rotten eggs and pepper oil. There has been much research on which formulations work the best in different areas, and it is best to check with your local Extension office. Since deer become habituated quickly,  it is recommended to use multiple repellents and change them often.  It is important to note that any repellent can only reduce browsing, not prevent it. They can be costly since frequent applications are needed, and your neighbors may not appreciate the smell.

There are many suggestions in gardening books on how to reduce browsing through psychological means. Two examples are stringing 3 or 4 strands of monofilament line around the garden, or planting small shrubs just inside deer fencing.  You can find many references about hanging bars of soap from trees and putting human hair in mesh bags hung from stakes 3 feet from the ground. Deer fencing has been proven to be effective but must be at least 8 feet or more. You can find suggestions such as these and more about repellents in the links below.

The best way to reduce deer browsing of your valuable landscape is to use native plants that deer avoid. They will not usually browse plants that are poisonous or that make them sick, ones with milky sap, or fuzzy leaves. They also will avoid plants that have a strong smell, prickly leaves, bitter or alkaloid tastes. As with the designs of many of the Teaching Garden beds, gardeners can interplant undesirable plants with desirable ones to reduce browsing.  Examples: Lambs ear, Daffodil, Foxglove, Prickly Pear, Barberry, evergreen Holly, Yarrow, Catmint, Sage, Thyme, and Lavender.

Plant NOVA Natives: Deer and Native Plants:—native-plants.html

Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance: Rutgers NJAES:

Native Plants for Northern Virginia

Deer: A Garden Pest, VCE Pub:

Home Grounds and Animals: 2017 Pest Management Guide, VCE:

Prince William Conservation Alliance:

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, White-tailed Deer

Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station; Deer Damage Management Options.,_ward,_and_ramakrishnan_(color)_2006.pdf


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