Sunday, January 30, 2011

Deer Country 8: Four Resistant Shrubs

Let’s not get into an argument here about the differences between a shrub and a tree. Let’s just define shrub as a multi-stemmed woody landscape plant under 20-feet tall. Of course, deer find short shrubs perfectly convenient for eating or rubbing, as I described in “Deer Country 6.”

When I surveyed Howard County Master Gardeners about “deer- resistant” shrubs, they listed four: boxwood, heather, lilac, and butterfly bush.

Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is a slow-growing evergreen that has been part of landscape plantings for generations, often as foundation plants or hedges that grow to about six feet. The one I’ve planted in an island bed to hide the vent of our septic system grows only a couple of inches a year, but I celebrate every time I look out my study window because our bambits continue to pass it by. I’ve seen deer sniff it, but they’ve never taken a bite.

Heather (Erica spp.), sometimes called heath, is another slow-growing evergreen that blooms over winter, from about Thanksgiving through May here in Maryland. I suspect deer don’t relish its fine, needle-like leaves. My eight-year-old specimen is an attractive mound about five feet across and 18-inches high. It grows well with limited water and, like its relatives blueberry, azalea, and rhododendron, thrives in acid soil.

Lilac (Syringa spp.) is a traditional backyard shrub favorite that deer don’t nibble or rub. If you still have dim memories of American Literature, you probably recall the most famous lilac poem of all, Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” the poet’s “Memories of President Lincoln.”

Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) grows to about five feet tall and, yes, attracts butterflies by the scores if not hundreds. We have three ‘Pink Delight’ butterfly bushes that seem almost to flutter at times because of all the butterflies sipping nectar. This shrub blooms on new growth so should be cut back to one foot or so in winter. Yes, deer don’t eat it, but occasionally a buck cannot resist rubbing it to remove dead velvet from his antlers in the fall. Note that some states consider some varieties invasive.

Since this is a blog and not a book, I’ve made no attempt to identify the scores or hundreds of varieties or cultivars of the four shrubs nor to detail their growing habits and requirements. If you want to do in-depth research, I recommend any of Michael A. Dirr’s excellent books on trees and shrubs, which are available at some libraries and, of course, at book sellers. If you don’t want a Master’s degree in the shrub of your choice, you can research shrub sellers online or visit a plant nursery this spring and discuss you needs with experts there.

The books and brochure I mentioned in “Deer Country 3” list many other shrubs you may want to consider. The Soderstrom book, for example, has four pages with more than 100 recommendations.

I must give you the most famous gardening warning of all: Just because a shrub is listed as “deer resistant” doesn’t mean the deer in your neighborhood have read the list and agreed not to eat it.

If this is the first “Deer Country” posting that you’ve read, I invite you to click on the blue “Deer” label at the end of this posting and read earlier “Deer Country” segments.

Next week in “Deer Country” I’ll write about deer-resistant trees.

To see my heather blooming in January snow, CLICK HERE.


  1. Bob, another interesting post, though having too many deer is not the problem here, compared to where you live. Oh, we do have deer, and some do cause car accidents, but wolves and coyotes keep them thinned.

    Wolves in Alabama? Yep. They were introduced to thin deer. Also, we have seen black bear in the state. The introduction of wolves seems to be working, that plus deer hunters in abundance. Now the down side is, strolling into the woods may put a person at great risk of being taken for a deer, by a two legged wolf carrying a gun, that is.

    But I digress. I like the butterfly bush... for the butterflies it draws. (My three year old granddaughter calls them flutterbyes). It's one of my favorite shrubs. I believe those grow wild in Washington State, for I remember travelling there and noting an enormous amounts of them growing by roadsides.

  2. Thanks for your informative comment, Gladys. I wouldn't have imagined wolves roaming in Alabama. Coyotes have migrated to Maryland over the last few years, and they're now pretty well established in our county, but I still haven't seen one. The theory is that they may help control deer population growth by eating some of the fawns. We have black bears too, but mostly in the four western counties, still too far from here to help with our deer problem.

    Even our hunters don't measure up to those in Alabama. Each year we have fewer and fewer hunters, and the limits on deer kills are raised even higher. The deer are just over-producing in numbers that our landscapes and woods and parks can handle.

  3. What a great site. Thanks for all the helpful information. I'm trying to research our new shrubs (eleagnouses)to determine if they are deer resistant. We live in Greensboro, NC and the deer in our area are everywhere. We are new to the area and did not realize there were so many to contend with. I say they are as abundant as flies - of course I am exaggerating, but you get my drift. We put up a 4 foot (only height allowed by HOA)treated pine fence and the deer just jump it like it was a stepping stone. Trying to figure out how to keep them out. I've read some reviews on Deer Repellents. Seems Deer Away Big Game Repellent gets decent reviews. Any ideas or suggestions for us? Thank you !

  4. Hello, Greensboro Anonymous. Deer Country 3 has a link to the Univ.of Maryland Fact Sheet 655, which lists deer-resistant plants. You can find a newer, color-coded one if you search "Rutgers Deer Resistant Plant List." If your new shrubs are Elaeagnus augustifolia, also known as Russian Olive, the news is good--they usually are listed in "Rarely Damaged" category. Hope your deer agree!

