Posts Tagged deer-resistant plant

What Deer Harm in my Garden

Daylilies are a favorite food group.

Daylilies are a favorite food group of deer.

Recall from my previous post that I’ve noticed deer will eat almost anything if they are hungry enough, or if the whim overtakes them. That being established, I’ve definitely noticed preferences among the deer that have regularly visited my five acres over the last quarter century.

Trees and Shrubs

Almost any tree or shrub that remains green in winter will be at least tasted by deer. Camellias will be devoured, along with gardenias. They’ve nibbled on my Leyland cypresses and my prickly hollies, although not seriously. Even the non-prickly hollies, such as inkberry, are usually mostly ignored. They have eaten the leaves off all the branches they can reach on my evergreen dogwood.

Evergreen Chinese Dogwood in bloom. Leaves of its lower branches are routinely eaten during winter.

Evergreen Chinese Dogwood in bloom. Leaves of its lower branches are routinely eaten during winter.

Non-native evergreen azaleas are eaten, especially if they are fertilized. The ones on my property were here when we moved in. I never feed them. The smaller-leaved ones are rarely nibbled. The larger-leaved ones must taste better. If you grow these in deer country, you must spray often. On the other hand, evergreen Southern Magnolias are never touched.

The only native evergreen in my yard that is never nibbled.

The only native evergreen in my yard that is never nibbled.

My biggest problem with young trees and shrubs is antler rubbing. Every fall, male deer rub the fuzz off their new-grown antlers by scraping them against young tree trunks and branches. In my yard, they favor trunks and branches with a diameter of 2-3 inches. Before I realized this was a problem, males girdled the trunks of several recently planted saplings. When you remove bark around the entire circumference of a tree (called girdling), the tree dies, because bark contains the conduits that ferry nutrients between roots and leaves. I’ve found two successful preventive methods:

  • Wire cage barriers high enough to prevent deer from reaching the trunks.

Cages are ugly, serve as supports to unwelcome invaders such as Japanese Honeysuckle and Japanese Stiltgrass, and if you stop paying attention, the cages will eventually constrict branching, thereby contorting growth.

After trunk diameters exceed 4 inches and the trees/shrubs are growing well, I remove the cages. Often, the deer will at least nibble on the newly freed plants, but usually they survive without protection after this.

  • Plastic tree wrap products that spiral around the trunk. These are usually sold to prevent rodent nibbling on fruit tree bark, but they work equally well for deterring antler abrasions.

The kind of wrap I use expands as the trunk grows. It is white, which helps protect young trunks from freeze/thaw cycles, which can split bark. However, it’s a good idea to remove the wrapping periodically to insure that bugs haven’t moved into the cozy space between trunk and wrapping. Again, as soon as the diameter of the trunk is beyond the favored size for antler rubbing, I remove the wrapping.

Note: Although spraying deer deterrent sprays does prevent nibbling of leaves, it does not deter male deer in a hormone-driven frenzy to de-fuzz their antlers on tree branches and trunks.

Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet' is routinely eaten in my yard.

Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ is routinely eaten in my yard.

Shrubs the deer routinely eat if I don’t spray include Virginia Sweetspire. This lovely native must taste very good. My floodplain specimens are now large and wide enough that the deer can’t reach all the way across. Their shapes are strange, but I do get their lovely flowers and fall color every year now. Roses are a favorite food – prickly stems, leaves, and all. I only have a couple that other folks gave me. If I don’t spray, they are gone for the growing season. I’ve written about my Oakleaf Hydrangeas before. Well-timed spraying deters most of the damage most years.

Flowers

Hostas are deer candy. Only plant them if you like feeding deer. If you are deeply in love with these non-native old-fashioned (in my opinion) southern landscape clichés, your only option is to barricade them or spray them year-round after every rain.

Fat flower buds are eaten by people, so it's no wonder that deer love daylily flower buds too.

Fat flower buds are eaten by people, so it’s no wonder that deer love daylily flower buds too.

Daylilies are another popular perennial flower. Wonder Spouse became enamored with them and planted quite a few in our yard. It took the deer a few years to find them, but once they did, they began eating every flower bud off the tall flower scapes. And now that they know where the plants are, they and the bunnies graze on new leaf shoots in early spring before much is growing. The flowers are beautiful and widely diverse in color and form. I spray mine. If I forget after a rain, the flower buds are always eaten. The deer must cruise by and check them often.

Dahlias must not taste as good, but mine are nibbled if I don’t spray them early in the growing season.

Dahlias may have been ignored because I interplanted them with salvias.

Dahlias may have been ignored because I interplanted them with salvias.

