A Deer-resistant Edible Garden: Is There Such a Thing?

On the upward slope leading to the entrance of our house, we have several gardens bordered by rock.

Credit: Carol Pope

On the upward slope leading to the entrance of our house, we have several gardens bordered by rock.

My aspiration to plant as many edibles as possible is a challenge in this spot, as the deer roam here daily, grazing and razing every tasty morsel to the ground. Fortunately, there are a few edibles that can hold their own—even if you are forced to garden on a deer dinner tray. For starters, I’ve planted five Mahonia × media ‘Winter Sun,’ which add some evergreen structure to this garden and, in November, provide a sunshine-like effect with brilliant-yellow flower clusters crowning each plant. The deep-blue berries that follow in distinctive clumps are seedy but edible.

We’ll take some in to simmer into a sauce and leave a generous share for birds struggling to make it through the winter. Underplanted beneath our mahonia grove is Mahonia nervosa, which is native on our property and took well to transplanting when we rescued some before installing raised beds for our kitchen garden. Other edibles so far untouched by the deer are rhubarb, garlic, leeks and artichoke, as well as such culinary herbs as lovage, sage, fennel, rosemary, chives, basil, thyme and lavender. Tucked in around the evergreen plants are herbs for tea—including lemon catnip, lemon balm, agastache, costmary and mint—in addition to the salad greens French dandelion and sorrel.

I have experimented without success with other edibles, such as Jerusalem artichoke (immediately gobbled up), zucchini (picked at) and thorny black currants and gooseberries (ignored at first, then inhaled over one hungry night), but what remains in my garden so far has left the deer cold. Eventually, we will add an arbour over the neighbouring pathway and, with some protection around the stems, grow a tunnel of kiwi and an easy-care rambling rose with vitamin C-rich hips for flu season.

The concessions I’ve made to non-edibles are a native fir tree and a number of grasses, as well as a border of Geranium macrorrhizum in a dry and shady section to add some four-season foliage, as most of the tea herbs and the rhubarb and lovage tend to die back through winter. This way there will still be enough structure to carry the garden through to spring, and at least the grasses and fir will provide seeds and cones for the birds and squirrels.

Alongside these gardens, fig and nut trees, underplanted with some mint to discourage aphids and ants, will eventually stand guard along the driveway—but that’s another story and another year!