Gardening to Resist Deer and Elk

Mule deer and elk have lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for hundreds of years, and as human populations rise, they are forced to live in close proximity to people. Many of us enjoy seeing these beautiful animals bedded down in our back yards, but they can inflict considerable damage on plants and gardens.

To survive, deer and elk must find enough to eat. During winter, they browse on shrubs and trees. Deer eat more than 300 different types of plants, and if they’re hungry enough, there is little they will not eat. We have all seen spruce and pine trees damaged by their browsing. Deer winter at lower elevations, and we who live nearby have only one option for protecting our woodies – fencing. Fences must be at least six feet tall to keep deer out. When young, deciduous trees must be protected with wire or plastic fencing around the trunk to prevent girdling; if bark is stripped entirely from around a tree’s trunk, it will die. (Once the tree ages enough for the bark to become corkly, fencing is no longer necessary.)

When temperatures warm, deer and elk shift their diets to grasses and flowering plants and we often see damage to flower gardens. Several products seem to keep deer off their less-favored plants: Liquid Fence, Bobbex and Deer Off are examples. Weekly spraying of these repellants seems to be needed in areas with high deer pressure, and they may not be enough to keep deer away from their favorite flowers.

Deer and elk do prefer certain plants and avoid others. The plants listed at right are either not eaten or can tolerate browsing (which means the plants will grow back). Their taste can vary considerably from one site to another; I have observed deer eating Oriental poppies at one residence (which is rare) and leaving columbines to flower. In most instances, columbines are eaten in bud stage. As natives, columbines tolerate browsing and generally survive.

  • Artemesia: lots of varieties; sun, dry, 12-18”
  • Coneflower (Echinacea): purple, white, red; sun, long-blooming; adaptable; 2-3’
  • Coreopsis (P): yellow, orange; sun, long-blooming; dry; 6-24”
  • Cranesbill (Native geranium): blues; adaptable, 1-2’
  • Dianthus: various; sun to part shade, sheer to re-bloom, 8-12”
  • Erigeron: blue; sun, long-blooming, 2-3’
  • Foxglove (Spanish peaks): pink; adaptable, dry, long-blooming, 2-3’
  • </ul>Hens & Chicks: various; sun; dry, 3-6”
  • Heuchera: red, pink; shade, dry, 1-2’
  • Lavender: lilac; shrubby; sun, dry, open area. 2-4’
  • Limonium (Babb’s breath): white-pink; sun, dry, 3-5’
  • Lobelia: scarlet; shade, moist, 3-5’
  • Maltese Cross: scarlet; sun; naturalizes, long-blooming; 12-60”
  • Monarda (Bee Balm): reds; fragrant, long-blooming, sun-shade; 2-3’
  • Obedient Plant: white, pink; sun, adaptable, long-blooming; 1-2’
  • Penstemon: blues, pinks, reds; sun, long-blooming, dry, 12-15”
  • Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan): sun, long-blooming, adaptable, 3-4’
  • Salvias (sages): lilac, blue, red; sun, dry, long-blooming, size varies
  • Scabiosa: pink, blue; adaptable, sun, long-blooming, 2-3’
  • Sedums: various; sun, dry, spreading, tall varieties less resistant
  • Thyme: pinks, purple; sun, dry, spreading, 2-5”
  • Veronica: blues and pinks; adaptable, 2-3’