Sunday, March 13, 2011

Deer Country 14: More Summer & Fall Perennial Flowers & Grasses

Goldfinch feeds on lavender

This “Deer Country” will make the final additions to the lists of perennials flowers that Howard County Master Gardeners in a survey said their deer herds don’t eat.

Why do I prefer perennial flowers to annuals? The four silvery-gray lavender plants (Lavandula spp.) outside my study window give the answer. I planted them in 2005, and except for an annual pruning to remove dead wood and to shape them, they’re essentially maintenance free. ‘Munstead,’ the variety, blooms off and on from spring into fall attracting myriads of pollinators. And later American goldfinches come to dine when the seed heads develop. Deer ignore it, perhaps because of its strong fragrance. Lavender likes sun but not “wet feet,” so it won’t do well in your garden wet spots.

Threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.), also known as tickseed, comes in a variety of colors, the most common being the traditional yellow and the newer pink. Over the years I’ve bought pots of yellow and pink. I haven’t paid much attention to them, but now, years later, they still grow here and there in my garden because they self-seed. My theory about their deer resistance is that their leaves are so fine that deer just can’t be bothered browsing them. I have also planted wide-leaf varieties, which the deer browsed from time to time.

Bumblebee feeding on butterfly weed
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) loves the sun, and pollinators love its cluster of orange or yellow flowers. In addition to its deer resistance, perhaps its other claim to fame is that it is the food plant of the larva of the monarch butterfly. Monarch butterfly organizations often urge gardeners to plant “feeding stations” with several varieties of this plant. After I see the yellow, black, and white striped monarch caterpillars munching on the leaves of our butterfly weeds, I try to remember later to look for their jade chrysalises. Gardeners generally don’t buy weeds, so nurseries now label this “Butterfly Plant.”

Monarch butterfly caterpillar eating butterfly weed

Russian sage
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), a member of the mint family, is a new plant in our front garden. I had seen it on several lists of deer-resistant plants and decided to try it. I planted it last spring, and though I often see hoof prints all around it, the bambits haven’t browsed a leaf. Foliage is bluish-green with delicate blue flowers. Directions suggest cutting back to 4”-6” in the spring. Ultimately it will double in size to 3’ high by 2’ wide. Deer often avoid members of the mint family, perhaps because of their strong fragrance and taste.

Mistaken identity has kept one native flower out of gardens. Many people think goldenrod (Solidago spp.) causes hay fever, but it doesn’t. The culprit is ragweed, which also blooms in the fall. Breeders in recent years have introduced new varieties of this yellow-flowered plant. Ours is ‘Golden Fleece,’ which I bought at an end-of-season sale in 2003, and it’s been growing well in Deer Country with just a late-winter cutting back.

Sweet autumn clematis
Years ago I planted seedlings of sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) by seven posts of the split-rail fence that encloses our hillside backyard. I cut it to about 12” in late February or early March, and by mid-summer it covers about 50’ of the fence. Its matted, deep-green leaves help block the deer from seeing flowers and veggies inside the fence. Thousands of highly fragrant, white blooms cover the vines in late summer. During the regular growing season, deer don’t sample the green leaves, though when food is scarce in winter, they sometimes browse on the dead leaves from the previous year.

Fountain grass in fall
Lists of deer-resistant plants often add “ornamental grasses.” We have a row of fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) on the outside of our backyard fence, and the deer don’t browse it. We have ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue (Festuca glauca) as accent plants in our front gardens, and the deer ignore it. Why? I think ornamental grasses are too tough for the deer to browse easily.

Fountain grass grows in clumps to about 3’ tall. Many gardeners cut it back to near-ground level after the plants die back in the fall, but I let ours stand until late winter to add character to our wintertime views. Also, in late fall and early winter we enjoy watching chipping sparrows land near the seed heads and peck away as the blades sink to the ground under the weight of the tiny birds.

Tufts of 'Elijah Blue' in front of birdbath
‘Elijah Blue’ is a great accent or front-border plant. Its thin leaves make bluish mounds 6” or so high, with seed heads rising above the tufts. This plant self-seeds, so I let a few seedlings grow so I can use them to replace older plants or to add an accent in another bed. ‘Elijah Blue’ is often “bluest” when growing in the sunniest locations. Deer don’t eat it—but another country critter likes it for a reason other than food. Several times we’ve found that a female rabbit has made a fur-lined, shallow burrow under an ‘Elijah Blue’ tuft to hide her young.

Note: Remember there are no guarantees that deer in your neighborhood won’t eat the plants listed here. There is no “deer-proof” plant. Browsing depends on many things, including number of deer, availability of other foods, and preferences of individual deer. If you’re serious about finding plants that deer won’t eat, check the lists in the brochure and the books I recommended in “Deer Country 3” and in lists available online. Pick out two or three possibilities and give them a try.


  1. Today's visit to the Davidsonville Homestead Gardens confirmed your expose re planning for deer resistant gardens. Not that we didn't believe it, but obviously you have added to our interest. We noted this definition: that a deer resistant plant is one that may be occasionally browsed, but not devoured. In winter they will eat almost anything, but it is wise not to forget that they munch throughout the entire year.

  2. The famous last thought on the subject is this: "Deer don't read the deer-resistant plant lists." Yes, when food is scarce, they'll browse on just about anything they can find. Most resistant lists break plants into several groupings, from "Almost never browse" to "Occasionally..." to "Almost always..." to "Please pass the ranch dressing."