There is no such thing as a 100% deer resistant plant, since deer change their dietary habits constantly according to changes in the weather and conditions. It all depends on what is available at that moment in time and from late summer to spring, deer will eat most anything.
Set up your garden for success by using these useful tips by allowing you to share the same outdoor space with deer.
Don’t Give Up!
Deer resistance is a huge buzz world in the gardening world and for good reason. Many of us battle these animals daily and too many just throw up their hands and give up. All it takes is to educate yourself on the many possibilities that are available – both native and non-native – and throw in some choices that aren’t resistant because sometimes deer will leave them alone.
What is Deer Proof?
An axiom is that there are no true deer-proof plants. If they are hungry, deer will eat anything! The only two things I have never seen them eat are boxwood and daffodils in my many years of work as a landscape designer. But we can’t landscape our properties with just these two plants.
I visit a lot of properties and see the differences in deer preferences. And it will take some trial and error on your part to discover what ‘your’ deer like to eat. But there are a plethora of choices that I can plant for my clients and expect that deer will usually leave it alone. Usually is the key word here as it depends on the time of year and also the numbers of deer that dictate what they will browse on. If there is a huge population and many fawns, expect deer damage because fawns will try things when young, that as a adult, they would pass over. Tender succulent foliage is a magnet for most deer, especially fawns.
Many people think that thorny plants like hollies and roses will be avoided by deer, but I have seen a 6 foot prickly holly eaten down to the trunk during a cold winter. There was nothing else for them to eat! And the deer pressure is only increasing as wild lands are eaten up with development, forcing the deer population into an increasingly small area.
- Active dogs– the scent of your dogs will drive off deer
- Barriers of hated plants-strategic planting is often overlooked; plant hedges of lavender or catmint to deter them.
- Fencing-expensive and needs maintenance, but can be the most effective; A mesh fence must be at least 8 feet high and electric is best. Try caging your special plants with a wire fence. Avoid using mesh fencing as birds and snakes can get hung up in them.
- Spraying-time consuming, expensive, and unpleasant to apply
There are different ways of planting for deer so that they avoid a special plant that they might enjoy, but pass it by. My favorite strategy is to surround some choice plants with a hedge of nepeta or catmint. Deer abhor the smell of the foliage and you never can have enough of nepeta. Lavender is another plant they hate that you could use as a barrier. Read about the use of catmint in my post, Nepeta: The Perfectly Behaved Perennial.
Of course, if you have an active dog that roams the property, that is ideal. But even the dog has to go in and sleep sometime and that is when the deer can sneak in and chow down. But even the scent of your animals can be a deterrent.
Spraying deer repellent is the time honored way of protecting vulnerable plants against deer, but can be annoying. Every hard rain shower washes off the deer spray and it has to be reapplied consistently to be effective. Requiring a lot of effort, time, and money, you can always pay a commercial applicator to spray your entire property monthly, and I have had many customers be successful with this method. The spray job is usually very thorough and makes your property smell for days like rotten eggs or worse!
Sometimes if you just change the path of deer through your property, you can avoid the big chow down. Observe where deer are coming from and place a barrier or fence in that area only. I had a customer put up a length of fence in the woods where the deer were emerging and that stopped the deer browsing. They moved on to another property that was easier to access.
If you visit your local garden center, you will find the following products to add to your deer stopping tactics.
Deer Stopper Ribbon- a tape that is sprayed with deer repellent
Deer Stopper Spray– can be sprayed directly on plants; has a pleasant smell of rosemary and mint
Deer Repeller-can be used for dipping bulbs
Repel All– repels many animals and is a powder that you shake on the ground
Bunny Stopper– contains cinnamon which can burn so do not spray directly on the plants; this deters deer as well
Cayenne Pepper-Buy a large jar of red pepper and shake around your plants
For an excellent reference on growing and using Deer – Resistant Native Plants, I recommend Deer Resistant Native Plants for the Northeast, by Ruth Rogers Clausen and Gregory Tepper. Chock full of information on growing perennials, annuals/ biennials , and shrubs for the Mid-Atlantic region, it will greatly increase your palette of choices for native plants. Ferns, grasses, and sedges, are all covered in detail as well, so that you will be inspired to create a native garden that deer will leave alone. A valuable resource, it is always sitting within easy reach in my office.
