Question: We have a cedar hedge about 100 ft. (30 m) long at the back of our lot, but the deer pretty much destroyed it this winter. We’ll have to replace it and we’re looking for an alternative to cedars so we can avoid future problems.
Which shrubs that don’t attract deer make good hedges?
Answer: The so-called cedar hedge, actually made up of arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), seems to be by far the preferred hedge throughout much of eastern North America and is popular enough elsewhere in the world as well, but … you couldn’t make a worse choice for a hedge if you live in deer country. Arborvitae is actually the preferred food of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) during the winter months. Yes, they will seek out arborvitae in preference to any other plant. Planting an arborvitae hedge in an area where deer abound is an open invitation to conflict! And it will actually attract deer to areas they would normally avoid, leading to damage to your other landscape plantings as well.
To make things worse, like most conifers, arborvitae simply doesn’t grow back from old wood. So once the deer have cut an arborvitae hedge back severely, it will never be attractive again. So, the only logical thing to do is to remove it.
In general, woody shrubs make much more damage-tolerant hedges than conifers. If anything happens to them (deer damage, snow breakage, a runaway car plows through them, etc.), just chop them back to 4 to 6 inches (10 à 15 cm) from the ground and they’ll grow right back: most will have fully recuperated in just two growing seasons!
For this reason, even though the denser look of a conifer hedge in winter might appeal to you (most woody shrubs lose their leaves and so are a bit thin at that season), woody shrubs make more forgiving hedges and are generally a better choice for laidback gardeners.
Shrubs to Try
The following list is of shrubs that deer rarely eat, both woody shrubs and conifers. Note the word “rarely.” A starving deer will try to eat almost any plant, even one that is poisonous to it, but deer really don’t like following shrubs and browsing damage, if there is indeed any, usually remains superficial. Thus, the hedge can easily recover.
- Andromeda, Japanese (Pieris japonica) zone 5b
- Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) zone 4
- Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) zone 4b
- Beautybush (Kolkwitizia amabilis) zone 4
- Butterflybush (Buddleia davidii) zone 6b
- Cinquefoil, shrubby (Potentilla fruticosa) zone 2
- Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.) zones 3-9 according to species
- Currant (Ribes spp.) zone 3
- Daphne (Daphne spp.) zones 3-8 according to species
- Dogwood (Cornus spp.) zone 3
- Elder, American (Sambucus canadensis) zone 3
- Elder, European red (Sambucus racemosa) zone 4b
- Euonymus (Euonymus spp.) zones 4-7 according to species
- Fargesia (Fargesia spp.) zone 4
- Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.) zones 6-7 according to species
- Forsythia (Forsythia spp.) zones 4-7 according to species
- Gooseberry (Ribes spp.) zone 3
- Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) zones 3-6 according to species
- Hazel (Corylus spp.) zones 2-6 according to species
- Holly* (Ilex spp.) zones 4b-9 according to species
- Juniper (Juniperus spp.) zones 1-7 according to species
- Leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana) zone 6
- Lilac, common (Syringa vulgaris) zone 2
- Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) zones 5-9 according to species
- Silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata) zone 1b
- Smokebush (Cotinus coggyria) zone 5b
- Spirea (Spiraea spp) zones 2-7 according to species
- Spruce (Picea spp.) zones 1-7 according to species
- Sumac, fragrant (Rhus aromatica) zone 4
- Viburnum* (Viburnum spp.) zones 2-8 according to species
*Most species and varieties. Check with your supplier before purchase.
Be a laidback gardener and don’t plant deer forage plants as hedges where deer are common. It just doesn’t make any sense!