Lessons from the deer on plants to grow

You can still plant beautiful flowers at the cottage if you find ways to outwit the deer.
Photos: Louise Archer.

By Louise Archer

Some of my friends from Toronto think any mention of gardening at a cottage is nuts. Maybe you do too. Nevertheless, with the wonderful colours and flavours, it is tempting for me.

Geraniums can stand a bit of drying out and provide delightful splashes of colour by the cottage – pale pink, peach, coral, red, fuchsia, white – until the deer come calling to munch the blossoms before your eyes. Having witnessed my geraniums disappear, from now on I will only grow them on the high deck. The accompanying photo shows the 2020 culprit with the leftover geranium, in case you recognize him or her.

We thought daylilies would make a hardy show of colour beside the driveway, so planted some at intervals. Guess what, they did not bloom because the deer prefer to eat the buds before they open!

I knew deer liked hostas, but I had an excess in town and a friend had already put a number in pots for me, so I accepted and planted them; by mid-summer, there wasn’t a single hosta leaf anywhere.

The aforementioned are the things not to grow, unless you have ways to protect them. What are the options? Use plants that repel deer next to things they do like. Plant things deer do not like. Grow plants they like around the perimeter (e.g. a moat of hostas), so they can eat those before they get to your favourites. Or install a physical barrier.

What repels deer? As I understand it, deer have priorities: number one is not getting eaten; number two is finding food. To serve the first priority, it is necessary to constantly be on the alert for danger by sniffing the air. If deer are sniffing the aroma of onions, thyme or fennel, they cannot notice the faint whiff of hungry wolf or guard dog in the air; thus deer will avoid plants that give off these predator-masking strong scents.

Here are seven plants that repel deer:  bee balm, chives, cosmos, garlic, oleander, rosemary and Russian sage.

Deer do not like some plants. Daffodils, foxgloves, and poppies are common flowers with a toxicity that deer avoid. Rhubarb is also toxic to them. Deer do not care for the scent of ornamental salvias or lavender, nor do they like flowers such as peonies, bearded irises, and marigolds.

Install a barrier. If you want to try growing vegetables, here is advice from a recent article in Cottage Life: “No matter what you grow, it will be a veritable smorgasbord to passing wildlife. Enclosing the garden in chicken wire is your best defence against marauders.” You can have a fenced area, although deer are great jumpers. To preserve just a few of your best plants, surround them with chicken wire.

Here are my garden strategies for 2021. First, I will try to keep things out of reach. There is nothing like making your salads and dressings more delectable by adding freshly cut herbs. Chives, parsley and basil are all easy to grow. I keep mine on my high deck away from rabbits which might eat them. The pots are all mixtures of flowers (especially geraniums) and herbs, so there are pretty blossoms everywhere and I am growing delicious edibles as well.

Some of the native plants are especially attractive to butterflies, so I will leave all the milkweed that has popped up. I will introduce a few more butterfly and pollinator-friendly plants.

I will also do some companion planting. It’s not guaranteed to work if the deer are desperate, but it’s worth a try. My lilies will be guarded by some deer non-favourites in pots beside them. My best lily, a rare peachy one, will be protected by chicken wire. I will forget about seeing hostas bloom.

I just received an ad for roses. It advised planting lavender around them to confuse the deer. For more details, one convenient list of deer resistant plants is found at almanac.com/content/deer-resistant-plants.

Good luck with choosing your plants this year, whether to feed the deer or not.

Louise Archer is discovering what garden plants are compatible with the wildlife in
Val-des-Monts.

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