Gardening in Deer Country, Part I

For many Californians throughout the state, deer are the largest free-living animals they will commonly encounter; and for anyone with an affinity for the natural world, it’s an impressive thing to realize that these animals are self-sustaining, leading their own lives  and needing nothing from us. But they are also are more than just beautiful creatures to admire; they are in many ways symbolic of a more calm, untroubled, and carefree life outside of the human hive of activities.

I have lived and gardened in ‘deer country’ (Marin County) for decades now; and so often hear other gardeners complain that ‘they can’t grow anything’ because of the deer. Granted, it does make it harder to garden where the free roaming wild animals and especially the deer, are often present. But, many people choose to live here precisely because of the proximity to preserved open spaces; which adds immensely to the charm and sense of tranquility that Marin County is noted for.

Deer are, of course, herbivores, and that can create challenges (and a lack of tranquility) for some California gardeners when they venture into a cultivated landscape! Having experience with gardens in various situations around Marin I’ve had years to observe and study our Columbian black-tailed deer; and decided to write this series of articles because I want people to know that it is possible to create a beautiful garden despite the deer; but first, a gardener has to understand these lovely creatures!

Who are these animals?

Deer are browsers, not grazers, which means that they eat broad-leaved plants; many of which they co-evolved with. Some of these native plants provide essential nutrients that the deer need and the plants actually benefit from intermittent browsing at certain times of the year. Other native plants have developed characteristics, or growth habits, that protect them from deer browsing.

We have three native families within the order Artiodactyla, one of which is the Cervidae, with four native genera of ‘deer’; our elk (Cervus spp.) are actually most closely related to the numerous deer species found throughout Europe and Asia. The animals that we call ‘deer’ form their own genus Odocoileus; and there are just two species in America; the white-tailed deer (O. virginianus) in the east and the mule deer (O. hemionus) in the west. In the Pacific states we have six sub-species of mule deer; the northern coastal range is home to the Columbian black-tailed deer (O.h. columbianus).

These animals are ruminants (cud-chewers) with four-chambered stomachs which, with the aid of mutalistic bacteria in their digestive tract, alow them to turn cellulose into sugars and amino acids by adding nitrogen. As the bacteria die they become available protein to the ruminant. By ruminant standards deer have small unspecialized stomachs, and so rather than eating large quantities of low grade fibrous plants like sheep and cattle do, deer select more easily digestible shoots, young leaves, soft twigs, fruits, fungus, lichens, and mistletoe.  They will often browse in the open, and then retire to the shade and cover of forests to ‘chew their cud’ and allow for the time-consuming process of digestion. 

Where do they live?

Deer are an eco-tone species, living in the transitional zones of forest and meadows; they are not herd animals, though they sometimes form temporary large feeding bands. Mostly they live in small family groups which consist of a doe and her fawns, and older female offspring. Males leave the mother doe at about one year of age and form ‘buck groups’, but are also often solitary. 

Columbian black-tailed deer live most of their lives where they were born; does, especially with young fawns, have ‘activity centers’ within these sometimes small (urban) territories. Bucks weigh, on average, two to three hundred pounds; does are about a hundred and fifty pounds, and newborn fawns are about sixteen to eighteen pounds at birth. A fawn nurses for about two to three months, but starts to forage within a few weeks of birth. Each animal needs about two pounds of food, and two to three quarts of water per hundredweight per day.

So given these parameters of what their needs and basic behaviorial patterns are, it easy to understand the pressures put on gardens in urbanized areas of Marin, and other counties with large, fairly tame populations of black-tailed deer! It is possible to have a nice garden, though it can be challenging and frustrating at times;  I’ll be sharing details on some of the ‘tricks’ I know about to get plants established, and more details about the native plants that I know will grow and thrive despite the deer.

Browsers, not Grazers  

Since they are not grazers, they never eat grasses, or sedges, or rushes; and there are  many beautiful native species to include in a garden setting. Various species of perennial bunchgrasses are members of several different plant communities and habitats; some are ‘cool season’ bloomers, others are ‘warm season’ bloomers. Native grasses occur in many different habitats; from moist, riparian zones, to summer-dry oak woodlands, to open grasslands.

One of my favorites, though it doesn’t grow naturally in Marin is deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). It is a large scale, warm season grass that is easy to grow and easy to start from seed; it is drought tolerant, great for erosion control on slopes, and impressive when planted in drifts. Apparently the common name derives from the observation that the deer liked to bed down within a drift of these large native grasses.

Seasonal Browsing

Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) is a flowering shrub that grows wild in Marin, and also does well under cultivation. The deer browse this plant for just a short while, eating the new spring growth until it starts to get ‘sticky’ with oils. By the time they’re no longer interested in the plant, they have effectively tip-pruned it, and the plant responds by setting even more flowers!

In my garden I’ve noticed that in early spring the deer also nibble at the leaves of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in early spring. The plants set new leaves, the tap root grows stronger, and soon enough the deer leave it alone, and it sets flowers. Of course, sometimes the deer do eat the flowers ( that’s dessert!) but they don’t eat them all; and the plants can grow and rebloom when cut back by a gardener, too.

Interestingly, the native peoples of California also harvested the new growth of both Sticky Monkeyflower and California poppies to include in their salads of spring greens!

The large orange taproot of the poppies was used for pain relief, especially toothache.

Deer-proof Plants

Salvia species grow all over the world, and many of them have aromatic leaves;

and deer do not eat plants that are highly aromatic! Many of California’s native Salvias grow wild in chaparral, mostly south of Marin, but they all adapt nicely to drought tolerant gardening. Many are large plants at maturity, and very showy in bloom; most need full sun, little to no water once established, and good drainage.

I’ve been a ‘plant-person’ from childhood; and I’ve always loved salvias in particular.

They are showy, and usually easy to grow and propagate, and the humminbirds also love them. I don’t put out feeders for the hummers, but with about fourty-five different species, cultivars, or selections of salvias included in my habitat garden there’s a nectar resource for the resident Anna’s humminbirds all year round!

Food Gardening

Lush, heavily watered fruits and vegetables are of course impossible to grow in deer country without a fence to enclose the garden. Deer really like apples, pears, plums, grapes and strawberries, and eat all parts; leaves, twigs, flowers and fruits. They can stand on their hind legs for short periods of time to browse on trees.

Our family lived in a house in a beautiful little valley with open space all around for about fifteen years. The previous owners had planted several fruit trees out in the open; I’m assuming that they had given the trees some protection to get them established and somewhat out of the reach of the deer. By the time we moved in the trees were producing, though the fruit wasn’t particularly great, and the trees looked very ragged. The deer picked up fallen fruits, but they also noticed that I would shake the tree and bring down more fruits for them. Pretty soon they figured out that they could just wait for me to come home to shake the trees, and they got to know the sound of my car, because as soon as I would pull into the driveway the small family group that lived right around our house would emerge from the back of the house, ready for a tasty snack!

These animals are smarter than one might think!

I’ll go into much more detail on specific plants and protective measures in several subsequent articles.