    As for your fence, I have a few suggestions.

    First, check around to see if neighbors have experimented with solutions. Why reinvent the wheel? Maybe they have worked out a solution with the HOA.

    Second, perhaps you can consult with and/or negotiate with your HOA to see if you can install extensions to raise the height of your fence to at least the 6' level, perhaps wooden uprights that would age to match your fence with black deer fencing between, which would be almost invisible. Even extensions with 3 or 4 rows of invisible fishing line probably would do the job, HOA permitting!

    Third, since browsing/grazing deer generally take slow, short, up-and-over jumps, perhaps you can widen your fence. One way, often explained in deer management books (See Deer Country 3), is double fencing. On the same principle, if you have room outside your fence, plant a row of ornamental grass about 2' outside the fence. During the summer, it will be nearly as tall as your fence, and most deer won't attempt to jump a "fence" that is 4' wide.

    If you have followup questions, please post them and I'll get back to you ASAP. Bob ###

  5. Thanks Bob appreciate all the info. I'm afraid we won't be able to get the HOA to budge. There are a few folks in this neighborhood who want residents fined/kicked out, etc. for flying holiday flags from their front porch! because it is against the rules. Heaven forbid what they'd like to do to those who put up storage sheds on their property - also against the rules... So, I am stuck with the fence I've got.

    I have only met one neighbor and he complains tremendously about the deer eating and destroying his property. He said he has placed a salt lick at the base of the property to try to keep them away from the more valuable trees/shrubs. He also covered several trees with a sort of chicken wire that he says helps keep them off the trees. He did not mention using any deer repellent. I will ask him about this next time I see him.

    In the 7 months we have lived here, no one else has ever spoken to us. Most do not have fences of any type (though here are a few a bit down the road from us who have fences). I can't imagine why they don't fence their property, but most of them have not invested in any landscaping either, so I guess they don't care.

    We put up our fence and did a good bit of landscape planting immediately after moving in, so we do care. The neighbor I met did even more landscaping than we have and I know he cares.

    I did find the eleagnus pungens (not sure about spelling) and it is supposed to be deer resistant. I did read the links you offered and they were a wealth of info. I think we will try the Deer Away BGR and see how it works.

    Our dog works well too, but he can't stay outside 24/7. And I can just imagine how my neighbors feel hearing him bark at deer at 11pm or 6am. It isn't the friendliest neighborhood.

    Thanks again for your help. I am still amazed at the huge number of deer here. Every single day, I see at least one dead on the side of the road. We also have coyotes here. And yesterday, I went outside at 6h30 and heard them howling. That could be one of the reasons the deer jumped the fence the night before, not sure. Last year, we even had young black bears on a major four lane road here...I guess I was not expecting all this wildlife.


  6. Hello, Lori. Thank you for the additional details about life in your development. Wow! I have a few more suggestions:

    1. Some of my friends live in areas with extreme covenants. Some of them drape soft, black netting (bird or deer)over their shrubs at prime deer-browsing times. From a distance, the netting is next to invisible unless you're looking for it, and in most cases it doesn't incite the wrath that "cages" might. You can get rolls of the netting at economical prices at most big-box stores (Home Depot, Lowe's).

    2. Yes, pet dogs usually cannot be on duty 24/7. You'll have to buy another dog, so the two can take shifts. (Ha! That was attempted humor.) On the serious side, I know one gardener who has a Australian herding dog (something like a border collie) restrained by an "Invisible Fence" that keeps the deer out--and he doesn't bark. His name is Gromit. However, he does lie in the flower beds! And he sleeps inside at night, and the deer come out to browse in his absence. Commercial fruit growers often fence their orchards and have dogs living inside the fence 24/7, but there's that HOA fence problem again! I suppose "dogs" isn't the answer.

    3. Look for one of my older Deer Country postings (August 6, I think) in which I mention a new product that came on the market this last spring. It's the Repellex Systemic Repellant Tablet. (Or just Search for it on the Internet.) You dig in tablets as directed a few weeks before spring growth, and they deliver capsaicin (hot pepper oil) to and into the plant cells, and apparently that protects plants from browsing the whole summer. I'm going to try some this next spring. They are bit pricey. If you try them, I would love to have a report of how it works for your plants. (I have several postings this year on my experiment with Deer Out, a peppermint-based spray, which worked fairly well.)

    4. The N.C. State University Cooperative Extension website may have some deer management info with a local angle. Rattle around in there to see what they have on some rainy, snowy weekend!

    Keep experimenting. Keep chatting with people who are dealing with deer too. See what they're growing that your local deer don't eat. It's a never ending battle, but you can have a good looking garden! Bob

  7. Thank you Bob. Appreciate the extra info. I'll look up your August posts to read about the Repellex tablets.

    I'll also check the NC State Univ. coop website. I know it is a big problem in this area, so I would imagine they do address it. I'll check it out.

    Our dog is a collie, so he herds and charges at anything he sees. I'd love to have a second dog, but the cost of having one is tough enough.

    Again, thanks so much your advice and for the great website. I'll keep looking in. Have a nice holiday season.