Category Archives: Deer Resistant Plants

My Top Ten Favorite Plants for Shade

 Some of us live in mostly  shade and some of us in the sun.   The choices for sunny locations are many but those of us who garden in shady or partially shady places have a tougher time finding good, reliable plants. 
Looking back over the years, I find that time and again I use one of the following plants in a design for a shady garden.  Sure, every garden is different;  different look, different soil, different degree of shade, but it’s surprising how often one of these plants plays a starring or supporting role in a vignette or border. 

I call them  Jan’s Top 10 Plants for Shade.

#1    Loropetalum chinense or Fringe flower.  This handsome evergreen shrub comes in two versions: green foliage with white flowers or burgundy foliage with raspberry flower clusters. Flowering is heaviest in the spring but some bloom is likely throughout the year.   I place this plant in the foreground where you can appreciate it’s graceful shape.  It looks great as an accent or in a raised bed.   The burgundy form would add color to a woodland garden and they even do well in a container on the patio.   You can prune it to any size but please don’t turn it into a tight ball and ruin it’s shape.    Another plus is that it is not attractive to deer.

#2    Liriope or Lily Turf.     Another deer resistant perennial I use a lot as a ground cover , at the edge of a path, or in a mixed border.  Evergreen grasslike leaves form tufts 18" tall.  They do well along streams or garden pools and compete well with the roots of other plants like at the base of trees or shrubs.  Flower spikes, usually purple, are quite showy.  ‘Big Blue’ is a popular variety that does well in dry shade.  ‘Silvery Sunproof‘ has green strappy leaves with gold stripes that age to white and can take sun.  In shade they stay golden, which is really pretty.

#3    Heuchera or Coral Bells.  There are so many varieties of this perennial these days I hardly know where to start.  Whether native or a hybrid their flower spikes are a hummingbird favorite.  Colorful foliage,  often ruffled or variegated,  can be silver, amethyst, caramel or lime green.   Combine a tawny variety like ‘Caramel‘ with the chartreuse foliage of ‘Citronella‘ in front of taller perennials or as a border edging.  They make good container plants, too.    Plant them where they get a little afternoon shade and they’ll be happy. 

#4    Pieris japonica or Lily of the Valley shrub.  An evergreen shrub with year round interest, this plant blooms early in late winter though early spring , and is covered with little bells for several months.  Starting in fall , when reddish flower buds appear, through summer as new foliage emerges with a red tint there is always something attractive happening with this plant.  Deer resistant also.

#5    Dryopteris erythrosora or Autumn fern.  If you’re looking for brighten up a shady area, this is the fern for you.  New fronds emerge a coppery color unlike any other fern.  Although they appreciate regular water, they will tolerate dry shade in a pinch.  Deer don’t like ferns either.

#6    Hydrangea quercifolia or Oakleaf hydrangea.  Huge showy leaves resembling oaks, turn bronze or crimson in the fall.      White flower clusters , 8" long, bloom in late spring and early summer, turning pinkish as they age.  They  are attractive if left on the plant  for the rest of the season.   This deciduous shrub grows to 6 ft tall and can also be grown in containers.

#7    Hakonechloa or Japanese forest grass.  The most widely grown and I think the most beautiful variety is Aureola‘.  Use this graceful, chartreuse colored grass to lend a classy touch to containers or as an architectural accent to a border or along a path.  In cool weather, the leaves turn pinkish and blend with your other fall foliage.

#8    Nandina or Heavenly bamboo.  Not a true bamboo, this hardy, easy to grow shrub, comes in many forms.  Some are ground covers, some hedges, some narrow accents in restricted places.  Many have bright orange-red foliage in the winter and deer don’t like them. .  It can grow in dry areas and you can harvest the sprays of berries for a holiday wreath. 

#9    Cornus florida or Flowering dogwood.  Check out Cherokee Chief‘ to provide vivid red fall foliage color to your garden as well as scarlet fruit that hangs on the trees in the winter.  This variety bears deep rosy bracts that nearly cover the tree in spring.  Use this small handsome tree as a focal point in the garden.

#10    Acer palmatum or Japanese maple.  ‘Bloodgood‘ is probably the brilliant deep scarlet red maple you’re seeing around town.  In the spring and summer foliage is deep red but in the fall- look out -it turns neon red.  Growing to only 15 ft, this small tree can be placed anywhere , even in a container.

