Up until very recently, deer have never been a great concern of mine, at least not in terms of gardening. I’d seen beds suffer at the spurs of the neighbors’ chickens, watched my wife running out of the greenhouses with her arms waving, mouth like a G-rated sailor. Once in Belize, we’d left a fenced garden for a couple of weeks only to return and learn that an agouti (you know, a smaller version of a gibnut) had stripped bare all the squash plants that had taken off. At Caoba Farms, gophers were prone to gnawing away at the roots of citrus and mulberry trees. In other words, I knew wild animals could be a challenge for gardeners. After a short time in North Carolina, I experienced deer.
After her retirement from teaching, my mother has moved to Brevard, North Carolina, into a house somewhat in the forest, and deer are most definitely a regular feature. Most mornings consist of multiple sightings as they forage through the back garden and through the strips of forests between houses before we’ve even finished the first cup of coffee. Seeing this, and having heard several warnings about deer eating crops, it was apparent that they would be an issue with regards to growing anything edible, so my wife Emma and I checked out some lists of deer-resistant plants.
Being ever in the mindset of functionality, we then took that list of deer-resistant plants and formulated an approach for growing in an edible garden where deer would regularly meander through. My mother only owns a small parcel of land, not a quarter of a hectare, and—it’s a good thing—she’d rather see the deer than grow cabbage. In other words, there are severe limits as to what can be grown without bother. She bought a few small flower bushes to try to include with the following list, and the next morning, she watched from the window as a doe ate every last bloom. So, it goes.
A List of Edible Deer-Resistant Plants
Here are some of the plants we discovered work well in this area, which is to say USDA Zone 6 in the mountainous side of a coastal state with plenty of rain. For my mother’s situation—some small “flower” beds near the front porch—we were in search of fairly small and attractive plants that wouldn’t require a lot of attention but might provide her with a little forage for the kitchen.
1. The Onion Family (Alliums)
The onion family, of course, features onions, and it also includes chives, leeks, and garlic. They, as much of the rest of this list, are noted for having a strong smell and flavor, something that seems to turn the deer off.
2. Aromatic Culinary Herbs
Culinary herbs are yet another strong smelling group of plants with quite bold flavors. Deer aren’t into that, so they—sage, oregano, rosemary, thyme, dill, marjoram, mint, etc.—are generally considered something rarely damaged by these browsers. Basil is a little less offensive to them.
Artichokes are a great plant for a permaculture garden as they fall into the prestigious perennial group of vegetables. Bees absolutely love the flowers, but deer don’t see them the same way. The flowers are a bit too spiky for grazing.
Though lavender is sometimes, in fancier crowds, used as a culinary herb, more often it is appreciated for its calming aroma, which has given it a good reputation in soaps and candles. Deer don’t dig it, which is to say they don’t eat it.
The nightshades, a group that includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, are considered to be deadly, which is to say that animals who pay attention to such things don’t go for them…often. The jury is still out, as sometimes accidents do happen, and morning forages might leave potato or tomato plants completely leafless.
Rhubarb looks surprisingly delicious with its alluringly bright stems and luscious leaves, but in reality, only the stems are edible. The leaves, in fact, are poisonous. For us permaculturists, it is yet another perennial addition to the gardens, and for those of us dealing with deer, it is yet another that will go largely unscathed.
A List of Edible Deer-Resistant Trees
Though my mother isn’t in the tree-planting game (her house is amongst an existing forest), research definitely brought about some tree options, and because Emma and I are in the tree-planting game, it was most definitely some potentially useful information for us. Thus, it seemed worth sharing. Some other trees, such as date palms and olives are said to be deer-resistant, but they are not really in our wheelhouse of options.
Figs often top lists in this regard, but they do seem a little more up for debate when it comes to what is said and what actually happens. Some commenters claim to have seen their fig leaves disappear—by deer—in a matter of days. Without a doubt, the smaller trees would be more susceptible and require protection.
2. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo Biloba seems a pretty popular tree to grow here in North Carolina, and it is highly respected for its medicinal value, especially with regard to improving memory. For some reasons, deer seem to ignore the healthful advantages and skip out on it, though the nuts and leaves are edible. Ginkgo, an ancient species, is known for being extremely resistant to pests, even deer, and diseases.
3. Honey Locust
Since moving to North Carolina, I have become a major fan of black locust trees, which are widely regarded here for being great firewood and producing long-lasting, rot-resistant wood for fence posts and such. Honey locust offers a similar wood, is also a nitrogen-fixer, and unlike black locust, has edible pods and seeds. Deer aren’t too fussed over it.
Pawpaw, though sometimes thought to be papaya, is not the same thing, at least not in the US. Pawpaw trees are actually producers of the largest edible fruit (from trees) native to North America. They are part of the custard apple clan. They grow in here in North Carolina, but their flavor hints at something much more tropical. Deer, however, don’t like them.
Persimmons also seem to be commonly listed tree for those struggling with growing in deer-y areas. My dad has one in his front yard in Texas, a spot which deer visit regularly, and he doesn’t seem to have any trouble. He has noted, though, that little foxes seem to enjoy gathering up the fallen fruits for a snack.
6. Sugar Maple
Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, it is also possible to grow sugar maple trees, the same that are famed for making syrup. Apparently, deer don’t see what the fuss is all about. As for me, making syrup seems to be quite an arduous and energy-intensive process, but drinking the sap is said to be quite a treat.
Well, I definitely wouldn’t count on this group to provide my entire diet, but to be frank, I was pleasantly surprised with how much stuff was still possible without needing fencing. There is quite a diverse selection of deer-resistant things to eat. There are some nutritional superstars, like fresh culinary herbs, garlic, onions, and ginkgo biloba, and there are some delicious specialty crops, such as artichokes, rhubarb, and pawpaw. With over a dozen edibles to grow, that’s a hell of a start to a garden.
By all means, share your experiences in the comment section below, and even more so, let us know about any other plants that could or should have made the list.
Header Image: My Mama’s Garden (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)