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Don't let deer hold you back from a colorful garden

“What shall he have that kill’d the deer?

His leather skin and horns to wear.”

— William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Act IV, Scene 2

In “As You Like It,” the slain deer in the Forest of Arden represents the seizure of lands and possessions belonging to others (Duke Senior’s brother, Frederick, has seized his estate and banished him to the forest, but now Duke Senior is usurping the woodland creatures’ home).

In fact, several scenes in the Bard’s plays refer to deer and deer hunting, and some say their inclusion may have originated from a much earlier incident that occurred in Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. The story goes that young Shakespeare was caught poaching deer on Sir Thomas Lucy’s land at Charlecote Park, and this was the reason he ran away to London to seek his fortune as an actor and playwright.

No documents exist to confirm or refute the story, but it’s intriguing to think that Shakespeare’s great works came about because of some trouble over deer.

Recently I received an email from a couple in east Medford who are looking to add color to their landscape, but they have had trouble with deer eating their flowering plants.

I recommended several herbaceous perennials that are deer resistant and will provide a succession of color from mid-spring until fall frosts. In addition, the flowers are pollinator friendly and drought tolerant once established in the garden.

However, I realized their garden will also benefit from early spring color provided by deer-resistant perennial bulbs/tubers, such as winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis), narcissus, grape hyacinth, (Muscari armeniacum) and scillas. All of these plants contain toxins that make them unpalatable to deer and rodents (and poisonous if eaten by people or pets).

Early spring-blooming bulbs or tubers should be planted in the fall. I suggest first replenishing the garden soil with compost, then planting the bulbs/tubers with a tablespoon of bone meal to promote healthy root growth, and finally mulching the planted beds with a thick layer of shredded fall leaves.

Winter aconites are tuberous plants that grow about 4 inches tall and across. They have pretty green leaves and small, bright yellow flowers that open in early March. Plant the tubers in a sunny location about 3 inches deep in well-draining soil. For maximum color effect, plant a set of three tubers 4-5 inches apart in one area of the garden, and then plant a few more tuber sets in other areas.

There are 13 designated categories of daffodils, but my garden favorites are the miniature varieties that bloom in March-April. Standing only 6-8 inches tall, Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ is a fragrant heirloom with butter-yellow petals and yellow-orange cups, and N. ‘Minnow’ has pale yellow petals and bright yellow cups. N. ‘Thalia’ is another fragrant heirloom with pure white flowers that grow on stems reaching 12-14 inches tall.

Like winter aconite tubers, plant sets of daffodil bulbs 4-5 inches apart in different areas of the garden. Plant the bulbs pointy side up in planting holes dug twice as deep as the size of the bulb. Daffodils bloom best in sunny locations, but they will tolerate partial shade.

I love the way yellow daffodils look with blooming purple muscari, commonly known as grape hyacinth (despite the name, muscari and hyacinth are not closely related). Grape hyacinths are so named because they have tight clusters of deep purple urn-shaped flowers; however, light purple, blue, white and pink varieties are available. Grape hyacinths grow 6-8 inches tall, making them a colorful edging plant for sunny to partially sunny areas.

Muscari bulbs should be planted close together, about 10 bulbs per square foot. Plant the bulbs pointy end up 3 inches below the soil line.

Scillas, cousins to lilies, are not as commonly grown as the other plants I’ve mentioned, but they also wake up early spring gardens with color. S. bifolia ‘Rosea,’ or rosy squill, is one of the prettiest scilla varieties, with pale pink clusters that open to reveal star-shaped white-pink flowers. Vibrant S. bifolia ‘Blue’ has violet-blue, star-shaped flowers. S. siberica ‘Spring Beauty’ has sky-blue, umbrella-shaped petals with a deep-blue stripe on each petal. S. Persian ‘Bluebell’ has powder-blue, star-shaped flowers with darker blue stripes on the petals.

Scillas only grow 3-5 inches tall, so plant bulbs in groups about 2 inches apart and 3-4 inches deep. They grow best in full sun to partial sun.

The leaves of spring-blooming bulbs will die back after the flowers fade. Wait until the foliage completely dries out and detaches easily from the bulb before removing; this will allow the plants to continue photosynthesizing and storing food in the bulbs for next year’s flowers.

Shakespeare didn’t allow problems with deer to prevent him from realizing his dreams, so why should we?

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.