Hellebores are poisonous, but in late winter new leaf growth is sometimes sampled by starving deer. I’ve never observed flower nibbling on these plants.

The poison in Hellebores must be fairly potent, because deer mostly ignore them.

The poison in Hellebores must be fairly potent, because deer mostly ignore them.

Native Perennials

Native Purple Coneflower flowers are eaten if I don’t spray, but native Rudbeckia flowers are generally ignored. Native Eastern Columbines are a food of last resort in my yard. Occasionally, all the flowers are devoured. If I spray early in the season, the deer usually go elsewhere.

Flower buds of Purple Coneflowers are often eaten by deer in my yard.

Flower buds of Purple Coneflowers are often eaten by deer in my yard.

As I mentioned in the previous post, my native Mayapple stand is partially eaten every year. I’ve never observed any nibbling of my extensive stand of Bloodroots. Both of these wildflowers are poisonous. Native milkweed flowers are routinely eaten if I don’t spray, even though these plants are poisonous too. Lobelia flower stalks are occasionally eaten, but usually ignored. Tradescantia is snubbed.

My Tradescantia cultivar, 'Sweet Kate,' is ignored.

My Tradescantia cultivar, ‘Sweet Kate,’ is ignored.

 

Fern fiddleheads – the emerging new leaf buds in spring – are eaten. Deer have eaten those on my Christmas ferns, as well as my Royal and Cinnamon ferns. I spray them when they first start popping up, and that usually protects them. My native asters are never nibbled; I’m guessing that their spicy-scented leaves don’t taste good.

Fiddleheads are sautéed in butter and devoured by humans, so it's no wonder that deer like them too.

Fiddleheads are sautéed in butter and devoured by humans, so it’s no wonder that deer like them too.

Deer don’t like herbs, probably because most are strongly resinous. Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, mints, oregano – all are ignored. All perennial and annual salvias are ignored, probably for the same reason. All have fragrant leaves and gorgeous flowers in an array of colors and forms. I grow a lot of salvias.

Salvias are never eaten.

Salvias are never eaten.

 

Anise hyssop  is also ignored for the same reason – potently fragrant leaves.

Irresistible to pollinators, but snubbed by deer.

Irresistible to pollinators, but snubbed by deer.

Daffodils must be very poisonous, because they are always ignored. Crocuses are routinely eaten. Snowdrops are ignored. Lilies are eaten occasionally. Flowers and leaves on my dwarf crested irises are eaten if I don’t spray. New growth that emerges in late winter on my Louisiana irises is eaten to the ground. By the time they bloom, the flowers are usually ignored. However, the deer delight in eating the flower buds of my bearded irises if I forget to spray them.

Never touched by deer or bunnies

Never touched by deer or bunnies

I know this sounds like a lot of spraying, but most of you have much smaller gardens, which helps immensely. Also, I only must spray certain plants at certain times of the year when they are most likely to tempt deer. For me, it’s worth the unpleasant task of spraying a smelly deterrent to ensure I can enjoy my flowers. But I don’t plant new daylilies or iris in my yard anymore. I’ll protect what’s already here, but anything I plant now is either inside a deer fence or has a high likelihood of being mostly ignored by deer.

Dwarf crested iris must be sprayed.

Dwarf crested iris must be sprayed.

Unless the coyote pack I’m hearing nightly eliminates my deer predation problem, I’ll continue to practice these strategies. And, frankly, if I’ve got a choice between their eerie yipping and howling and predation of pets and wildlife or outwitting hungry deer, I think I’d rather battle the deer.

Bearded iris buds are favorite deer delicacies and must be sprayed. Once the flowers are fully open, they are ignored.

Bearded iris buds are favorite deer delicacies and must be sprayed. Once the flowers are fully open, they are ignored.

Either choice serves to remind me that gardening is an unpredictable hobby. Gardening involves a dynamic, ever-changing interplay between plants, animals, weather, and climate. Every day brings something new. To be sure, I am never bored. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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River Oats: A Native Grass Worth Adding to your Landscape

Chasmanthium latifolium

Chasmanthium latifolium

I apologize for the less-than-stellar photo. It was windy, and all those dangly seed heads were dancing merrily with every gust. River Oats are a lovely native grass suitable for moist, shady spots in your piedmont garden. Native to the Carolinas and Georgia, it occurs naturally on the banks of rivers and streams, bottomland forests, and other wet spots, especially in fertile soils. It has a number of other common names, including Inland Sea Oats, Indian Wood Oats, Wild Oats, Flathead Oats, and Upland Oats.

