Rebecca Millhorn and Simba in her garden. Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press
When Rebecca Millhorn of Piney Flats steps outside her door, it’s not unusual to find a deer standing on her sidewalk. Perturbed by the intrusion, the deer will stamp its hooves.
“My deer, my lovely deer. I wouldn’t take anything for them, but they eat stuff,” Rebecca said.
They ate so much “stuff” she has had to reconfigure her garden — repeatedly.
Flowering shrubs like camellia were a buffet table for the deer as were hostas, so she has replaced her garden smorgasbord with deer-resistant plants.
Deterring deer means using a lot of ferns, conifers, day lilies, spiderwort, bleeding heart and Tradescantia pallida (Purple Queen).
It means moving vulnerable plants closer to the house, and it means putting barriers between tender plants and deer.
Rebecca’s efforts have been rewarded. The garden, a showplace five years ago when we first visited, has new depth and dimension. It is not a garden-variety garden, showcasing the ubiquitous handful of common plants.
Accepting the limitations imposed by her “lovely deer,” Rebecca has drawn from a wide range of attractive and unusual cultivars. And more common specimens are used in such lovely combinations they take on new interest.
When she began planting deer-resistant plants, Rebecca knew barberry was one of the last plants a deer would choose to eat, but she didn’t care for its burgundy leaves — the only choice available at the time. “Now, barberries come in everything from lime green to almost black to almost a rosy glow,” she said.
This new barberry color palette is well represented in her garden.
She understands a hungry deer will eat almost anything, but Rebecca chooses plants least likely to be munched. Echinacea is one of them, but she has eschewed the common purple coneflower and planted orange blooms instead. The vibrant color lights up surrounding foliage.
“The deer don’t bother calla lilies,” she said, pointing to the delicate plants blooming in the shade. “They won’t bother boxwoods, and they won’t eat abelia.”
Deer do eat oakleaf hydrangea, however. In order to save her existing plants, Rebecca has moved the hydrangeas to the foundation of the house. So far their proximity to humans has kept the deer at bay.
She also had planted a line of oakleaf hydrangeas sandwiched between a row of boxwoods and a row of arborvitae in the side garden.
Rebecca pointed to a vulnerable looking hydrangea in the main garden. “Deer don’t like ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas. They like every one of them besides the ‘Annabelle,’ ” she said.
One of the most unusual plants in her garden is one she calls “Bear’s Claw,” (not Helleborus foetidus) which was a pass-along plant from a fellow gardener. The deer won’t touch it.
When Rebecca chooses plants, she thinks about texture, foliage and winter interest. Japanese painted ferns, autumn ferns and cinnamon ferns are layered throughout a wooded area.
A red twig dogwood loses its leaves in the fall, but, in winter, its stems “turn red as fire,” Rebecca said.
Chartreuse creeping Jenny lightens up a shady area, and carefully placed day lilies add bursts of color to the landscape.
Leatherleaf mahonias bloom yellow in December then form purple fruit that “hangs down like grapes” in spring.
Hellebores or Lenten roses provide winter to late spring blooms. One in Rebecca’s garden was still blooming in late June.
All the hard work of removing plants, moving plants and replacing plants enables Rebecca and husband Jack to enjoy their garden while coexisting with a large deer population. The deer bring their own rewards.
“A mama deer laid her baby down in the front garden last year,” Rebecca said.
“Daddy said they tell them to stay. I thought she’d left it, but Daddy said, “no,” and she came back and got it.”