Deer-Driven Container Re-Do


‘Standing Ovation’ Little Bluestem. Credit: North Creek Nurseries.

Got deer? Then you relate to this sad before-and-after duo. I’d planted the red Iresine ‘Blazin’ Rose’ there before, with great results, but this year’s addition of sweet potato vine proved to be too much temptation for our local herd. They tried it and came back for more, including the Iresine. The damage was done in early August, with a garden tour looming in September.

I’d heard neighbors exchanging their top deer-spray advice but ugh, I’d rather switch than fight.

So I head to the garden centers that are left around here but found none of the possibly deer-resistant annuals very appealing. Next I headed for the perennial section and landed on a beautiful native grass – the ‘Standing Ovation’ selection of Little Bluestem.

It’s decidedly unattractive to pests like the ones in my garden, needs a lot less water than annuals or even most perennials, and looks good about 11 months of the year (until the dry blades are cut back in early spring as new leaves emerge).

But like all plants that like it on the dry side, good drainage is a must! And honestly, these pots had crap for drainage. Filled with the same soil for 6 years, and sitting flat on the flagstone, how could it possibly drain? I’m lucky to have kept anything alive under those conditions.

So first I read up on improving container drainage, which somehow led me to the  two mistakes shown here. At the front are 4 container feet, hoping to raise the pots off the flagstone. They proved too difficult for me to correctly place under heavy pots, and moving the pots even inches thereafter would be equally challenging.

The orange thing is an “Ups a Daisy,”which seems like a great idea because it creates a false bottom for the soil, allowing water to freely drain to the empty space below the soil, while lightening the weight of the pot (and saving on potting soil).

So I carefully measured the diameter of the pot at about half the height and placed the order online, only to realize when they arrived that the mouth of the pot is narrower and my new Ups A Daisies were a no-go, at least in these pots. True confessions of a so-called experienced gardener!

Clearly needing more research, I listened for the advice that container expert Karen Chapman shared on Joe Lamp’ls podcast – the episode called “Designing Abundant Container Gardens.” Karen’s the designer and teacher behind such award-winning online courses as “Designing Abundant Containers.” (I notice that she also teaches deer-resistant gardening – my herd may drive me to that.)

I picked Karen’s brains for advice about growing Little Bluestem in pots and among her sound suggestions were some deer-resistant annuals as companions. Like the “annual Euphorbia ‘Diamond Delight’ for a haze of tiny white deer resistant flowers…If you wanted to add trailers I’d suggest Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ to keep with the clean palette but trim them for length as needed! They both thrive in full sun and well-drained soil.”

For something more permanent she suggests “Erigeron ‘Profusion,’ a delightful perennial daisy that the deer ignore. These daisies bloom from spring until fall.”  Another possibility is a trailing Sedum like the blue-grey-toned ‘October Daphne,’ ‘Blue Spruce’ or ‘Fulda’, all of which like full sun and well drained soil.

The Internet had lots of suggestions for creating great drainage, including the two products I’d tried, so I decided on cheap, ever-lasting (for better or worse) packing peanuts from Staples. I placed a bit of landscape fabric across the drainage hole, then the peanuts, then a whole layer of fabric, then a good potting soil and the plants.

With this system, the pots will still rest on the surface of the flagstone, but I think I can just tip the pot a bit to dump any water that might accumulate at the bottom of the pot, below the peanuts.

Finally, I kept Karen’s companion plants in mind but decided to first try a trailing Sedum that grows around here as a weed – S. sarmentosum. I like that its chartreuse contrasts with the blue-green grass and that it needs approximately the same frequency of watering as the grass.

Now with the only annuals in my back garden having been replaced with drought-tolerant perennials, I’m freed from the task of daily watering there! Gradually weening off annuals for lower maintenance feels right, anyway.

Now I’m prepared for people more knowledgeable than I am to puncture my dreams of container success with howls of protest over the peanuts and the landscape fabric but I figure – how much worse can the result be after years of container-plant abuse?


  1. I like to use a filter made out of a pond filter covering my hole of the pot and then I layer three or four inch of perlite and then I make sure I use a soilless potting mixture no Clay the pots are over-watering proof

  2. Australian Mint Bush is deer resistant, you might try that. I had good success with it, and it’s everygreen, light lacy, lovely light lilac blooms in spring.

  3. Your combo looks good. I hope those aren’t the peanuts that melt when watered. The only thing I would have done different is put those peanuts into an onion bag to keep them all together for when you want to pull out those plants and put in new soil. They are a mess to chase after.

  4. Susan: Great solution! The deer have never touched any of my grasses while eating everything else. My concern re the packing peanuts is this. I too have used them for years in very large pots. About 5 years ago I was told that the new packing peanuts would be biodegradable. If this is true, you will have to eventually replace them. Perhaps you checked with Staples and are now holding up better than I was told they would. Many gardeners I know are using empty plastic bottles instead in their ornamental pots. A different type of recycling? Thank you for all your honesty. Yes, even we experienced gardeners can make mistakes.

  5. Love your plant choices BUT as a follower and believer in the Garden Professors, I challenge the old notion of needing to add anything to the bottom of a container for drainage. I believe readers would find LOTS of evidence (including fascinating-over-my-head chemical knowledge) to say that creating a Perched Water Table is actually contributing to poor drainage in the containers. Putting gravel or other media at the bottom of the container can actually make drainage worse. It would be nice to think that the Garden Ranters could find this a useful thing to rant about.

  6. I like to use a little masonry adhesive to glue some penny tiles to the bottom of pots for drainage. It will lift the pot about 1/4″ which is enough to keep the drainage hole clear and free draining. Plus, unlike pot feet, they stay stuck on when you try to move the pots.

  7. I can tell you from experience that packing peanuts will either dissolve or if the older type, they will crush and the spaces will fill with soil, making drainage worse not better. The “experts” claim anything added to the bottom of a pot, even with drainage holes, creates a perched water table, which isn’t good for plant roots. Even a few flat stones or tiles as suggested earlier, to lift the pot off the ground would be better. Since you already filled and planted the containers lifting them a bit would be easier. Then just hope for the best I guess. I can’t leave any clay or ceramic pots outside overwinter because they invariably crack. I don’t know how others in cold climates get away with it.

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