It looks a lot like a coastal grass famous for stabilizing our sand dunes: Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata). If you’ve visited our southeastern US sand dunes, you’ve likely been told not to pick the Sea Oats, because their roots help prevent sand dunes from moving. When you pick the pretty seed heads for arrangements, you reduce the species’ chances for propagating and thereby stabilizing more dunes.

River Oats have no such restrictions. And they are lovely long-lasting additions to dried flower arrangements. They are one of the few native shade-tolerant grasses that grow well in the southeastern piedmont, and they’re also very easy to establish — as long as you give them decent soil and a bit of moisture.

River Oats forms clumps. Flower stalks range between 2-4 feet. Mine stay about 2.5 feet tall. I grow mine at the bottom of my north slope garden that is now enclosed by a deer fence. But even before that fence was in place, the deer never even nibbled on this grass. As is true of just about all our native grasses, the deer ignore them.

These grasses would be ideal in a rain garden — a low spot in your yard where water collects after rains. That extra bit of moisture is all they need — as long as they’re also in the shade. Because they’re clumpers, they mix well with other moisture-loving native flowers, such as Swamp Milkweed. River Oats also work as part of potted plant arrangements — as long as they are sited on a shady porch and adequately watered.

If you don’t cut the mature seed stalks for flower arrangements, they will morph from summer ivory to an autumnal soft brown, eventually weathering to a silvery gray by late winter. By then, most of the seeds will have been devoured by small mammals and grain-loving birds. The leaves are a food source for several species of native skipper butterflies.

I planted three pots of River Oats around a large boulder at the bottom of my hill over 20 years ago. Very gradually, the clumps have grown, and just a few seeds missed by animals have created new plants. The boulder now has a soft and lovely green skirt of River Oats, topped much of the year by dancing dangling seed heads. I highly recommend this native grass to all piedmont gardeners, especially to those with shady damp spots in their yards.

And while I’m writing of wet spots, I must share this recent photo of one of the many dragonflies that patrol the numerous wet areas in my yard. This one was lingering around the front water feature. We think we’ve even identified it, but if I’ve got it wrong, I hope an Odonata expert will set me right.

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

 

 

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Boughs of Holly

Ilex opaca

Ilex opaca

Although astronomically not quite here yet, Winter has already made its presence thoroughly felt in my landscape. Recent weeks have featured a procession of gloomy, chilly, rainy days punctuated by rare sunny days followed by cold, star-filled nights. The native plants on my five acres of Piedmont have responded by going deeply asleep. Leaves lingering on towering oaks linger no longer, instead released to dance upon chill north winds until frost paints their fallen forms.

Frost lingers in the cooler spots in my yard till past noon during the cold spells.

Frost lingers in the cooler spots in my yard till past noon during the cold spells.

Grays, browns, and tans dominate. At least textures still vary to offer some entertainment for bored eyes.  And then there are the hollies. Thank goodness for the hollies!

American Holly (Ilex opaca) is the evergreen holly native to my part of the southeastern US. In our native forests, it tends to be slow-growing and relatively small, often a bit distorted as it strains for light beneath a deciduous canopy. You’ll find it in any relatively moist forest, sometimes in great abundance. Birds and other animals spread  seeds after devouring the bright red fruits. Well over a thousand cultivars of this native exist. Most were selected for consistent berry production and perhaps some disease resistance.

A named cultivar of I. Opaca that I acquired for its purported vigor.

A named cultivar of I. opaca that I acquired for its purported vigor.

The famous plantsman, Michael Dirr, is not a fan of this native. He thinks too many, better options exist to make efforts with I. opaca worthwhile. I disagree, but my perspective is not Dr. Dirr’s.

Dr. Dirr’s focus is always on the potential impact a plant will make in a home landscape. Because most folks want low-maintenance, consistent performers, ideally packing a “wow” factor, Dr. Dirr believes our native American Holly is best replaced with an English or Asian holly. The well-known cultivar, ‘Nellie R. Stevens,’ is a cross between those two non-native species, and it’s probably what most folks think of when they think of hollies in the South.

A dried hydrangea flower blends into the brown and gray winter landscape.

A dried hydrangea flower blends into the brown and gray winter landscape.

I prefer to champion the case for our native American Holly. In the wild, it is highly variable in fruit production, leaf color, and disease resistance, but I argue that this variability  is what makes every encounter with the species more interesting. As I wander my winter landscape, my eye is drawn to small islands of distant green — almost always an American Holly holding court among brown grasses and gray tree trunks.

