Despite what you may have earnestly been told through grapevines that should know better, deer do not avoid native plants due to a convenient co-evolutionary agreement between flora and fauna.
Whether they’re the white-tailed marauders of the East Coast, or the long-eared mule deer of my California childhood, deer consider native foliage just as palatable as the exotic treats collectors find nibbled and stripped when the sun rises on a new and tragic day.
So, with native plants featuring ever-higher in the collective horticultural and consumer consciousness, and many gardeners shifting their focus to incorporate more native flowers and foliage in their gardens, a need exists for focused advice on which plants make the most sense in deer-beleaguered landscapes.
Enter Deer-Resistant Native Plants for the Northeast, by Ruth Clausen and Gregg Tepper – a well-researched and clearly presented book by two prominent horticulturists who have spent a good deal of their gardening lives battling this garden nemesis – Ruth throughout her incredible garden writing career spanning seven books, and Gregg in his former positions as Director of Horticulture at both Mt. Cuba and the Delaware Botanic Gardens.
‘For the Northeast’ is a crucial part of the book’s title, and one hopes that Timber Press has already thought ahead to the obvious series that a desperate, and regionally diverse public will snap up with glee. This time around, I am one of the fortunate gardeners that garden within the book’s catchment; but even if I wasn’t, I’m always happy to see regions represented in a marketplace that continually insists on churning out one-size-fits all gardening books in a country as vast as the United States.
And when it comes to native plants adapted to distinct geographic regions, I’m thrilled. The label ‘Native Plant’ is certainly turning heads and selling product, but too often the marketing takes advantage of the technicality of a North American designation – in which case it’s as helpful as ‘gluten-free’ stamped onto an apple.
That’s not the approach in this effective reference book which designates native status of chosen plants by state, and follows with an edibility index for each plant, reflecting a scale of 1-10. Plants that rate below 7 (flowers nibbled, but foliage rarely touched), will not see any press in this book, no matter how lovely. A short list of native deer candy is also included for the brave and bold.
By helpfully categorizing their top seventy-five performers into annuals/biennials, perennials, grasses and shrubs, and separating ferns and sedges for even more texture, Claussen and Tepper make it exceptionally easy for gardeners seeking to add a healthy variety of native plants with strong deer resistance to their gardens. The book is easy to read, easy to reference and takes its opportunities to provide teaching moments for readers still finding their feet — gently defining terms when needed.
One of the great bonuses of the book is the pairing advice for creating great combinations with featured plants. Taking advantage of decades of combined work in the field, the authors are generous with their suggestions for those not as well-versed with so many species. (Though I find it amusing to pair ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) with anything other than a well-established tree, or a shovel.)
In addition, the book provides not only straight species, and those native species related to the featured plant, but gives the names of many improved cultivars for those who do not find such terms heretical.
Botanical names are given throughout the book, and the authors make it clear that a common name is no way to locate a plant when you really want it; however there is strong emphasis given to common names for those who are just getting started. This feels natural and right in a book whose subjects are plants tended, used, and loved throughout generations in specific regions.
I have very few quibbles with Deer Resistant Native Plants for the Northeast, perhaps wishing only for a stronger voice throughout the text. Perhaps the lack of it is due to combined authorship, but I found myself wanting to hear the gardeners behind the advice, particularly as the subjects – native plants and destructive deer – can illicit both passion and tears in the most seasoned gardener. They certainly do around here.
That personality is missing, but a deep love of native plants is reflected by the obvious experience Claussen and Tepper bring to this excellent reference book. As a result of reading it, I’ve already added several plants to my nursery list for this spring and am intrigued to try my hand at taking shoot cuttings of my baptisia in spring.
No matter what you read, here or elsewhere, it’s important to realize that deer will eat anything in the face of starvation, and every garden (and herd) is different.
For instance, the authors list Cornus sericea (red-osier dogwood) as a 7-9. That’s certainly not true here, where I have only been able to keep them from being damaged by regular, time-consuming, and expensive, spraying (or more recently, by the new acquisition of an Irish Wolfhound); but for the most part I found the experience of the authors mirrored mine.
For Northeastern gardeners, those who share many of our native plants, or those who love growing these plants in other areas of the globe – but all of whom battle the serious problem that is deer browsing – this is definitely one for the library. – MW