Plants you will love and deer won’t

It’s the Sonoma County gardener’s lament. We may have great growing conditions for a wide variety of plants. But we also have critters that like to dine on what we grow. Gophers will devour everything up to ground level and the deer will eat everything down to the ground.

It’s a painful lesson that eventually, every gardener must learn - often the hard way. You can fight gophers all you want, but you won’t beat them until you make raised bed frames with hardware cloth nailed to the bottom.

But what of the deer, those gentle-eyed garden thieves who slip in and sheer those blooms you waited so long for? A first defense is a fence. Seven feet will keep them out. Even better, it will keep in a dog that can run free in the fenced-in area. Be kind and never keep a dog tied up. Between the fence and the dog, deer will stay away. If you don’t like the look of the fence, train grapes and flowering vines on it.

If a fence is not for you, incorporate deer resistant plants in your yard or landscape. Deer are natural browsers like goats. They prefer the succulent buds at the tips of branches, and the tender leaves. They will act like grazers if they have to - that is, like bovines and horses, they’ll munch on grasses and forbs when food is scarce. If food is scarce enough, especially in early fall before the first rains call forth green growth, deer will eat almost anything rather than starve. This gives you a key to your deer-proofing strategy.

Given a choice between their favorite food and deer-resistant plants, they’ll gravitate to their favorites. Think about interspersing your garden or landscape with plants that lure the deer away from your resistant plants. Deer just love hydrangeas, roses, abutilons, and evergreen azaleas for browsing, as well as red clover and chicories for grazing. In sum, they are picky eaters, and particularly like smooth-surfaced foliage and leaves that don’t have a strong smell.

In areas with large deer populations, such as Oakmont that borders the 5,000 mostly-wild acres of Annadel State Park, deer-resistant plants are a wise choice for a home property.

Hundreds of plants are listed as deer-resistant, but not all of them have features you may want. Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) for instance, isn’t bothered much by deer, but it’s a rather unattractive shrub.

Here are some deer-resistant plants that have outstanding features.

Besides being deer resistant, a fig’s outstanding feature is the soft, sweet fruits it bears. Olives, that grow so well here, also turn away deer. Their evergreen silver and green leaves are attractive, and they take well to yearly trimming so they are bushy.

A gorgeous 4-to-5-foot evergreen that doesn’t flower but stops people with its beauty (and deer with its unappetizing taste) is Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis Nana’ that deserves a featured spot in the garden.

The Butterfly Bush clan (Buddleia spp.) may attract butterflies, but deer, not so much. B. davidii makes a large mound of branches with fragrant purple panicles at their tips, while Fountain Butterfly Bush (B. alternifolia) creates a fountain of arching, willow-like branches covered in small lilac flowers in spring. Ceanothus’s many species are native to our part of California and take little work once established. Deer leave them alone and their spring flower displays of rich to pale lilac colors are mesmerizing.

We see oleander (Nerium oleander) all around California for good reason. It is evergreen, its summer flower displays impact any landscape, they don’t take much water when established, and deer find them poisonous. So do people, so wear protective clothing and gloves if working with them.

Exceptionally showy rich yellow to yellow-orange flowers cover Fremontodendron californicum in spring. As a native, it repels deer and doesn’t like summer water, so it’s good on a well-drained berm or hillside. Speaking of showy, Cape Plumbago (P. auriculata aka P. capensis) is a South African native with pure blue flowers produced in spring through summer. To get best color, look for cultivars named ‘Royal Cape’ or ‘Imperial Blue’. You’ll love it, but deer won’t.

Three flowering vines that deer will pass over in favor of other plants are bougainvillea, jasmine, and wisteria. With bougainvillea you get torrents of bright color; with jasmine (J. officinalis) you get a lovely, musky, sexy scent, and with wisteria, you get a long week’s display of the prettiest hanging lavender to white flower clusters of any plant in your garden.

Among the perennials, our native Zauschneria californica is a marvel. It sails through our summer drought without breaking a sweat, pumping out rich red tubular flowers as it goes. Being a native, it’s learned to produce something in its taste that deer don’t like. Penstemons are another native that deer avoid but that perform beautifully in our gardens, and the sword-like leaves of irises are also anathema to deer.

Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) is a 3-foot-tall perennial that self-sows and can be weedy, but it’s a pretty weediness as it makes clusters of reddish flowers in spring right through summer. It likes poor, dry soils. And finally, dahlias are deer resistant as well as being one of the showiest stars in the perennial garden.

For a ground cover, it’s hard to beat deer-resistant liriope’s grass-like tufts of leaves that send up lilac-colored flower wands in late August and early September. Among annuals, native clarkias (Farewell to Spring) are pretty at the end of June, and winter-flowering calendulas brighten the cold months and are passed over by deer when there are so many other plants those forest friends seek out during the rainy season.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at

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