First, I look for fruits. Hollies are dioecious, meaning male flowers occur only on some plants and females only on others. For good fruit production, you must always plant a non-berry-producing male plant near your females. Holly flowers are relatively small, but pollinators find them without difficulty. During their bloom time in spring, my hollies hum with the activity of enthusiastic visitors.

As ubiquitous as American Holly in the winter landscape, White-throated Sparrows animate the forest as they forage for tidbits beneath bushes and welcome sunrises with their plaintive calls.

As ubiquitous as American Holly in the winter landscape, White-throated Sparrows animate the forest as they forage for tidbits beneath bushes and welcome sunrises with their plaintive calls.

American Holly prefers moist forests, so you won’t find many on ridge tops. My five acres of bottomland, however, offer ideal growing conditions, and I find volunteers popping up from the top of my hill to the edge of my creek along the floodplain. They may not be “wow” plants, but they are beloved by local wildlife, providing food for Cedar Waxwings, Wild Turkeys, Eastern Bluebirds, Brown Thrashers, Northern Mockingbirds, and raccoons, among others.

The evergreen leaves also provide shelter against winter winds and precipitation. On more than one cold winter morning, I’ve disturbed whole flocks of songbirds when I’ve unwittingly drawn too close to a holly they were using for shelter. With a whoosh, they scatter in all directions, leaving the Green Queen of the winter landscape vibrating.

I encourage all Piedmont gardeners to find room for American Holly in their home landscapes. It doesn’t need to be beside your front door. But it would happily be part of a grouping of mixed native species that could serve as a native wildlife haven, and a welcome spot of green in a gray winter landscape.

Sharp leaves protect berries from deer predation -- another reason to encourage this species in your landscape.

Sharp leaves protect berries from deer predation — another reason to encourage this species in your landscape.

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Scarlet Wild Basil: Another native beloved by hummingbirds

The sage-family-like flowers are a bright orange-red.

The tubular flowers are a bright orange-red.

I’ve been coveting Scarlet Wild Basil (Clinopodium coccineum) for years. It is one of the summer-blooming stars of the Sandhills Native Habitat Garden at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel HIll. I’m not the only one who admires it. The Greenhouse and Nursery Manager at the NCBG tells me that it is one of the most frequently requested plants by folks visiting the Plant Sale area of the Garden. He can’t keep it in stock.

This native of the Sandhill regions of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi has many common names besides Scarlet Wild Basil, including Scarlet Calamint, Red Savory, Red Mint Shrub, Scarlet Balm, and Red Basil. The evergreen, opposite-leaved foliage is mildly aromatic, which probably explains most of its names. In my garden, it has, so far, proved to be uninteresting to deer or other varmints, probably due to its spicy-smelling foliage.

I was able to acquire a tiny plant from the NCBG last fall. It was too small for sale in the Plant Sale area yet, but I persuaded the Nursery Manager that I could coax the little specimen through the winter. I am delighted to say I succeeded.

Here in NC, we are technically outside the native range of Scarlet Wild Basil. One of our rare, very cold winters might well kill it. Likewise, because it is native to sandy soils, too much rain can also destroy it.

Luckily for me, I have a spot in my yard that is, more or less, a natural rock garden. Massive boulders adorn a spot beside my garage, probably resulting from when the original owner of my home put in the driveway. These boulders have begun to break down a bit, and the soil around them is a shallow mix of sand and bits of rock — ideal for plants that need sharp drainage and can benefit from the extra warmth of heat-absorbing boulders.

Even so, I built up the sand into a little hill before I planted my tiny Scarlet Wild Basil last October. Then I surrounded the plant with small rocks, to add heat, and to prevent heavy rains from eroding the sand away from the base of the plant. Our winter was dry, so about every three weeks if it hadn’t rained, I watered the newcomer thoroughly.

My attentiveness paid off. It began blooming a bit in April, and it’s been blooming off and on ever since. The excessive rains of June here slowed flower production, but now the plant seems to be trying to make up for lost time. It is a bloom-producing machine! And the hummingbirds are delighted by this addition to my landscape. Further south, it has been observed blooming every month of the year.

In its native range, this plant can grow to between 1-3 feet tall and wide. Mine will probably remain on the smaller side of that range, because I’m pushing its tolerance for cold a bit. Right now, it’s about 1.5 feet tall and spreads about 2 feet across.

Even though it’s petite, you can’t miss those orange-red tubular blossoms, especially with the boulders behind it as background. I continue to be delighted by this recent addition to my landscape — and the hummingbirds agree!

The boulders around it provide extra warmth in winter and serve as a neutral backdrop that highlights the flowers.

The boulders around it provide extra warmth in winter and serve as a neutral backdrop that highlights the flowers.

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