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Rx: Living with deer
It is possible to have a lovely unfenced garden even if you have deer in the neighborhood. You just have to be willing to experiment, accept periodic nibbling (or worse) and be diligent in spraying deer repellents on your favorite-but-susceptible plants.
Some precautionary steps
Keep an eye on what your immediate neighbors are growing successfully. Individual deer have different tastes, so even if a friend in Novato can grow agapanthus safely, Tiburon gardeners may never enjoy a single bloom.
Test before you invest. If you're considering an extensive planting of a new species, buy one plant and install it in your garden for a month or so. It may not last a week!
Protect recent nursery purchases. They are particularly vulnerable, because they are well fertilized and flush with succulent young growth. When setting out new plants, spray them with deer repellent, cover them with wire cages or protect them with netting draped over stakes.
Brace yourself for some losses, especially in autumn when deer seek water content as much as nutrition, munching on plants they normally ignore.
Rules of thumb
Here are some categories of plants--and a few examples of each--that tend to be deer-resistant. Remember: deer don't read the lists!
Poisonous: euphorbia, foxglove (Digitalis), hellebore, narcissus, oleander
Smelly: catmint (Nepeta) lavender, mint, oregano, rosemary, society garlic (Tulbaghia)
Woolly or hairy leaves: lamb's ear (Stachys), lamium, salvia (some)
Gray or silver leaves: African daisy (Arctotis), olive, westringia
Prickly: agave, barberry, pyracantha (not roses, however!)
Ornamental grasses, sedges and restios: carex, helictotrichon, juncus, miscanthus
Conifers: juniper, pine
Succulents: aeonium, aloe, jade plant
Southern hemisphere plants (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand): breath of heaven, correa, grevillea, osteospermum, plumbago
Sunset Western Garden Book has a good listing of deer-resistant plants, and many local nurseries provide a section of deer-resistant plants, as well as free lists of their own. There is a broad palette of beautiful plants that deer rarely touch. With a little patience, your garden can co-exist with deer.
Contributors: Faith Brown, Julie Monson