Eye-catching borders in spite of deer

In spite of deer. This is the main gardening theme I live with. If you have the same issue … deer browsing your perennial beds in spite of you planting supposedly deer-resistant plants and shrubs … read on.

The photos below represent 16 years of trial and error. I’ve planted and lost to deer more plants than I want to acknowledge. But I’ve still managed to eek out some eye-catching borders in the foundation and other mixed perennial and shrub beds on our property.

My friend refers to this as Darwinian gardening – survival of the fittest – but I’ve labeled it Deerwinian gardening – survival in spite of deer.

Perennial bed that survives in deer territory.

Perennial bed that survives in deer territory.

The major shrubs include boxwood, mounding inkberry (Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’), and azalea and rhododendron that I fence during winter months. In the corner near the downspout is caryopteris, a relatively new addition that, in its third season, is now beginning to obtain some size.

Perennials include common lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) and, at the far end not seen in this photo the Helen von Stein variety that does not bloom; Salvia (I think it’s nemorosa ‘May Night’); lavender, Maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides ‘Arctic Fire’); Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria); foxglove (Digitalis); and nepeta. A few years ago I added meadow rue (Thalictrum), planting it behind the center-most boxwood, but deer manage to find and top it every spring. It blooms occasionally in later summer, but never achieves the height I hoped for … sigh.

Farther along in this bed, but not clear in this photo, are Siberian and bearded iris, peonies, and more boxwood, lamb’s ear, foxglove, lavender, Pieris andromeda, a Rose of Sharon that sees deer browse of its lower leaves but manages to bloom above the deer-browse level, and clematis that grows up the end post of the porch

The perennials listed above are repeated in the opposite bed with the addition of common sage, Campanula poscharskyana, and various varieties of allium.

The opposite bed that blooms in spite of deer.

The opposite bed that blooms in spite of deer.

I deadhead the lamb’s ear blooms when they begin to fade or get knocked askew by rain. This maintains a neater border look.

Deer are fickle and have varied taste. Deer in your neck of the woods may like or shun a different group of plants from those listed above, but I’ve generally found they dislike most silver and gray plants and those with fuzzy leaves. Still, any newly purchased nursery plant is more likely to suffer deer-browse … the four-legged creatures seem attracted to highly-fertilized plants. I’ve even seen them munch on newly-purchased lamb’s ear.

Outside of installing a tall fence to prevent deer from reaching your gardens, trial and error is the only way to learn what local deer do and do not like. I’ve tried nearly every deer repellent on the market with limited success and now generally avoid the expense (though I do, at times, test new environmentally safe products).

The plants listed above are not the only ones deer avoid in my gardens – more on these in future posts – but, if deer are a major nemesis in your area, the list above gives you a few hints on how to have eye-catching perennial beds in spite of deer.

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Winter Review: Frost Heaving

Winter is the ideal dream time for cold-climate gardeners, but it’s also a perfect time to review good gardening practices and increase your gardening knowledge. For this Winter Review we’ll examine frost heaving.

Frost heaving can occur when winter weather brings wide temperature swings for days on end. Soil, originally frozen when cold temperatures settled in, will thaw. When the soil refreezes the ice that forms in the previously thawed layers expands. When this occurs at the base of some plants it can cause the crown and root systems to rise – or heave – from the soil, which exposes the roots to cold and drying temperatures.

If this happens multiple times, a plant can be pushed completely out of the soil. The result is a significantly stressed or dead plant.

Now factor in multiple frost/thaw cycles with heavy rainfall during an extended thaw cycle. Some of the rain settles into the top layers of soil making it even more likely to heave during a subsequent freeze.

The wide temperature swings we’ve experienced in Connecticut this winter, coupled by the lack of a constant heavy snow cover, has led to significant frost heaving. Shallow-rooted perennials – think strawberries, heuchera and scabiosa – are very susceptible to frost heaving, as are any plants in naturally moist soils and late-planted shrubs and perennials that did not have adequate after-planting time to extend their roots far into surrounding soil.

A heavy snow cover helps mitigate frost heaving. I noticed very little frost heaving after last winter, when three feet of snow blanketed my gardens and held soil temperatures constant throughout the winter. I’ve likewise found little frost heaving during winters that remain cold but have little snow cover.

If you’re a fan of frost heaving – which no right-minded gardener would be – this 2013-2014 winter weather has been ideal. We had cold temperatures and 3” to 5” snowfalls in early-mid December, but on the first day of winter outdoor temperatures were in the 50’s. By the first of January it was again cold, but all snow was long-gone until 5” fell on  January 3rd. That snow melted when heavy rains, along with a few days of temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s, followed.

January 15 brought frosty morning fog, quickly dissipated by the rising sun, and afternoon temperatures warm enough to entice this little caterpillar guy to wander.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow, on January 22nd, we’re back to a deep freeze – a low of about 5 degrees this morning – and 10” of new snow.

I hope this snow blanket remains – and is replenished – until spring begins to push this fickle Old Man Winter away. Though all my plants are well mulched, which offers some protection from frost heaving, I’ve already noticed heaving of one late-planted lavender and in the strawberry bed.

Sometimes there is nothing a gardener can do to prevent frost heaving, but a good blanket of snow until spring may help protect heaved plants from further damage – it may even save them from demise.

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