When people find out I write about gardens for a living, the first question they ask is: “What should I plant if I have deer?” I’ve never had a major issue with deer myself, but I’ve done a lot of research on this topic. So here are some plants that deer don’t like.
Thorny or Textural Plants
Deer don’t like plants with weird texture: sort of like those people who don’t like okra because it is smushy. In the case of deer, they don’t like plants that are fuzzy, such as lamb’s ears or ferns, or those that are pokey, such as pines or Russian cypress or small globe thistle (Echinops). They don’t like ornamental grasses, either, including northern natives like big bluestem and little bluestem and most of the sedges. They don’t like the texture of Baptisia, pachysandra and a host of woody shrubs like spirea, forsythia, weigela and ninebark. They also don’t like boxwood, making that a good short hedge option where it is hardy. Weirdly, they also don’t seem to like gray plants, so silver mound (Artemisia) and Russian sage are deer-resistant options.
Plants that Stink
Among the plants deer don’t like is a long list of plants that have odor: bulbs like allium and daffodils (which for some reason is virtually pest free); perennials such as salvia, beebalm, nepeta or anise hyssop; and many, many herbs, including thyme, mint, oregano, marjoram, rosemary and lavender. Groundcovers, including lamium, wild ginger and sweet woodruff, are also avoided.
The Complete List
I’ve uploaded a PDF above from Cornell University, which is the most complete list I’ve seen of garden plants and how much they are likely to be damaged by deer. The list is not new, but it’s well worth looking over if you are planning a garden in deer country. Most of the plants listed are hardy in our northern climate.
What to Avoid
Some plants are just plain deer candy, and, if you plant them, you are inviting the herd to a buffet. I’m talking hostas here. If you have a shade garden, maybe consider ferns with an under layer of native spring ephemerals. That would be pretty and less attractive to deer. The herd also enjoys a nice salad bar of daylilies, so those are also worth avoiding. Tulips—yum! Arborvitae and yews are among deer favorites, too. And, weirdly since they have both thorns and scent, roses are a favorite.
More Deer Tips
Depending on how big a problem deer are in your area, you have a few options for keeping them out of your garden. Repellents, both commercial and homemade, work fairly well, but do need to be reapplied regularly. If you want to grow vegetables in deer country, a tall (like 8 feet) fence is your best bet to keep them out. There’s an article in the May/June 2019 issue of Northern Gardener about small enclosures (less than 10 feet square) with shorter fences that do a good job of keeping deer out of sections of the garden. Apparently deer fear being trapped and won’t jump even a short fence, if they think they might be stuck there.
If you deal with deer, you know that a hungry deer will eat just about anything. In fact, one of my few garden experiences with deer involved a deer taking a bite out of a young ninebark in our St. Paul yard. You’ll note that ninebark is on the list of plants deer don’t like. It happened during a tough winter before we had all our fences up. So with that caveat in mind, which plants have you found that deer don’t like?