Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine for the soul.                                                                                                                                                  - Luther Burbank

We were looking forward to growing some brightly colored flowers when we moved to our new house, however, we did not anticipate such an overwhelming presence and the never ending appetite of the white-tailed deer. We hope to share some helpful tips and advice on growing and maintaining some deer resistant plants and continuing cultivating the 'Garden State' image of New Jersey. 

The featured pictures, taken by a talented nature photographer and a Somerset County Master Gardener, Shona Erlenborn, give a wonderful glimpse of several species which can be grown locally to create a bountiful and an ‘almost’ deer free garden.

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It is always a good idea to start careful landscape planning during the cooler months from the comfort of home, instead of hasty planting and losing some beautiful shrubs and flowers to the variety of rodents in the spring.

About a hundred years ago, local deer were considered an endangered species. Relocated by the State Game Commission from Pennsylvania and Michigan, they were released into the local New Jersey forests. Today, mostly due to the overdevelopment resulting in a loss of both, the natural habitat and predators, Somerset County is one of the densest deer populated areas in our state.

Our white-tailed friends enjoy tasting local gardens at any given time of the year. During the barren winter months, they will sample almost anything. As the summer droughts arrive, they can be both hungry and thirsty and although preferring browsing after dusk, they visit our gardens at any time. If we water our plants in the evening and the leaves do not dry out, it is a refreshing deer meal, so early morning watering works best. One way to protect palatable shrubs from browsing is covering them during the winter months with a plastic or nylon netting, secured by posts. Burlap is the best guard against deer scraping their antlers on the tree trunks, doing so to mark their territory. Repellents are effective but need to be reapplied, especially following rainfall or when treating new growth. When watering, one should focus on the roots rather than leaves, as overhead hosing can wash the spray off as well. Contact repellents, much more effective, are squirted directly onto plants while the area sprays are applied near the plants. As deer often get used to their taste and smell, repellents are best varied annually. They can be purchased at a local garden center and applied by the homeowner or by a contractor. Home remedies include the strategic placing of human hair, hot pepper sauce, mothballs or bars of heavily scented soap, but they only offer limited protection. Chimes, hanging shiny CDs and a motion activated sprinkler system can also act as a deterrent. Having a dog is helpful during the day, but deer incur most damage at night when the dog is sound asleep at home. Not a single one of these remedies offer one hundred percent protection, but using a combination may help us grow a brightly colored garden.

The only guaranteed deer barrier is a single fence at least 8-10 feet in height or two parallel fences, 4 feet high and spread 3-4 feet apart. A plastic mesh is often the first choice of a material as it is not expensive and not as visible as some other options. Solar powered electric fencing is used at times, but not all municipalities allow it.

If a fence is not an option, gardeners can grow deer resistant plants found in a detailed Rutgers University link: In general, deer do not like fuzzy and hairy surfaces, such as lamb ears or yarrow nor prickly foliage characteristic of the globe thistle. Their noses are one hundred times more sensitive than ours, so they shun heavily scented plants such as numerous herbs: dill, oregano, lavender, cilantro, and thyme among others. Arugula is always a good choice, and it is easy to grow, along with garlic and chives.

Daffodils, toxic to the deer, are available in hundreds of varieties, ranging in color, height, texture, and bloom length. Most of spring flowering bulbs should be planted in the late fall with an exception of Iris, which does best when put in the ground in August. Many multiply themselves over time. They prefer full to part sun and look their best in groupings of five or more. Digging up a larger spot to fit several bulbs at once with a shovel or using a bulb auger is the easiest way of getting them into the ground. The rule of thumb is to plant bulbs at a depth three times their size, with the root down. They can be purchased at any local garden center, or if you plan to plant a lot, from wholesale online sources. It is a great joy to be able to design a plot using heirlooms and a few unusual cultivars. It is always a good idea to start one’s garden on a small scale and see what works best. Another type of a late spring blooming bulb, unpalatable to deer is the statuesque Allium, derived from the onion family. These majestic beauties bloom from late May through June. They are usually purple or blue in color, although one can find them in a variety of pinks, burgundy and white as well. The tallest, Globus, ranges from nearly six feet tall and the shortest varieties, stand only one foot in height. Spraying the bulbs just before planting with a rodent repellent is a good idea along with adding Bulb Plant Food and covering soil with mulch in early January to protect them from cold.

Deer resistant perennials are planted once and come up repeatedly every year. Below is a glimpse at some of our favorites.

Lily of the Valley, often used as ground cover in shady parts of the garden, charms with its fragrant delicate blossoms and spreads widely if not properly controlled.  Peony, adorning many gardens, blooms in June and is available in a variety of colors: burgundy, white and pink. The Bleeding Heart, native to the Eastern United States, is easy to transplant, has delicate, pink flowers and can grow to a height of a small bush. It is ephemeral and disappears towards the end of the summer, so it is a good idea to plant it next to rich foliage to avoid an empty space. One of the favorite native perennials is the long blooming Columbine. It prefers part shade and blooms in yellow, pink, white and purple, often cross-pollinating. The Butterfly Weed, another native, blooming from summer through autumn, attracts Monarch Butterflies with its brightly colored orange and yellow flower display. A sun-loving Blue and White False Indigo, 3-4 foot-tall, blooms attractively and requires little maintenance. Russian Sage adds height and beauty to any garden with its delicate light purple flowers. Hybrid sage, also purple in color, and a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies, grows 2-3 feet tall and likes the full sun. Native Black-Eyed Susan adds an attractive warm yellow color to any setting.

Vinca and Salvia are among several decorative deer resistant, long-blooming annuals. Overwhelmingly popular Marigold looks attractive in any setting with its dense, orange flowers. Strongly scented Lantana loves sunshine and is rabbit resistant as well; it comes in a variety of colors with pink and orange being the most vivid. Self-seeding Coreopsis blooms from June through September and attracts beneficial pollinators. To encourage more blooms, cutting spent flowers is always recommended.

Several species of low maintenance, ornamental grasses may survive deer appetite as well. Maiden Grass charms with its puffy plumes and Zebra Grass is its visually stunning, variegated-leafed relative. Blue Fescue adds a spiky texture to the landscape and a bout of color as its name suggests.

Shrubs such as easy to prune and shape, Boxwood, have adorned gardens for over a thousand years and Spirea delights with its long-lasting pink flowers. Evergreen Juniper and Holly create a green oasis in the midst of the bleak winter months.

Deer resistant ferns, in general, enjoy shaded, moist spots. Some of the popular ones include a deciduous Ostrich Fern, thriving in colder climates; it can grow between 2-6 foot tall. Autumn Fern, is an evergreen, which, when given adequate moisture, can thrive under oaks. Last, but not least is a Cinnamon Fern, an American native, which enjoys swampy areas.

Regrettably, in the case of extreme hunger, almost no plant is off limits to our white-tailed cohabitants. It is always a good idea to observe what a neighbor successfully grows in their garden and plant the same.

This article is an edited version of our piece written for the Somerset Master Gardener Newsletter. It is partially based on a resourceful book entitled “50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants", authored by Ruth Rogers Clausen and on our own gardening experience.

If you would like to learn more about the Master Gardener Program and its programs, please see the link: