Gardening in Deer Country, Part 3

By Charlotte Torgovitsky

It’s a beautiful thing to watch the deer, a number of the does heavily pregnant, browsing at the meadow’s edge, and not at all disturbed by the rainfall. They’re eating the clovers and vetches in the grasslands, taking the leaves from the soap plants (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) and blue dicks  (Dichelostemma capitatum), and sometimes also just the tips of the fresh new growth of the annual grasses- but never eating the ground iris, or the thistles that also grow in the meadow. They’re also browsing the lush new leafy growth and the male catkins of the  coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia). The larvae of two butterflies, the California sister and the mournful duskywing, both common in an oak woodland, also feed on these fine new leaves before they get too leathery.

The plants that deer prefer, or not, can often vary by neighborhoods, particularly really urban ones.

When they wander into my garden the deer are nibbling on the elegant madia seedlings, but far from killing the plants, this light pruning helps to promote even lusher plants that will be full of flowers late into the summer and fall months. There are lots of other plants in my garden, providing resources for a host of insects and birds that the deer totally ignore.

Salvias; beautiful and deer-proof, month by month

The native Salvia bloom cycle starts here in my Novato garden in February each year. Brandege sage (Salvia brandegei) is usually first with lovely white-lavender flowers. A selection ‘Pacific Blue’ is relatively new in the trade. It seems to stay shorter and more compact, and the flowers are more bluish than lavender. My Brandege sage, now about seven years old in my garden, has been pruned a bit to show the beautifully twisted trunk, and to keep it to about six feet in height and width.

Next to bloom, usually in March, is purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), with stunning silvery foliage, and flowers that are actually pink, and numerous, growing in whorls up a stem. Salvia leuchophylla ‘Pt. Sal’ is a selection that grows about two to three feet high, and in my garden, one plant covers an area of about eight square feet. It’s a wonder to see the birds, especially the ground-feeders, like the Towhees and other Sparrows simply disappear into the plant, or suddenly pop up out of the plant! Pt. Sal always seems to bloom before Salvia leuchophylla ‘Figueroa’, an upright growing selection of this salvia, which keeps a nice form of about three feet wide by about five feet tall.

Locally occurring Salvias

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) Photo: Mieko Watkins

In April, black sage (Salvia mellifera) starts to flower with lots of little white flowers in whorls that the bees go crazy for. There are two selections: an upright form, and ‘Terra Seca’ a groundcover that spreads slowly, staying about two feet high. This is one Salvia that does occur naturally in Marin, though with a very limited range. I am thrilled to have recently procured a local specimen to include it in my garden.

Another salvia with a fairly local natural range is sonoma sage (S. sonomensis). Sometimes also called creeping sage, it stays low, no more than 12 to 15 inches high when in bloom, and over time will grow to form a large mat. It does best in rather poor soils but with really good drainage, and actually prefers a bit of shade. Mine is planted on a steep slope, with high shade from nearby oaks. It gets no water in the summer monthsbut greens up nicely after just the first week or so of rain. ‘Dara’s Choice’ is thought to be a hybrid of S. sonomensis and S. mellifera; it grows taller, to about two feet, and has more of a mounding habit rather than forming a mat.

I often find salvia seedlings occurring in the garden. If at all possible I leave them in place, otherwise, I pot them up separately, tag them with a date and specific location, and will grow them on to see if a noteworthy plant develops. White sage (Salvia apiana) seeds itself around all over my garden and at the edges of the pathways, where I can usually just let it grow to maturity. As the specific name indicates, the flowers of this salvia, though small and white, are loved by the bees, and though individual flowers are small, the overall effect is impressive with flowering stalks that can be seven feet tall!

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) and several selections and cultivars all bloom in May and permeate the air with a delicious perfume. I grow the species, which over the course of six or seven years have developed beautifully twisted and gnarled trunks, some as large as three to four inches in diameter. The flowers are lilac blue, almost a periwinkle blue, and attract all sorts of bees and the hummingbirds. ‘Winnifred Gilman’ is a selection that stays more compact, usually no more than three feet in height, and bears intensely purplish flowers. I recently planted a drift of ‘Pozo Blue’, thought to be a hybrid between Salvia clevelandii and S. leucophylla. In and among this drift I planted dark star mountain lilac (Ceanothus Dark Star); the salvia protects it from too much deer browsing until it is well established.

Leaf shape, size, and texture can make a difference

The leaves of Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ are tiny, as are those of C. impressus, C. maritimus, and C. hearstiorum; I use the leaf size as a rule of thumb when selecting Ceanothus to grow in areas exposed to the deer. The larger the leaf, the more likely they will be ‘deer food’, and there’s good reason for that. The new growth of Ceanothus is about 14% protein and abundant in calcium, which are nutrients that the deer, and especially the bucks, need because they’re growing new antlers each year. Antlers are the fastest growing of all normal animal tissues!

