Helen Newling Lawson
Deer-Resistant Plants for Winter Wildlife
Yes, I'm playing favorites here. Just because I don't want to deer to destroy my plants doesn't mean I don't want to support wildlife in my garden. Birds and other critters bring life and movement to otherwise dormant winter landscapes and providing food and safe haven for them brings me a deeper satisfaction than just growing pretty flowers. So here are a few plants you can rely on for feeding or sheltering winter wildlife without attracting hordes of hungry deer.
Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra), a native North American evergreen shrub, is a fantastic substitute for boxwood if boxwood blight is an issue in your area. Although this is a holly, the evergreen leaves are small and spineless, so they are soft enough to use lining a walkway.
Inkberry has little inky-black berries that feed birds and other wildlife through the winter. The small white flowers that cover the shrub in summer also support pollinators, just as other hollies do (see how I use it in my deer-resistant planting plan for pollinators).
Inkberry is also a very adaptable shrub, tolerating sun or shade, clay or loamy soil, and even wet or boggy sites. The one condition it does not like is alkaline soil, so it's best for gardens with acidic or neutral soil (ask your local Extension Office for a soil test if you don't know what you have).
For improved shape and form, look for selections like Gem Box® inkberry holly from Proven Winners (their 2020 Landscape Plant of the Year; shown here) or 'Shamrock' (this one is a female plant and needs a male planted nearby to produce berries).
In her excellent book, 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants, Ruth Rogers Clausen mentions that cinnamon fern provides cover for birds and other wildlife. She notes that Christmas fern, an evergreen fern, also provides cover including for wild turkeys (cool), but what I really loved learning was that the downy fuzz on cinnamon fern is used by hummingbirds to line their nests. Obviously, that would happen during the warmer months when hummingbirds are nesting, but I still thought that was reason enough to recommend cinnamon fern for a wildlife garden.
Grow cinnamon fern in moist, shady sites with lots of organic matter (like decomposing leaves). Otherwise, it's a low maintenance plant rarely bothered by pests or disease.
Any plant that bears fruits or berries are great for a wildlife garden, but snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) puts out fruit in fall that lasts into winter (right up until something comes and eats it), so it's great for supporting wildlife in cold weather. The berries follow tubular pink flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees, adding to this shrub's value in a wildlife garden. Please note, these berries are not for human consumption.
Most descriptions of this plant agree that it is something of a mess -- it spreads by suckers and is prone to disease like powdery mildew -- so it's best suited for the wild areas of your wildlife garden. But because it forms a thicket, it's great for controlling erosion and sheltering wildlife, and of course those beautiful clusters of white to pink berries make you want to forgive it. Plus, gardening expert Melinda Myers points out in her video on snowberry that it's gaining in popularity thanks to its ability to grow in shade, and she suggests a few named selections that might be better behaved in the garden. You can also try the related fall-fruiting coralberry, such as Candy™ coralberry from First Edition Plants (shown here).
Besides a willingness to bloom and fruit in shade, snowberry also grows in full sun, cold climates (it's hardy in Zones 3-7), and a wide range of soil types.
In dry, coastal climates such as is found in much of California, coffeeberry or California buckthorn is another great choice for a large deer-resistant shrub with valuable fruits.
Little Bluestem Grass
Shannon Currey with Hoffman Nursery recently described this grass to me as a "powerhouse" because of all the wildlife it supports, including skipper butterflies, bees, birds, and small mammals. See how I used it in a deer-resistant planting plan for pollinators (along with holly as mentioned above.)
Grasses in general often provide seeds and shelter to allow ground-dwelling animals, insects, and birds like wild turkey and grouses to overwinter safely. They are a natural fit into any wildlife planting mix.
I love viburnums as a whole for the wide range of options for deer-resistant gardening. Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is one of the deciduous varieties and is native to North America. The berries, which change from rose pink to black as they mature are a great source of food for birds, and the autumn leaf color adds a pretty touch in the fall garden.
Two other great choices for native viburnums are American cranberrybush viburnum (V. trilobum) and arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum). I really like the looks (and name) of Blue Muffin® viburnum, a selection of arrowwood viburnum from Proven Winners with clusters of adorable blue fruits, but they do note on their website that deer have been known
to eat the clusters of white flowers that turn into the namesake fruit.
Wax myrtle is yet another incredibly adaptable shrub, tolerating sun, shade, clay soil, damp sites, drought, and of course, deer. The evergreen leaves on this large shrub (with the potential to become a small tree) provide excellent cover to birds and other wildlife. While they shelter in place, they can feed on the berries this shrub produces.
As I mentioned, several of the ideas in this article came from Ruth Roger Clausen's book, 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants. If you want to learn more about using native plants to support an ecologically-diverse garden, check out both of Doug Tallamy's books, Bringing Nature Home and The Living Landscape. And if you secretly harbor a soft spot for deer (trust me, I get it - it's our fault they don't have enough natural habitat to support their needs) and have enough space in your garden to plant a few food sources for them as well, read The Humane Gardener: Nuturing a Backyard Habitat by Nancy Lawson (no relation). If you purchase these books from Amazon through my affiliate links below, I'll earn a small commission to support my site at no additional cost to you (so thanks in advance!).