Ann Wright: Deer in the garden |

Ann Wright: Deer in the garden

In the first volume of “Deer in My Garden”, beloved local garden guru Carolyn Singer wrote, “’Grandma, why don’t you grow yucky flowers?’ ‘Why would I do that, Marcus?’ I asked, respectful of his three-year-old wisdom. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘the deer wouldn’t eat yucky flowers!’” Thus, sprung the inspiration for Singer’s “yucky flower” series published in 2006 (volume 1 – perennials and subshrubs) and 2008 (volume 2- ground covers and edgers). Sadly, Carolyn Singer passed away in July of 2019, but her writing still provides vast insight into foothill gardening.

Although mule and black-tailed deer are the most common species in California, Singer observed deer in several different western regions. Sharing notes with gardeners from Northern California to Oregon, Washington and Colorado, Singer gained further understanding of deer behavior, and she found that the plants considered “deer resistant” in the mid-west were eaten by deer in her Grass Valley garden. Singer’s extensive experience gardening in the Sierra foothills provided the basis to formulate lists of plants deer avoid in our local growing areas.

Whether our wide-eyed friends devour prized roses or scrape the bark off new trees, deer can indeed be fierce competitors in the garden. Understanding deer behavior and feeding habits helps us co-exist with these lovely, peaceful creatures. Deer appetites vary, depending on the time of year, and whether there is an abundance or lack of alternate food sources. At certain times, if there is not much for deer to naturally browse on, they will eat almost anything. Fawns are particularly interested in foraging — they will try nearly everything.

Deer are interesting to watch, and have some notable behavioral patterns. Generally, deer feed in the late evening or the early morning. They are selective browsers with a variety of foods making up their diet, including broad-leaved herbaceous and woody plants, and grasses. They will also eat fruit, nuts, ornamental shrubs and a number of other garden favorites. Vegetable and ornamental plants fresh from a nursery, having been fertilized with nitrogen and often well irrigated, have lush new growth that is a very tasty treat for deer.

Even plants commonly known as “deer resistant” may be a special treat to hungry deer, as they munch on tender soft new growth. Like many other animals, deer have food they avoid, and food they seek. Plant resistance to deer is relative – it depends on the time of year, and what else may be growing in an area. Additionally, nutritional needs of deer vary throughout the year. However, there are some general tips in plant selection that may decrease the chance of deer browsing on your newly planted landscape. Typically, deer avoid plants with thick, leathery leaves and spines. They also avoid fuzzy-type plants and those with aromatic oil in leaves.

Some of our California native plants are considered deer resistant. Prickly natives, fuchsia flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) and dwarf mahonia (Berberis aquifolium var. repens) fall into this category. Dwarf mahonia, also known as Oregon grape has dense yellow flowers on stems with prickly leaves, and develops dark purplish berries. The thorny branches of the fuchsia and prickly leaves of the Oregon grape are generally avoided by deer. Plants with aromatic oils in the leaves such as Cleveland sage (Salvia clevlandii) and other species of sages (Salvia spp.) may taste too strong for a deer’s liking. The leathery leaves of the manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) are also avoided.

Other deer behavior can be destructive in area landscapes — particularly in September and October when bucks begin to shed antlers. Tree branches may be broken and bark scraped off trees as bucks rub velvet from antlers. Antlers begin to form after a buck fawn’s first few months of life. Supplied by nutrients from the deer’s blood supply, the annual antler shed is triggered by hormonal changes in the late summer and early fall. The velvet covering on the antlers contains the supply of blood for the antler, but dries up as the season wanes. When velvet begins to loosen, the buck may rub antlers on trees, bushes or saplings to aid in the loosening of the velvet. Velvet shed usually happens fairly rapidly, generally within 24 to 48 hours after it begins to loosen.

After breeding season, the bucks’ testosterone hormone decreases, triggering a weakening of the bone at the junction of the antler and the base of the head. The antlers drop off, which starts the growth cycle once again. Young trees with tender bark may need a wire wrap to deter deer from scraping their antlers through the bark.

Although there are no guarantees when gardening in deer country, there are ways to live with these browsers — and have a lovely landscape and garden veggies as well. To learn more about managing deer in foothill gardens, join the Master Gardeners of Nevada County at a virtual workshop, “Living with Deer as a Foothill Gardener” live on Zoom, Oct. 17 at 9 a.m. Access the zoom event from our website at (The session will be recorded so viewers may watch it again, or access it at a later time.) This workshop will provide you with facts about the deer in our area and ways you can defend your gardens and landscape.

Other virtual workshops are also scheduled for October. Join us Oct. 24 for, “No Sun, No Problem – Planting in the Shade” and, a special Halloween soil-building workshop, “It’s Alive!” on Oct. 31. Access our website for further details of these and all previously recorded workshops! And, don’t forget – we are live on the radio every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon on “Master Gardeners and Friends”, KNCO – 830 on the AM dial.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.

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