The need for a permanent solution to "the deer problem" usually begins when people wander out into their yard to discover that these garden trespassers have mowed down some beloved shrubs. Browsers rather than grazers like sheep and horses, deer are happy to sample whatever looks, smells and tastes good. Unfortunately, there isn't a permanent solution. "Deer-proof" plants don't exist, and even deer-resistant ones can disappoint. Holly, though, is a good garden choice for deterring deer.
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It's just not possible to make a landscape deer-proof . Deer will eat anything, even toxic plants, if they're hungry enough. Still, you can successfully develop a deer-resistant landscape by growing plants they don't like. Deer generally dislike aromatic or pungent plants, including those that have milky sap or have a bitter taste. They avoid plants with sharp thorns and spines or prickly, fuzzy or woolly leaves. Deer develop local and regional preferences, sometimes contrary to deer-resistant plant lists.
Landscaping will stand up to deer better over time if you develop an overall deer management strategy. Provide sumptuous deer browse--plants deer love--at the outer edge of your property, for example, then landscape with deer-resistant shrubs and other plants. Protect vulnerable garden areas closer to the house with deer fencing or deer-resistant hedges--an excellent use for holly--and use deer repellents for extra discouragement.
Hollies, both tree and shrub varieties, are frequently included on deer-resistant plant lists. But some hollies resist deer better than others. Very effective. according to Rutgers University, is American holly or Ilex opaca, a native plant grown both as an evergreen shrub and as a tree that can reach 50 feet in height. Also top-rated for deterring deer are the two "Morris" hollies--John T. Morris and Lydia Morris, tall shrubs named after the benefactors of the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia.
Less Effective Hollies
Rated less highly by Rutgers University but still "seldom severely damaged" by deer are various popular shrub-type hollies: Chinese holly, English holly, Inkberry and Winterberry holly. Hollies that are "sometimes severely damaged" and not as well-suited to deter deer are Blue holly, Japanese holly and Pernyi holly.
Hollies can tolerate some shade, but plant them in full sun for the best berry production. American holly and the John T, Morris and Lydia Morris hollies can be grown and pruned as attractive evergreen hedges--very tall hedges, if desired--or used in the landscape as small trees or specimen shrubs. Plant male and female American hollies if you fancy the red, berry-like fall fruit that birds love, and plant both Morrises for the same reason. Hollies are dioecious, meaning that plants are either male or female, and you need both for berry production.
Kim Joyce has been a journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in healthy foods and environmental health. She also served as communications director for the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges and production editor for Scholars Press. Joyce holds a B.A. in environmental studies and analysis, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from California State University, Chico.