Of all the pests that plague Lowcountry gardeners, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are probably the most frustrating. In 2000, I moved from the front to the back of the same subdivision. Even though I had been gardening in Charleston for about seven years, I felt as if I had to start over as a beginner, because deer now dined in my new yard.
3 signs of deer
Damage to plants
Almost every morning, another plant that I had successfully grown in my old yard showed characteristic signs of deer browsing: missing flowers, buds, leaves or shoots. Herbaceous plants were eaten to about four inches above the ground.
On newly planted crepe myrtle, damage was visible to about four feet high. Sometimes, small plants were pulled up and discarded half-eaten. The telltale sign of deer passing through were the characteristic droppings: a small pile of black, oval pellets, slightly larger than the round pellets left by a rabbit.
Deer are browsing mammals with four stomachs, so they can digest a variety of plants. Local deer seem to prefer tender new growth on broad-leaved plants.
Urban deer, i.e. deer that live on the edges of metropolitan areas, have defined territories in which they travel and feed nightly. If unusually cool or dry conditions slow the growth of native plants in wild areas, deer will frequent the cultivated parts of their ranges to find food.
Deer tend to stay close to their birthplace. Since does teach their fawns where to find food, if you have deer in your yard now, the same deer and their descendants will probably continue to visit it.
Like much of gardening, choosing deer-resistant plants is not an "exact science." Some plants, such as balloon flower and Mexican petunia, will be eaten some years and left alone other years. This may be due to plant preferences of individual deer. Newly planted ornamentals may be eaten more often than established plants of the same type, especially if the new plants have tender leaves because they were grown in a greenhouse or were heavily fertilized.
The more deer in an area, the wider the range of plants that are eaten. In areas with high populations of deer, like Dunes West in Mount Pleasant, Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms, Kiawah and Johns islands, only the most deer-resistant plants will survive untouched. My yard has moderate deer pressure, which means a few deer pass through several times a week. Some plants that I can grow, such as California bush daisy, plumbago and rose campion, may not work in other areas.
I was surprised how many native plants used as ornamentals are eaten by deer. In some cases, the wild version, like wild ageratum, is eaten, and the cultivated version, ageratum or flossflower, is not touched. Do not assume that a native plant is deer-resistant.
In broad terms, there are several groups of plants that tend to be deer-resistant. These include:
Bulbs in the amaryllis family, including daffodil and paperwhite, spring star flower, amaryllis, lily of the Nile, and the many crinum lilies are very reliable, deer-resistant perennials. Be aware that true lilies (Lilium species), although horticulturally grouped with bulbs, are not deer-resistant.
Most ornamental grasses, including river oats, are not eaten by deer.
Deer avoid strongly scented herbs. Chives, garlic chives, rosemary, creeping thyme, basil and mint provide flowers for short periods of the year.
Other plants with strongly scented leaves, such as drumstick chives, society garlic, marigolds, lantana and salvias, are unpalatable to deer. Note that placing these around plants that deer eat does not offer any protection. Deer don't mind reaching around scented plants to eat the ones they like.
Plants with tough leaves, such as mahonia, culinary bay (Laurus nobilis), and yucca, are not browsed.
Some plants that are poisonous to humans, such as foxglove and bloodflower milkweed, are not eaten by deer.
The plants I recommend in this article are those that deer have never eaten and those that deer "tasted" once or twice in my yard.
In the lists, plants are grouped by bloom time, type of plant and light requirements. In general, plants that prefer shade also need regular to moist soil, whereas plants in full sun prefer drier soil, unless noted.
No plant is without its problems. Other pests attack some plants that deer won't eat. Slugs feed on annual marigolds, root-knot nematodes infect bog sage and kudzu beetles feed on wisteria. Still, I find the other pests to be less troublesome, or easier to thwart, than deer.
Since most avid gardeners want flowers, I have not mentioned foliage plants in this article. However, many commonly used "filler" plants, such as cast iron plant, soft rush, holly fern, Southern shield fern and dwarf nandina, are completely deer-resistant. Plants selected to provide a variety of leaf colors, shapes and sizes are used in the best and most interesting Southern gardens.
Anthony Keinath is a professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at tknth@ clemson.edu
Summer annuals for shade: ageratum, wax begonia.
Summer annuals for sun: angelonia, spider flower (Cleome), dwarf globe amaranth (Gomphrena), marigold, Madagascar periwinkle (commonly called vinca).
Winter annuals: alyssum, pigsqueak (Bergenia), foxglove (Digitalis). Supplement winter plantings with dusty miller, which is never munched. Other annuals that often escape browsing include diascia (or twinspur), wallflower (Erysimum) and snapdragon.
Winter-blooming perennial for part to full shade: Lenten rose (Helleborus hybrids).
Spring-blooming perennials for sun: daffodil, spring star flower (Ipheion uniflorum), amaryllis (Hippeastrum), African daisy (Osteospermum), African iris (Dietes), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) (needs moist soil), yellow flag iris (needs moist soil).
Summer perennials for part shade: river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), canna, crinum, ginger (Hedychium).
Summer perennials for sunny areas and dry soil: lily of the Nile (Agapanthus), salvias, rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), drumstick chives (Allium sphaerocephalum), California bush daisy (Euryops pectinatus), red-hot poker (Kniphofia), lantana, globe thistle (Echinops), yucca, plumbago.
Summer perennials for sunny areas with average moisture: society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), bloodflower milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), garlic chives (Allium tuberosum).
Fall-blooming perennials for sun: Mexican bush sage, Texas tarragon (Tagetes lucida), Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemmonii), forsythia sage, paperwhite.
Flowering shrubs and vines for sun: bottlebrush, chaste tree, American wisteria 'Amethyst Falls,' loropetalum, spirea.
Flowering shrubs for part shade to part sun: mahonia (Mahonia bealei and hybrids), buckeye, banana shrub, tea olive.