Carolyn Singer: Gardening in deer country |

Carolyn Singer: Gardening in deer country

Carolyn Singer has learned that ornamental shrubs and perennials may be more vulnerable to deer when fertalized with nitrogen. She also notes that it may be the salts in the fertalizer that attract browsing.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

I enjoy reading through lists of recommended deer-resistant plants. Deer do not read those lists I’ve often been told by frustrated gardeners. At least those with good humor.

Currently there is a list circulating on the internet of “tried and true” deer-resistant plants for foothill landscapes. As I read through it, I crossed off about a third of the recommendations because the plants had been eaten by deer in our vicinity.

Is this perhaps because deer differ from area to area? That’s a possible answer. I also feel that lists are often compiled, as this one appears to have been, by observing a single garden rather than several gardens in a region.

I often visit established gardens where the owner complains about deer damage. And yet I observe the perfect Camellia or Nandina, shrubs I have never been able to grow in my own deer sanctuary. These fortunate gardeners do not even know how much damage deer can do.

Deer challenges

What have I learned in more than four decades of gardening in Nevada County? First and foremost, that the passage of time may not be enough to predict deer preferences.

For 30 years an evergreen native I planted from a one-gallon container grew slowly into a handsome shrub with no irrigation other than natural rainfall, and no protection from deer. Winter-blooming, it became one of my favorite plants. With the help of staff at U.C. Davis Arboretum, I learned its identity: Rhus ovata, native in southern California.

Suddenly this fall the shrub became a target for deer. There did not appear to be interest in eating the leaves or buds, but branches were ripped and hanging broken.

I’ve also learned that ornamental shrubs and perennials fertilized with nitrogen may be more vulnerable to browsing deer. This is true even with organic gardening practices. One theory is that the salts in the fertilizer attract browsing.

While not scientifically conclusive perhaps, one summer I experimented with Liriope, a fertilized plant growing next to one that had not been fed. The fertilized plant was eaten by the deer each time it developed any foliage. The other plant, grown in good garden soil, with no supplemental fertilizing, grew steadily and was not eaten by the deer.

Most plants purchased have been fertilized somewhere along the way, usually by the wholesale grower. Protect them when you bring them home for at least the first few months, unless you are very certain the deer will not like your choices.

Somewhat deer resistant plants

Now, of course, I have the confidence of time (and age). There really are plants that are deer-resistant. Among my favorites are the many herbs that also happen to be excellent for pollinators.

Sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender and germander offer a broad range of form, color, height, spread and fragrance. Some are even edible. However, when you consider annual herbs such as basil and cilantro, they must be planted within the fenced area for your vegetables and fruits.

Not all natives are deer-resistant, but some are. Oregon grape holly is a safe bet. This attractive evergreen may be an eight-foot shrub, a compact three-foot accent, or a low spreading groundcover.

Our handsome native oaks are left alone. As are many wildflowers. No damage has ever been observed to my native bleeding heart or to the sweet fan violets growing behind the house.

Sadly, the many Ceanothus I have tried have all been eaten. Native cedar trees and the Sierra redwood are always targets for deer rubbing the bark with their heads. They can do enough damage to destroy a tree anytime in the first few years. I protect native and non-native trees with deer fencing held in place with rebar or t-posts. Or use several rebar positioned around the trunk.

Many years ago I planted a rock rose (Cistus), an evergreen that shows up on most deer-resistant lists. It’s now a mature shrub, but I have long since forgotten what color the flowers might have been. Each year the deer eat every single bud before it opens.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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