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Garden Tips

Gardening with Bambi
By: Bob Beyer, Travis County Master Gardener

BambiGardening with deer is a love/hate relationship.  We love living among and seeing wildlife, BUT, "stay out of my garden"! Why are deer such a problem to gardeners? Destruction of their natural habitat has led to their adaptation to our suburban environment. Overpopulation results. Deer will eat anything when hungry enough. Male deer's antler rubbing damages and can kill young trees.

Understanding deer is part of the resolution to this problem. Their primary food is tender broadleaf plant leaves, twigs, and branches, but not grasses. They are territorial and have habitual traffic patterns that they follow within their area. The hungrier deer get, the more difficult they are to control. Summer and early fall tend to be a period of food shortages. Deer are naturally curious to sample new plantings.

Gardeners also need to consider that ornamental plants may lose their deer resistance characteristics through plant breeding. For example, the Lantana you buy at a nursery may be hybridized and not as resistant to deer as the native Lantana. New growth may be nipped but the rest of the plant untouched since they favor tender new growth. Unestablished plants with tender growth pull up easily if nipped so may need temporary protection until the roots "dig in".  

Deer population pressure creates a source of/demand for food which makes deer more eager to eat almost anything.  Their exposure to human presence and their comfort level with being around humans makes it more difficult to ward them off. Never feed deer. That is a City regulation punishable by a fine. And did you know that deer are State of TX property (TPWD)?  As such, it is illegal to kill, trap and relocate or injure these animals without express permit from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.  

All this begs the question, "How do we manage deer"?  There are four methods.

  1. Use of non-preferred landscape plants - the least expensive, most effective way.  
  2. 8 ft tall physical barriers & fencing - the most expensive but an effective method.
  3. Scare devices - motion generated.  These are good investments and fairly effective.
  4. Scent-based repellants - the most expensive and least effective way since they require continuous reapplication.

Let's focus on non-preferred plants.  They have five characteristics: strong, unpleasant odors; bitter, disagreeable taste; prickly and/or stiff, textured foliage, fuzzy foliage (pubescent), milky sap which is caustic &/or sticky.  A small sampling of deer-resistant plants….

Plants with unpleasant scented resistance:  Rosemary, Mexican Oregano, Copper Canyon Daisy, Mexican Mint Marigold, Santolina, Lantana, Wax Myrtle, Sumac, or any strong scented herbs, shown below.Bambi

Plants with unpleasant taste include: Texas Mountain Laurel, Flame Acanthus, Thryallis, Blackfoot Daisy, Esperanza, Plumbago, Shrimp Plant, Texas Betony, Desert Willow, Rock Rose, Skullcap, Columbine, Coreopsis, Elaeagnus, Mock Orange, Sages, Flowering Senna. shown below.Bambi

Plants with prickly or tough foliage  include:  Agarita, Basket Grass, Fragrant Mimosa,  Fan Palms, Cacti, Yucca, Pomegranate, Hollies, Agaves, and  Sago palms (really a cycad), shown below.Bambi

Plants with fuzzy foliage include:  Artemesia, Black-eyed Susan, Lamb's Ear, Coneflower, Wooly Butterfly Bush, Wooly Stemodia, Texas Sage, and Bush Germander, shown below.Bambi

Plants with sticky, caustic sap include:   Oleander, Confederate Jasmine, Euphorbia family, and Arizona Cypress, shown below.

When looking at deer resistant plant lists, there are no guarantees that they are deer proof - deer will eat anything if hungry enough.  You should place wire fencing up to 8' to protect young trees until at least 6" diameter or barriers around new plantings until established.  Consider cost vs. benefit in choice of method you use.  It all depends on your individual circumstances. Learn to live with and enjoy wildlife.  The goal is to minimize damage, not eliminate it. Become familiar with deer population habits.  Assess needs for plant protection - have a plan.  

Some good resources to help you garden with deer include:

  1. City of Austin "Grow Green" booklet, 52 pgs, free at nurseries and garden centers within Austin.
  2. Grow Green Program: Deer Resistant Design Pamphlet - free at nurseries and garden centers in Austin.
  3. Website:  City of Austin Grow Green Program -
  4. Texas Cooperative Extension Article "Gardening in Deer Country ..........

Enjoy our native wildlife and a beautiful garden at the same time.  It is possible!

©Zilker Botanical Garden,
Austin Area Garden Council