Nevin’s Barberry (Berberis nevinii) Photo: Mieko Watkins

The Ceanothus species, such as C. gloriosus, along with the various selections and varieties of that species that bear the stiff, leathery, and spined, holly-like leaves are all a good bet in plantings exposed to the deer. A lovely shrub, Nevin’s Barberry (Berberis nevinii), now rare in the wild, also has this type of leaf, and is so deer proof that I plant out new specimens without any protection at all. Nevin’s Barberry starts blooming in February, and the masses of little yellow flowers contrast very nicely with salvias and ceanothus. Lots of red berries develop by June, making it one of the earliest food sources available for fruit eating-species of birds.


Leaves that are tiny, such as the almost thread-like leaves of California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) help minimize water loss; these leaves are also aromatic, and the deer do not browse this shrub. Monkeyflower (Mimulus) and California sage often grow together, and sometimes, in shadier sites, California bee plant (Scrophularia californica) is another companion plant. With leaves that the deer will often browse, the more successful specimens are growing in the midst of large stands of monkeyflower and California sage.

More aromatic plants that the deer leave alone

White pitcher sage (Lepechinia calycina) Photo: Mieko Watkins

Other California native plants that the deer have no interest in are also native mint (Lamiaceae) members. Some, like the pitcher sages (Lepechinias) but they are not salvia though the leaves are deliciously aromatic. The flowers are in spikes, not whorls, and the fruits that form are also in a different form than true ‘sages’. White pitcher sage (Lepechinia calycina) grows on Mt. Tamalpais; it is a small woody shrub that bears white flowers. The shrub is so drought tolerant, that it has literally looked almost dead for the last two years, but greened up immediately when rainfall became measurable. Fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans) is native to the Channel Islands; it has a larger, well-branched and almost sprawling form. ‘El’ Tigre’ bears flowers that have a lilac tinge, and this pitcher sage is quite happy with light shade under the oaks.


Common coyote mint (Monardella villosa) Photo: Mieko Watkins

Common coyote mint (Monardella villosa) is a gorgeous small shrub for hot sunny areas with good drainage. It is covered with dense heads of deep lilac flowers in summer. Skullcap (Scutellaria) also grows in sunny areas, some species are clump-forming perennials, and though the foliage is not very aromatic, the deer leave them alone! California skullcap (cutellaria californica), with white flowers, is more of a spreader; it will take some hot sun, but also seeks out cooler, lightly shady situations “under the skirts” of nearby shrubs. My patch has established very nicely in and between a head stone edging at one border. Yerba Buena (Satureja douglassii) is also a creeper, but for dry shady places, perfect under native oaks, where it does fine without any summer water. Picked while green, the leaves make a delicious mint tea!

Poisonous plants

Other obvious deer proof plants are those that are poisonous, like the milkweed (Asclepias), datura (Datura)  and nightshade (Solanum). My garden includes large drifts of two native milkweeds, specifically planted to support the larvae of the Monarch butterfly; these are not plants for a gardener who wants total control: the best, most vigorous specimens grow where they want to be!

Another plant that resists control by any gardener is one of our native thistles, the cobweb thistle (Cirsium occidentale). It seeds itself where it wants to grow, sometimes in full sun, sometimes in part shade, and provides for the larvae of the mylitta crescent and painted lady butterflies. Goldfinches also rely on the thistles, both for seed and the downy chaff to line their little grass-cup nests. It’s a gorgeous plant, and not at all invasive; consider yourself lucky if it likes your garden!


Creambush (Holodiscus discolor) Photo: Mieko Watkins

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), douglas iris (Idouglasiana and hybrids) and long tubed iris (I. macrosiphon) are also deer proof, though I’m not sure exactly why. “My deer” also leave creambush (Holodiscus discolor) alone until very late in the fall, when they might nibble a little bit on some of the leaves. But the plants that deer prefer, or not, can often vary by neighborhoods, particularly really urban ones. The small family groups often live their whole lives within a home range and feeding preferences do develop within that range. It pays to look around, notice which natives have successfully established in neighborhood gardens, and also to see what is growing in the wild lands close to your garden.

I protect many plants until they establish with various methods already described, and in addition, I’ll sometimes create invisible foils: like heavy duty fishing line strung between plants and poles within areas of my border plantings. The deer can’t see the line, but they can certainly feel it, and that’s enough to scare them off. Over time mature shrubs growing together, especially on slopes, create their own barriers against the deer; and when the garden mimics nature, they are often more content to stay in the wilder areas!

Charlotte Torgovitsky is a member of the CNPS Marin Chapter  and founder of Home Ground Habitat Nursery, is a naturalist, educator, and garden consultant. You can visit her website and contact her at

This article is part of 3 part series
Part 1: gardening in deer country
Part 2: gardening in oak woodlands
Part 3: gardening in urban areas

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