Those of you living with nicely enclosed, sheltered, sunny gardens may read on with amusement, at the trials and tribulations of those faced with an invasion of wildlife hungry to devour their precious plants. When I lived in town, in a nice little new-build house with a more than manageable garden, it never occurred to me how difficult gardening would be with something waiting to eat anything I planted. In our first year in the country somehow we got away with it. Maybe because the property we bought had not had a garden for a number of years; maybe we were just lucky?
I can still remember my shock, dismay, anger, disbelief and sense of hopelessness, when I ventured out one morning in early summer to find rose shoots stripped, sweet peas nibbled and young seedling vegetables nipped off at the roots. Fortunately we only had one boundary with the field, so a few posts with wires between them deterred the odd random deer that had found its way in to cause so much damage.
But recounting the tales of devastation of my garden opened the floodgates to too much advice. I could not believe how knowledgeable folks were about keeping deer out of gardens; clearly none had experienced the problem. Human hair, lion’s dung, urine, moth balls, garlic, and a host of other concoctions would all work magical powers. I was sceptical, unconvinced and relied upon post and wire.
Then we moved to a larger plot in to country, in a wonderful rural landscape, complete with its own deer run. Needless to say we did not know about the deer when we bought it! I persevered with repellents, electric fences, water cannons and sonic deterrents; then I gave up and deer fenced. Since then, so many times I’ve been asked for the solution to the deer problem. My reply: “Fencing is the only real answer, alternatively only grow what they don’t eat; alternatively move”.
So if you insist you cannot, or will not, fence then let’s look at what you could grow, before you put your property on the market. Which are the deer proof plants? Perhaps I should point out that the personal tastes of deer and rabbits seem to vary with the individuals, nearly as much as they do with cats and humans. Some subjects I have confidently recommended as deer proof are suddenly demolished by an adventurous individual with Catholic tastes; so I’ll start with the bullet proof choices:
Hellebore: All hellebores escape unscathed, so any of the Helleborus x hybridus types are a good bet to give you nice big clumps of architectural foliage and late winter and early spring flowers. The hybrids of Helleborus argutifolius, Helleborus x nigercors and Hellebores ericsmithii are also evergreen, shrub-like and have presence.
Daphne: Known for their fragrant late winter and early spring flowers Daphnes are among the choicest and most sought after shrubs. Nice to know you can grow something good, even if your plant palette is limited by the deer! Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’is an easy choice for its stunningly fragrant winter flowers. Mine is filling the garden with its delicious scent right now.
Euphorbia: Deer hate euphorbias: they have irritant milky sap which makes them impossible to eat, so our four legged friends know that. Don’t miss out on the lovely Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ with its lovely old gold, olive and copper striped foliage. It’s great to plant with those bronze carex; deer and rabbits don’t like those either.
Digitalis: We all know that our native foxglove survives unscathed on banks, along hedgerows, and on woodland edges. All digitalis are good to establish in gardens frequented by deer and rabbits. Early spring is a great time to plant pot grown plants to flower this year, then let them seed and naturalise!
Allium: I have decided to include alliumsas rabbits and deer are usually not onion eaters. However I did find them nibbled in a garden last year. It might have been pigeons, however it was only a little of the foliage, and the flowers emerged unharmed.
Buddleja: Buddlejas seen to survive anything, on any soil, as long as it’s not waterlogged. The one thing you need to know about them is that they generally look awful in pots when they are sold, but don’t be put off, they soon get going in the garden. They do not all grow out of control in gardens either. The dwarf Buzz series buddlejas might sound like something out of Toy Story, but they are really valuable garden plants.
Choisya: Some people do not like the smell of choisya, because it is a member of the Rue family. Just remind yourself that deer and rabbits do not usually like the smell either and they avoid it. Evergreen, flowers twice a year; grows in sun or shade. What more could you ask for?
Cortederia: The pampas grass. If you have tried to clean up your pampas to remove the old foliage you will know just why deer and rabbits give it a wide berth.
Hydrangea: Now that opens up a lot of possibilities.I am not just talking about mophead and lacecap hydrangeas. Also consider Hydrangea arborescens, Hydrangea quercifolia and my personal favourites, Hydrangea paniculata varieties.You could have one in flower from the beginning of June to the middle of November if you choose carefully.
Narcissus: If you want spring flowering bulbs grow snowdrops and daffodils. Bluebells and hyacinths are generally resistant, although muntjak deer will eat bluebells.
Other reliable deer and rabbit proof plants: agapanthus, aquilegia (occasionally nibbled), bamboos, buxus, chaenomeles (occasionally nibbled), cistus, clematis, delphinium (slugs get there first!), echinops, forsythia, jasminum, lavenders (occasionally nibbled), lonicera, mahonia, nepeta (cat will have flattened it anyway), philadelphus (occasionally nibbled), phormium, potentilla, ribes, evergreen rhododendrons, weigela, yucca
Do not grow: tulips, roses, pansies, hemerocallis, geraniums (pretty blue herbaceous ones), evergreen euonymus, cornus, holly or anything you really want....
These lists are not exhaustive, and are written by a lover of all wildlife except: deer, rabbits, pigeons and slugs – so may be biased! Refer also the websites of
The Royal Horticultural Society: RHS Advice on Deer
Deer and rabbits are always attracted by new plantings, and tend to ignore established subjects. Always protect new plants with secured wire mesh after planting. Remember that even if they don’t eat a plant, it will not necessarily prevent them from ripping it apart as part of the decision making process, especially if it’s something that they are unfamiliar with.
Do tell us about your experiences of managing deer and rabbits in your garden; tips on deer proof plants, advice and traumas all welcome!
Get FREE Gardening tips and ideas from our experts in your inbox.