 There are many other great plants that come to mind that I also use and like.  Pacific coast iris, campanula, bush anemone, to name a few.  This is a good time to add some new plants to the shady spots in your garden. 


Echinacea Need more late summer perennials to extend your season?  Purple coneflowers will continue to bloom until frost then go dormant for the winter.  Showy 4" rosy purple daisies are lightly fragrant and make good cut flowers for bouquets.  The clumps spread slowly and can be carefully divided after 3 or 4 years.  There is also a beautiful white variety called White Swan.  If faded flowers are left in place, the bristly seed heads provide food for finches in winter.  

The herb echinacea is derived from varieties of this flower.  E. angustifolia is used nowadays as a fortifier of the immune system, mainly to prevent flu and minor respiratory diseases by increasing the body’s production of interferon.  The roots are the part of this plant used for medicinal purposes.   Echinacea was used by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plains states.  It’s antiseptic properties were used to treat snake and insect bites, to bathe burns and to help cure the “sweats.”  They chewed the plants roots to ease the pain of toothache.  It was also used by the Native Americans for purification.  The leaves and the flowers can be used in teas as well.

Designing under native oaks

We are all interested in unthirsty plants these days. When I design gardens under our native oaks there are several principles that I follow that I want to share with you. Drought tolerant plants are a must in this situation. Evergreen oaks even have special needs requiring a different plant palette than deciduous oaks like blue and valley oaks.Bush anemone

Most oak roots are in the upper 3 ft of the soil. The roots which take up water and nutrients are in the upper 12". The critical root disease zone for an oak is within 6-10 ft of the trunk. Do not irrigate plants or disturb the soil in this area. Outside this zone but within the drip line one deep watering per month is allowable for your plantings.
The leaf mulch that accumulates under a large coast live oak increases soil moisture and available nutrients, improves soil structure and moderates soil temperature. It’s a valuable resource that can be used in other parts of the garden. Never remove the entire insulating layer of leaves from under a trees canopy and don’t allow leaf mulch to cover the trunk.
One of the showiest California natives for planting under a coast live oak is carpenteria californica or Bush anemone. This evergreen shrub is resistant to oak root fungus and grows in sun or shade. Although this plant can get by with no summer water after becoming established, occasional summer water will help maintain a fresher look. The compact variety ‘Elizabeth’ produces a profuse display of white flowers with as many as 20 flowers per cluster. Cut back the top 1/3 to 1/2 of the stems after flowering to keep it compact.

Another deer resistant plant I like to use under oaks is Centennial ceanothus. This gopher resistant low spreading groundcover grows 12" high and 8 ft wide. Cobalt blue flower clusters cover the plant each spring. They also attract birds.
Western redbud can be grown as an accent shrub or small tree under coast live oaks. Large bluish grey rounded leaves have heart-shaped base making quite a show among smaller leafed plants. The magenta sweet-pea shaped flowers cover the branches in spring. Scattered flowers may also appear in late summer and fall. Flattened seedpods rustle in the wind in late summer and fall. And if that’s not enough to love about western redbuds they brighten the landscape with a fall color display of yellow or red leaves. Western redbuds respond well to pruning. Thin the oldest trunks each year to keep them growing vigorously. You can also cut the entire clump to the ground to rejuvenate it. This is truly a four season plant.

Combine any of these plants with coffeeberry, native irises, pink-flowering currant, toyon, berberis aquifolium, snowberry, hummingbird sage or yerba buena to complete your woodland garden and keep your oaks happy too.

What to plant under native oaks

Wester Sword FernVisited a site yesterday under dozens of huge native oaks. The clients wants to plant a little landscaping here and there to enhance her property but not endanger her oaks. Naturally both deer and gophers abound. The deer trail goes right below her deck. I was able to give her some information about planting near oaks and will develop a plan for her installer to follow. There are several plants like mahonia ( now berberis ) that would require little water after becoming established and also I am considering ceanothus ‘Centennial’ for an area below the flagstone landing. I’ll add more to this post as I develop the planting plan for this beautiful property. 

Drought tolerant open space project

Drought tolerant open space projectI’m designing an open space for a HOA for their housing tract. I’m planning on a central sitting area connected by a series of paths and surrounded by large flat Sonoma fieldstone rocks for sitting. This will be a challenging project as the plants used will not only have to be drought tolerant but will receive no irrigation at all after they are established. The site is browsed by deer so the plants will also need to be deer resistant and gopher resistant. . I think the concept I’ve developed will work and be useful for the residents.