Features of Deer Resistant Plants
Prickly or Fuzzy-spiky thorns -on the trunk, branches or leaves make them unpleasant to eat. Likewise, fuzziness like Lambs Ears are distasteful to deer, though when deer are hungry, they will eat prickly hollies and roses.
Aromatic– any plant that has a resinous aromatic coating, like Sweet Shrub, Lavender, or Catmint, makes it unpalatable to deer.
Leathery-shrubs like leatherleaf viburnum or mahonia are too tough to chew and digest.
Favorite Plants for Deer Browsed Areas
For those who still want a beautiful garden and are discouraged, here are my favorite deer proof plants that I lean on again and again when deer are present.
Creeping Phlox- Phlox subulata
Creeping phlox gets a bad rap for being planted at gas stations and the like. But it really should be more widely planted as an evergreen perennial that is easy to grow and in the spring is covered with a mat of color for weeks.
Nepeta or Catmint
Nepeta definitely can be over-used in the landscape but there are always new varieties to try and deer never, ever touch it. See my article on the many uses of this valuable deer repelling plant.
Native purists would never plant these long blooming shrubs as the old varieties can be invasive. Newer varieties are sterile and there are some great dwarf varieties that fit into smaller gardens. Attracting many pollinators when not a whole lot of things are blooming, makes it a valuable landscape plant in my book. The Pugster series is a great dwarf one that sports many bushy flowers all summer long.
The dwarf varieties of Deutzia like Chardonnay Pearls, Yuki Cherry Blossom, and Nikko, are valuable to me as a landscape designer ,as they fit into smaller gardens, bloom beautifully in the spring, and deer never touch them.
Another easy to grow grey-green foliaged perennial, this one flowers in the spring and the foliage remains evergreen. Small in stature, it can fit into any sunny spot in the garden at the front of the border.
Leucanthemum species, which are simply shasta daisies, brighten up your perennial border in mid to late spring and bloom prolifically for weeks on end. I like the varieties Madonna or Little Princess as they stay small – around 12 inches high. Good flor floral arranging, these come back year after year.
A great textural plant with fuzzy touchable leaves, Stachys byzantia, finds its way into many of my designed gardens. I like the foliage only and seek out Helene von Stein variety as it remains mostly flower free.
Because of its pungent foliage odor, deer leave this long blooming native perennial, Achillea species, alone. The flat topped flowers dry very nicely as well. Ferny pungent foliage adds another textural accent to the perennial border.
A power house native that everyone with any sun should grow. Long blooming (3 months at least), the flowers spikes are a constant parade of every imaginable pollinator making a visit. Agastache or Anise Hyssop sometimes doesn’t make it through the winter for me but I am happy to plant it again in the spring. The most reliable varieties are Blue Fortune and Rosie Posie, here in the mid-Atlantic region. Starting to bloom in mid to late summer, Anise Hyssop will bloom until frost lays it low in late fall.
A shade perennial that requires consistent moisture, Astilbe flowers with colorful plumes of flowers in mid to late summer. Planting different varieties, you could have blooms for 3 months running. Visions is my all-time favorite.
Always surprised that this isn’t front and center in more gardens, perennial geranium, Geranium species or Geranium Bigroot, is a great weed choking ground cover, that flowers profusely in the spring with pink flowers. Different varieties bring different shades of pink, but this valuable perennial deserves a place in more gardens in shade, partial shade, or even full sun. I have never see deer even nibble on it. When the days turn cooler, the leaves turn a russet color and sometimes the plant remains evergreen if we have a mild winter.
A workhorse ground cover that deserves more respect, hardy Plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, is one of the most versatile groundcovers that I use. I never see a weed penetrate the mat of roots and it blooms a terrific shade of blue in late summer and to finish the show, the foliage turns bright burgundy in the fall. Thriving equally well in shade or sun, plant this for a tough deer resistant ground cover.
For more deer resistant choices, I like this Cornell website.