How To Ban Bambi

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardeners
“Dealing with these garden marauders requires a varied strategy and vigilance”—Carole Ottensen

Book CoverJust the title of a new book, “Deer-Resistant Design: Fence-Free Gardens that Thrive Despite the Deer” by Karen Chapman (Timber Press, 2019), should excite anyone with a garden faced with this marauder of fauna. Bambi et al are not your friends in the garden! The author explains that her “book has been written to encourage and inspire homeowners just like you with stories and photographs of mature landscapes that have withstood the test of time and the taste-testing of deer.”

The point of the 13 gardens included in this book is that working with a restricted assortment of plants does not mean one has to compromise on beauty or vision. If you are deer challenged, then this book is for you. Although you can find many lists of deer-resistant plants in books and state extension web sites, the question still remains. Now what? A list is still a list, and it does not have color photos or any explanations. This is only a starting point. The trick is to know what to do, that is, how to create a deer-resistant garden design that you can install or have installed.

Another way of looking at the problem is to develop not only a strategy but a reality about how to avoid a deer problem in the first place. The subtitle of the book emphasizes having a fence-free garden. For example, crisscrossing fishing line over a pond tends to keep out large birds such as herons that would make you scream if they caught one of your prized koi fish. For a landscape, a similar technique can be tried on your property by tying multiple strands of fishing line in parallel lines to trees or poles. This is a very humane way to exclude deer from your property, and it is practically invisible. Hopefully, after this minimal effort and expense, you will have protected any plants that need to be protected.

Of course, you can employ other ingenious methods of deer-proofing, but you need to keep in mind county and city fence ordinances and even homeowner association regulations regarding fence height and materials. But…the book under discussion is all about fence-free gardens, so fencing is not a problem that should be considered.

Some plants are considered to be reliably deer-resistant but you cannot always depend of this. The deer do not read plant tags. Even your favorite plant is likely to be “sampled” or, in the worst case, entirely eaten. It happens! The fact remains that no plant is absolutely deer-proof. If a deer is hungry enough, especially when there is a limited supply of available food, then all bets are off. Typical plant lists that refer to deer-resistant plants should not be read as deer-proof. These lists often include plants with fuzzy foliage, spiky or sharp thorns and aromatic types. Also note that deer-resistant plant lists are a general guideline of plants that are less tempting to be tampered with. Check out Virginia Cooperative Extension for more detailed information regarding deer. In addition, Rutgers, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) website ( has an excellent list of deer-resistant plants. Here you will find an interesting list of plants identified with four levels of deer-resistance. These are:

  • A — rarely damaged,
  • B — seldom severely damaged,
  • C — occasionally severely damaged and
  • D — frequently severely damaged.

At the top right open space of the website type: “deer-resistant plants.” An easy-to-read menu of information will be displayed. Scroll through the information that is relevant to your own landscape situation; however, as a caution, note that not all of this information is relevant to Virginia. The plant hardiness zone differences between New Jersey and the variable environments of Virginia are not in sync.

Virginia can be described as having four distinct regions. They are approximated as

  • Mountain (extreme left of the state top to bottom),
  • North Piedmont (northeast),
  • South Piedmont (middle of the southern region) and
  • Coastal (southeast)

In order to determine which gardens in the book closely resemble your region, you also need to consider five “quick facts” that are noted for each garden. These include: location, soil type, property size, problem critters (aside from deer) and other variable challenges. This could include sun, shade, drought, plant disease and more. Each garden includes color photos and types of plants, also in color, with helpful plant descriptions as well as the A to D deer-resistant damage codes noted above.

The book takes you through a smorgasbord of garden types from all over the country and at the end are many ideas for deer-resistant container gardens. Perhaps the best way to describe this information is to say it is like reading how to design a deer-resistant garden on steroids. You will need to interpret this information to fit your own landscape design. If you own property in addition to your main home, such as a lake-house, beach place, woodland retreat, etc., then you should be able to amalgamate several examples noted in the book. As previously indicated, the garden examples cover a wide range of environmental conditions. Unlike pre-planned landscapes, often found in garden catalogs and on the internet, you can mix and match garden styles that not only fit climatic conditions but also your personality as well. Remember to consider outdoor family activities, pet considerations and anything else that is important that will make you happy and bring a well-done smile for having conquered how to ban Bambi.

Deer: A Garden Pest, Walter Hussey, Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener,
   Fluvanna County, VA
Deer Resistant Plants, Pender County, NC Cooperative Extension