Last summer, deer snipped the tops off goldenrods and helped themselves to swamp milkweed buds. They had wild lettuces for breakfast and black raspberries for dessert. 

Despite the diverse tasting menus on offer, most plants in my garden didn’t tempt these gentle herbivores, who sampled purpletop grass but gave purple lovegrass a pass. The deer ate seasonally, devouring sedges in spring but ignoring summer regrowth. And even nibbled plants lived to see another day; in fact, half-eaten cardinal flowers sprouted twice as many buds that fed hummingbirds all season.

If deer feast on your garden, you can plan—and plant—for it using smart and simple strategies.
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Not that any of this surprised me. Living alongside deer for decades, I’ve learned that gardens can thrive in their presence—to the point where our habitat now hosts uncommon butterflies, drawn to plants the deer leave untouched. A growing body of research confirms the resilience of plants that resist, tolerate and even embrace herbivores. Whether the focus is on coastal North Carolina seaweeds, thorny African savannah shrubs or desert Southwest wildflowers, studies reflect the plant-herbivore relationships I’ve witnessed in my own backyard

My strategies for coexistence with deer are creative applications of principles already known to scientists, says Yale University professor of population and community ecology Oswald Schmitz, but “these kinds of things have never really been tried from a gardener’s perspective.” A review of the literature, along with my conversation with Schmitz, illuminates why the following approaches have succeeded in my garden—and can in yours, too.

Create a haven for wildlife.

A humane backyard is a natural habitat with plenty of food, water and cover that gives wildlife a safe place to live free from pesticides, chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices and other threats. And it's so easy to build!

humane backyard with a bench and birdbath
Meredith Lee / The HSUS
Goldenrod
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Nurture diversity

There’s no such thing as deer-proof plants; animal preferences and plant palatability depend on season, food availability, soil nutrients and other variables. But chemical and structural traits—like toxins and thorns—make some plants reliably less interesting to mammals. Unappetizing species can safeguard tastier ones; in my garden, for example, native plants in the mint family protect sunflowers. Natural plant communities employ these “associational defense” strategies to prevent insects and mammals from singling out one species. “It’s about creating a neighborhood,” says Schmitz, recalling the way wildflowers mingle in meadows. “You can see this even in high-deer-density areas.

Elderberry
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Bring back menu classics

Deer don’t eat everything; lawnmowers do. Pressure to maintain turfgrass, combined with dismissal of local plants as “weeds,” suppresses rich wildlife habitat. Freed from cutting blades, the land around our suburban home comes alive with pokeweed, sumacs, dogwoods, goldenrods, elderberries, jewelweed, violets, asters and native grasses—all good eats for deer. Provide these alternative food sources by allowing them to grow outside your garden, Schmitz recommends. “What you’re doing is actually moving the deer around your landscape yourself and deflecting the herbivory away from the plants that you really like.”

Create structured routines

By encouraging those tastier plants to seed on their own within my garden, I take that concept further and welcome deer to the table—but with some gentle place-setting guidance based on their tendency to walk the same paths. If American burnweeds volunteer at the border, most gardeners pull them, fearing they’ll grow too tall and topple. But leaving them in vulnerable spots invites deer to whittle them down, creating bushier plants. Similarly, I add species that thrive on natural pruning to path edges. Tall and resilient, common evening primrose employs a post-browse strategy known as “overcompensation,” blooming at a shorter height but producing many more flowers after deer nibble the tops.

What you’re doing is actually moving the deer around your landscape yourself and deflecting the herbivory away from the plants that you really like.
Oswald Schmitz, Yale University professor of population and community ecology

Respect the dead (plants)

Tree snags, logs and plant stalks support everyone from the tiniest cavity-nesting bees to roosting owls to fox families. But dead wood also has another important purpose in wildlife habitat: protecting plants from herbivory. A well-placed log or brush pile can encourage deer to look for dinner in a more accessible spot. 

Of all my strategies, the best one is this: Be patient, and let your perspective grow along with your garden. The best plants in life are free, sprouting from seeds carried in on the hooves and fur of wild friends. Natural pruning can be an asset, inducing new growth just in time for the next brood of butterflies. For all these lessons I’ve learned in my own garden, a place of constant wonders, I have the deer to thank.

Nancy Lawson is the author of The Humane Gardener.

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