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  • Helen Newling Lawson

Deer-resistant evergreen conifers for year round beauty

Updated: Jul 23


These midwinter days remind us of the importance of evergreen structure in the garden. Luckily, a recent issue of Fine Gardening highlighted several deer-resistant conifers suited for different climates in their Regional Picks section.

Golden Pacific (TM) Shore juniper (Juniperus conferta 'sPG-3-016')

Photo courtesy of Greenleaf Nursery

Where to grow it: Zones 6-9

What makes it happy: Full sun to partial shade; dry to average, well-drained soil

How big it gets: 1 foot tall by up to 8 feet wide

Why you want it: This "shrub" is another one that serves as a groundcover. Horticulturist Kim Toscano recommends this for the Southern Plains of the US, but says its "adaptable to a variety of growing conditions and soils." It will create a bright gold carpet that ties together plants.

What designs it works in: This works well in either natural-looking rock gardens, or trailing over manmade structures like retaining walls. It will handle low-water gardens as well.

'Slowmound' Mugo pine (Pinus mugo)

Where to grow it: Zones 2-8 (so, practically everywhere). Recommended for Northern California in this article.

What makes it happy: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

How big it gets: 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide (eventually)

Why you want it: Slow growing with a dense habit, so needs no pruning or shaping, and fits well into containers for years. The author, Fionuala Campion of Cottage Gardens, mentions the showy buds of new growth in spring as a particularly attractive feature, and adds, "Because of its stiff needles and resinous oils in the leaves, this is as close to deer resistant as you can get."

What designs it works in: The rugged good looks of this shrub could work in rock gardens, a Zen or Japanese style garden, or to provide backbone to wispy grasses.

'Gold Splash' Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia)

Where to grow it: Zones 6-9

What makes it happy: Partial to full shade; fertile, moist, well-drained soil

How big it gets: 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide (so can pull double-duty as a ground cover)

Why you want it: Japanese plum yew is an elegant yet easy care shrub, and Campion recommends this variety because, "Each branch is tipped with large, bright chartreuse needles that contrast beautifully with the more mature lime-green leaves."

What designs it works in: This would also be at home in a Japanese style garden, or any shade garden that needs a touch of gold to brighten up the shadows or play up other golden-toned plants. With the low growth habit, and elegant, layered branches that are softer than most junipers, I'm also partial to this as a foundation plant under a low window.

'Jakobsen' Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo)

Where to grow it: Zones 3-7

What makes it happy: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

How big it gets: 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide

Why you want it: Yes, another mugo pine, but Tony Fulmer at Chalet nursery in Wilmette, IL points out the natural structure of this plant reveals the internal branching like bonsai with zero pruning, for an "overall effect [of] an open, undulating silhouette." While he recommends this for the midwest, he promises this variety "weathers acidic or alkaline soil, wind, drought, and heat with few cares and little maintenance. Deer stay away, too."

What designs it works in: Definitely a good fit for a Zen, meditation, or Japanese garden design.

Prairie Winds(R) 'Cheyenne Sky' red switch grass (Panicum virgatum) (see photo, right, courtesy of Proven Winners) would provide a nice contrast, in an equally tough and forgiving plant.

Dwarf Elkhorn Cedar (Thujopsis dolabrata 'Nana')

Where to grow it: Zones 5-9

What makes it happy: Full sun to light shade; average, well-drained soil

How big it gets: 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide

Why you want it: Philip Schretter of Armstrong State University Arboretum in Savannah, GA is a man after my own heart (and gardening challenges), praising this plant because "It will grow in dry shade...and the deer won't eat it." It's also adaptable enough to grow in sun, and tolerates most soils as long as it has good drainage. The slow growth rate and dwarf size also eliminate pruning chores, and its natural good looks (he describes it as "spikemoss on steroids") make it an all around winner.

What designs it works in: If you garden in live oak territory, like Philip, this is a great choice for a coastal Southern garden. The delicate texture of this plant would also make it a good companion for a coarser-leaved shade plant like false aralia, aucuba, or anise (Illicium spp.), and provide enough interest for an all-foliage design.


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