Eat or be eaten

My little garden paradise is home to many different kinds of critters. Many species of birds frequent the garden throughout the year, the squirrels are almost always out and playfully busy, I’ve seen small rabbits from time to time, tree frogs can more often be heard than seen, we have the occasional raccoon, opossum or coyote make a visit (usually on their way to the neighbor’s dog food dish I suspect), but I have never seen any sign of deer. Perhaps our place is just urban enough to be outside of their domain – I do know folks with deer sightings a mile or two (and further) away.

A few weeks ago, I was asked about deer-resistant conifers from a new garden friend in Connecticut. I had a few ideas for her, but I knew the best thing to do would be to contact some of my friends living around the country so I could pull from their real-world experience. In the process I discovered that there are many conifers choices available which deer seem to have no interest in whatsoever. I also discovered that just because the local herds of deer in New Jersey may avoid one plant, the herds across the state line on Long Island, may find it to be a delicacy.

Spruce Border
A mixed spruce border may encorage deer to look elsewhere for food.

I have come to the conclusion that there are some very reliable conifers that deer will absolutely avoid until the food supply is so scarce that they are desperate. I wonder if one were to create a border around the property with a selection of those proven deer-resistant trees, would the herd move on to another property that is much more inviting? I also believe that a great way to enjoy conifers – especially the smaller dwarf and miniatures – is to plant them in containers that are kept close to the house on the patio or deck. Deer seem to generally stay away from homes and prefer not to get too close to humans. Man’s best friend also can be a great deer deterrent as many dogs quite enjoy a good chase after four-legged trespassers. One of my friends – an avid hunter – suggests that the best thing to do is eat the deer before they eat your conifers.

Container Garden
The container garden is a perfect way to enjoy the smaller dwarf and miniature conifers near the house and outside of the path of deer.

Below is a list of conifer species which appear to be the most deer resistant. Most cultivars within this group should also enjoy the same deer-resistant qualities of its parent species. For example, Picea pungens appears to be a successful deer resistant conifer species, so it is probable that its cultivarients would exhibit the same qualities. With easily a hundred cultivars of Picea pungens available with a broad assortment of growth rates from large to miniature and colors from forest green to the brightest silvery-blue, the gardener should be able to find several that would be perfect for their garden.

Cryptomeria japonica
Juniperus – the more prickly types
Picea abies
Picea omorika
Picea orientalis
Picea polita
Picea pungens
Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’
Sciadopitys verticillata
Thuja plicata
Thujopsis dolobrata
Keep in mind that resistance depends greatly on the size of the herd, the opportunity to eat other agricultural crops and the time of year. It is always a good idea to talk with neighbors or the local county extension agent for their experience.

Conifer Lover

10 thoughts on “Eat or be eaten

  1. Great list.
    Any chance you have a similar one for rabbits? Two years ago rabbits ate a good portion of the needles off my new Picea omorika ‘Pendular Bruns’.


    1. I think rabbits can be even more of a nuisance and I don’t know of anything that they won’t eat if they’re hungry. I just saw a discussion over at regarding deer and rabbit resistance. One gentleman described his system which includes two layers of fencing and a special rabbit guard to prevent them from digging through underground.


  2. I live (and work) In N. IN and have had deer browse and clear off a mugo and cedars when the snow precludes them from eating there normal greenery diet. I am a perk Maint. and designer for the landscapes here so I have had to seek out any conifers wich would be unpalatable to them. This is definately in corelation to there hunger and lack of food as to what they will and will not eat. It is an ongoing educational experiment wich I frustratingly partake with every design consideration.


  3. Hi Ed,
    I hope you don’t mind me picking your brain again. I am designing a garden that is need of some privacy as well as some winter interest (my favourite part). I am considering adding three columnar blue spruce ‘fastigiata’. I was wondering what would look nice in front of these? I am also open to other suggestions of evergreens for privacy. I am at a bit of a loss. When ever I do a search I just come up with the cedars and junipers that are in every second yard around here.

    The yard currently has no evergreens. It is south facing and sunny.

    The home owner does love the look of weeping trees as well. The garden is in Ottawa, Ontario. The size of the area is 12′ wide by 21′ long.

    Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Thanks a bunch 🙂


    1. Hi Candace – I have always wanted to plant a “wall” of Picea glauca ‘Pendula’. I think they would make a fantastic screen. They’re neat and tidy, virtually matainence free, and their very nature makes them incredibly resistant to snow load. The fastigiate type spruce, without annual tying, will almost always become “blown out” by snow load in heavy snow areas. I might consider interspacing P.g. ‘Pendula’ with a lower maturing, blue spruce of some kind for added color. P. pungens ‘Hillside’ is a little more compact that ‘Montgomery’ for example, though not as bright a blue. ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ is a brighter blue, lower and more broad which might be fun to add to the mix. A row of three of the taller, grey/green P.g. ‘Pendula’, followed by a row of four of the bluer, shorter P.p. ‘Hillside’ and then a row of five of the brighter blue ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’. When they all mature, they’ll be growing together in your 12′ bed width, but will make a multi-colored, multi-leveled sculpture and very effective screen.

      Do you have a blog where you post pictures of these landscapes you are creating? :^)


  4. Thanks for your input. I appreciate it. I am going to play around with your suggestions and look into that a little more.

    I am on facebook under Candace Mallette Landscape and Garden design. Unfortunately I don’t have very many pics up. As you know gardens taken a few years to mature and I often don’t get the pleasure of seeing them in their full glory. I am hoping this year to make some time to revisit past creations.

    I do have a blog as well but it is not related to work. More of a blog on everyday life.

    Thanks again for your help. I really appreciate your input.

    Here is my blog info:


  5. Hi Ed,

    I’m a little late to this party but I wanted to thank you for the list of deer-resistant conifers. As you said, ‘deer-resistance’ is highly localized and, I think, highly seasonal. When alternate food sources are scarce, like they are now in CT since we have 3′ of snow on the ground, the deer will eat plants they otherwise might leave alone.

    I was at a lecture last week about deer and the lecturer said that deer love acorns (something I did not know) and in a winter when there is not much snow cover, they will feast on acorns and usually leave plants alone.

    His suggestion for totally deer-proofing a garden was a 10′ high electric fence. Not something that’s in my budget at this point! The big takeaway from the lecture was that he said he’s been studying deer for 20+ years and he’s still surprised by some of the stories he hears from homeowners. So count youreself lucky that deer are not a problem in your garden:)


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