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After a couple years of thinking that the deer population had somewhat declined, I'm now witnessing an explosion of bucks in my garden. A gang of four has moved in, quite comfortably napping all hours of the day, nibbling here and there at night, and hopefully feeling frustrated at the dearth of delicacies available.

Not that there isn't a plethora of plants to tempt them. Quite the contrary.

Dozens of ornamental species lie in wait 24/7, but all in the unfenced areas have been carefully selected to be safe from destruction, though some show signs of being sampled and rejected.

With grasslands and dry summer vegetation as the only food source many decades ago, deer populations remained low. But as human communities sprawled and more and more succulent shrubs and perennials appeared at every turn, deer herds multiplied.

Finding plants to suit our own gardens takes a bit of experimentation, since deer tastes vary in different locales. A Santa Rosa gardener I know sets out small plants in nursery containers one at a time on what she calls her sacrificial rock to see how they fare before she invests in a quantity.

When we do happen upon species we like, they usually come with a bonus: Many are also drought-

tolerant.

<IP0>Native or not

<MC>If you walk along verdant North Coast beaches, you'll see native plants untouched by browsing deer — sea thrift (Armeria), wallflowers (Erysimum), iris, sandhill sage (Artemisia pycnocephala), lupines, and other plants familiar also in gardens.

But not all natives are safe. Deer have foraged among them for eons before our ornamentals ever arrived on scene.

Because deer are browsers rather than grazers, they prefer succulent and woody plants and rarely eat ornamental grasses and grasslike plants such as carex and members of the restio family. Nonetheless, they also completely avoid many garden-worthy shrubs.

Woody-based sages such as Salvia greggii and S. microphylla, potato bush and vine (Solanum crispum and S. rantonnetii), westringia, aromatic shrub marigolds (Tagetes) and curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), berberis, nandina, boxwood (Buxus), nearly all conifers, and oleander (Nerium) flourish in sun. For shade, sweet box (Sarcococca) and Mexican orange (Choisya) are top choices.

Few flowering perennials are safe against deer, but nierembergia, osteospermum, lavender (Lavandula), Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), Russian sage (Perovskia), catmint (Nepeta), Phlomis russeliana and shrubbier Phlomis relatives, various artemisias, candy tuft (Iberis), wallflower (Erysimum), and licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) are immune to deer and fairly drought tolerant. In shade, try lamium and ajuga.

Spurges (Euphorbia) with broad, perky seedheads in yellow and lime green are ironclad but self-sow prolifically and may be more trouble than they're worth.

<IP0>Safety in herbs

<MC1>Herbs in general are reliably safe from deer, though you'll have to keep tender ones such as parsley, basil, and chervil in a safe spot out of deer's reach.

Strongly aromatic Mediterranean herbs — sage, rosemary, marjoram, savory, and thyme — repel deer as long as they're kept on the dry side. Their leaves stiffen as oils become more concentrated and flavors more intense, appealing for their culinary use but not as deer fodder.

Lesser known herbs also make ideal garden plants that deer ignore. They're generally sun-lovers that combine easily with other perennials and shrubs.

Both the bluish gray and bright green forms of lavender cotton (Santolina) can be sheared into a 1- to 2-foot high hedge or be left to spill down a hillside or over a rock wall. Winter savory arches in a woody-based mound, and lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) makes an open, airy shrub with a heavenly lemon scent while chamomile Treneague forms a low mat.

In shade, stems of native yerba buena trail along as a loose groundcover.

<IP0>Time your plantings

<MC1>Plants that go in the ground in spring and summer, deer-resistant or not, offer temptations deer find difficult to resist. Freshly fertilized new growth is succulent, attracting deer for both water and food as the natural landscape dries out.

Ignoring my own advice, I've recently planted a few 4-inch pots only to find some unestablished plants pulled out of the ground, uneaten, but left to shrivel and die.

It's far better to plant as rains begin in fall when deer are more content to remain farther afield, as wild areas turn green once again.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.