It’s the North Bay gardener’s lament — gophers eat everything up to ground level, and the deer eat everything down to ground level.
We have wire cages to protect plant roots from the gophers, but what do we have for the deer? Lots of fencing would work, but it would also ruin the look of a pretty yard and landscape. Fencing the entire property works, but that’s expensive. A dog will keep deer away, but Sonoma County has a leash law, dogs can’t run free and it’s cruel to permanently tie up a dog outside.
One sensible answer to deer control is to landscape your garden with deer-resistant plantings. That’s deer-resistant, not deer-proof. For most of the year, when other browse is available, deer will avoid these plants. But come August through October, when it’s dry and pickings are slim, they may take a nibble, although they are very unlikely to wreak wholesale destruction on these plants the way they do to abutilons and roses.
Before detailing our 10 deer-resistant choices, first think about using the pine family evergreens as major players: for screens, wind barriers and strong visual statements. Junipers, pines, cedars and spruces look good in all seasons, and the resins in their sap keep deer away.
Prime among our chosen 10 landscape superstars that deer find distasteful is the Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), a native of our region that tolerates sun or shade and delivers delicious huckleberries for pies and jams in late summer. They grow 8 to 10 feet tall with dark green, lustrous leaves and pair well with rhododendrons.
California Laurel (Umbellularia californica) is another native that deer avoid. It tends to grow to 25 feet in landscape settings, although it can grow much bigger in the wild. Don’t plant it if you have oaks on your property or nearby, as it can host the sudden oak death fungus.
There are many species and varieties of Wild Lilac (Ceanothus spp.), but it’s the ones with small evergreen leaves that are deer resistant. Check with your local nursery to make sure you’re getting a shrub with the spring flower color you like (from white through powder blue to deep violet) and that they are a small-leaved variety. Growth habit varies with species, but most grow just a few feet tall and prefer dry, rocky spots. They are native to our region.
Daphnes (Daphne odora and Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’) are evergreen with a beautiful bonus. Their late winter flowers are among the most enticingly fragrant in the plant world and can perfume the air for up to 100 feet around themselves. Deer hate them. But the daphnes hate wet feet, so plant them where drainage is good.
California Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron californicum) is native to our area, so it needs no irrigation. It’s an evergreen that grows 15-20 feet tall and makes a brilliant show of big, buttery-yellow flowers that appear all over the plant at once in spring. Wet feet in winter will kill it, so plant it on a well-drained slope. For the couple of weeks it’s in bloom, it will be the dominant visual display in your landscape.
If you plant a New Zealand Tea Tree (Leptospermum scoparium), it will not only resist deer damage, it will become a favorite plant in your landscape. It’s trouble-free, needs little or no water in summer, makes a casual shrub about 6 to 8 feet tall, and covers itself in profuse, half-inch rose-like flowers all over its stems and branches from spring to summer. The cultivar ‘Helene Strybing’ is particularly beautiful.