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How to select shrubs that deer won’t devour

Young avocado trees can be severely stunted, deformed, or killed when mule deer browse on new shoots. Deer feeding on older trees seldom causes significant damage.
Young avocado trees can be severely stunted, deformed, or killed when mule deer browse on new shoots. Deer feeding on older trees seldom causes significant damage. W. P. Gorenzel

Q: I’ve just moved to a new home and want to plant shrubs that will not be devastated by local deer.

Jeanette, Cambria

A: Experienced gardeners know that there is no such thing as a “deer-proof” plant. Deer fencing is the only way to keep deer out of your garden. Even when a plant is considered deer-resistant, hungry deer will sample a newly planted shrub that may later be undesirable. Fawns will also nibble on plants as they learn what is edible and what is not.

Gardeners in deer-inhabited areas must find alternatives to shrubs, such as roses, unless they are willing to install wire cages around them. Research what deer like, then choose varieties of shrubs less enticing. Buy a single potted plant and place it in the chosen location. Observe it for at least a week and make note of its desirability to local deer.

Many of the more deer-resistant plants available are California and Australian natives. These plants have been able to reproduce and thrive in areas of pervasive deer populations for centuries. Some have a strong odor, such as the scented geranium (Pelargonium) and herbs. Their strong odor repels deer. Fuzzy-leafed plants or prickly plants also deter deer. The mild toxicity of the berries and/or leaves is the discouraging element of plants such as the big-leafed hydrangea.

Flowering shrub options that add both color and structure to a garden include the blue hibiscus, barberry, Buddleia (butterfly bush), sweet box, canthus, flowering quince, choisya, cotoneaster, flannel bush, toyon, holly, juniper, lavatera, Scotch heather and heath, Oregon grape, tea tree, oleander, plumbago, rhododendron, rosemary, evergreen barberry, wax myrtle, viburnum, holly, Echium (pride of Madera), salvia (sage), rock rose, saucer Magnolia, dwarf coyote bush, and princess flower.

As a last resort, and to protect your shrubs when first planted, try spraying them once every two weeks and after it rains with a commercial product that has an offensive smell to deer (and unfortunately to humans too). There are ultrasound and sprinkler type devices that act as deer deterrents as well.

Before you plant, carefully consider which plants will fulfill your design requirements while letting you relax and enjoy the wildlife that inhabit your neighborhood.

Lee Oliphant is a UC Master Gardener.

Got a gardening question?

In San Luis Obispo call 781-5939, Arroyo Grande, 473-7190 and Templeton, 434-4105. Visit us at http://ucanr.org/sites/mgslo/ or email us at anrmgslo@ucanr.edu. Follow us on Instagram at slo_mgs and like us on Facebook. Informative garden workshops are held the third Saturday of every month, 10 a.m. to noon at 2156 Sierra Way, San Luis Obispo. Garden docents are available after the workshop until 1 p.m. To request a tour of the garden, call 781-5939.

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