Deer-Free Gardens

It's no laughing matter

The snickering starts at the headline "… "Oh, right," readers think. "There's no such thing as a deer-resistant plant."

Not so, dear skeptics. While it can be a challenge gardening in the Rogue Valley's deer — dare we say infested? — environs, our experts say you can grow a garden without a deer fence using a specialized plant list and a few precautions.

Tim Elbert, owner of Four Seasons Nursery in Medford, says juniper, lavender and rosemary are "the big three," for deer resistance.

"I like to get more creative than that," says Elbert.

Boxwood is a small-leafed shrub he recommends.

"There's a huge list of perennials" he says. "Echinacea, astilbe, columbine, Lithodora, Grace Ward. That's just the beginning. Shasta daises work really well and come in tall and short varieties."

Both he and Victoria Eckart, a master gardener and salesperson at Ray's Garden Center in Ashland, like to recommend ornamental grasses and Mexican orange (Choisya ternata).

Eckart suggests Nandina, which also comes in a variety of sizes and the larger Portuguese and English laurels.

"They eat the dwarf types," she says unhappily. Loropetalum Razzleberry, with fringe flowers and purplish foliage, is another large shrub for the warmer areas of the valley.

Annuals recommended by our experts include canna lilies (which you can dig and replant), grasses, nasturtiums, zinnias, annual vinca, sweet alyssum, salvias, gazanias, portulaca and California poppies.

For more suggestions, check the deer-resistant planting guide at, says Elbert. Or pick up a list at Ray's Garden Center.

Remember, nothing's truly deer-proof, as our experts explain, but you might enjoy gardening without perfection in mind, anyway.

"One of the most common conversations we have with gardeners is about deer," says Victoria Eckart, a Jackson County master gardener and salesperson at Ray's Garden Center in Ashland. "We like to say we have a list of deer-resistant plants, but the deer didn't read it."

We'll pause here, so you can laugh out loud — ruefully.

"It's difficult and frustrating, but it's not impossible," continues Eckart. "Even the stuff the deer are not supposed to eat will get chewed on from time to time."

One way to learn what isn't eaten in your neck of the woods, she says, is to drive around looking at neighbors' landscaping. Deer do seem to have developed local preferences.

Another important step is to know the type of garden you want to establish, says Tim Elbert, owner of Four Seasons Nursery in Medford.

"I like to learn more about the people and their lifestyles," says Elbert. "I try to determine the style of garden they're looking for and, at that point, start to recommend plants. It's longer than most people think."

When you begin adding plants, try a few things here and there before you spend a lot of money in the area, he says. "Try to stick with small numbers of items. The deer don't notice them as much."

New plants straight from the nursery may be more appealing to deer than something that's been naturalized into the garden setting, says Eckart. "It's one of the theories."

The solution is to use one of the awful-smelling sprays available, even on the deer-resistant plants, she says. "We use Liquid Fence. The smell is awful but fades after a day. Then you can't smell it, but the deer still can."

New growth is more appealing to deer, says Elbert. And all bets are off when it comes to young deer. "They try things before they realize they don't like it."

Be realistic and expect setbacks. Eckart tells a story about a woman who bought a large container of rudbeckia, reputed to have no appeal as deer fodder. The plant was eaten right on the woman's porch.

That animal definitely didn't read the menu. (Big sigh.) While the deer forage, you must forge on.

"I'm pretty confident you can do a lot to create the look you want even if you do have deer," says Elbert.

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