Landscaping with Deer-Resistant Plants

Creative solutions for deer-prone areas.

Deer are lovely, but they’re also hungry–and they aren’t very picky about the plants they eat. For this reason, gardeners living in deer territory need to choose carefully when selecting plants.

In Upstate New York, we have an abundance of white-tailed deer whose diet consists of shoots, leaves, legumes, grasses, fruit, acorns, mushrooms, and even poison ivy! In the 1800s, mass deforestation and uncontrolled hunting reduced deer populations by 95%, but wildlife management efforts paid off by the mid-twentieth century: now, aside from managed hunting, coyotes are the primary predators of deer in our area–and deer sightings are quite commonplace.

Browsing deer (or “brazen” deer, depending on your view) can be a source of frustration for gardeners, but if we set reasonable expectations and learn which plants are least palatable, we can create a beautiful deer-resistant landscape. 

As a temporary solution for small areas, deer repellent sprays help; however, as a longterm solution, sprays can be too expensive. The most effective strategy to prevent deer damage is to build a tall fence. Fencing options range from electric wires to living fences made from densely planted willow. Read about constructing a plastic mesh fence here, or visit this discussion on fencing by garden expert Margaret Roach. But not everyone will have the means or opportunity to build a fence, so what then?

Happily, even without a fence, growers can enjoy a thoughtfully-designed landscape. While few plants can be classified as totally “deer proof,” deer will quickly move on from plants with pungently fragrant foliage and blooms, tough or prickly leaves and stems, and bitter latex or sap. In areas with heavy deer pressure, landscaping plans should lean heavily towards these unpalatable varieties. Results with deer-resistant plants will vary according to herds (some are more adventurous in their diet) and the prevalence of tastier options. Browse our Deer-Resistant Flowers collection for ideas, or, for an extensive list of deer-resistant plants–including shrubs and trees–visit this resource from Rutgers University.

Some examples of deer-resistant landscaping include:

The Butterfly Garden

Enjoy beautiful wildflowers while supporting vital pollinators!

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on plants of the Asclepius genus; this genus produces a bitter latex sap that deer don't like. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooms for a longer period than Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and can be grown in the same conditions. For instructions on how to start Milkweed from seed, read this post

Other perennial and deer-resistant butterfly favorites include: Anise Hyssop, Wild Bergamot, Blazing Star, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, and Yarrow. Our North East Native Mix is another winner with butterflies–and deer-resistant to boot.

The Herb Border

A dense planting of culinary and medicinal herbs is unlikely to tempt much munching from deer. Herb borders are low-maintenance and most herbs thrive even in soil with poor fertility. Locate your border in full to part sun and choose from the following deer-resistant varieties:

Anise Hyssop, Borage, Catnip, Chives, Dill, Fennel, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Mint, Nasturtium, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Tarragon, Thyme, and Yarrow.

The Annual Flower Border

Incorporate annual flowers with different bloom times into your landscaping plan to enjoy floral beauty from spring until fall. The varieties listed below are least tempting to Bambi.

For flowers in late spring, grow: Calendula, Borage, and Love in a Mist.

For flowers in summer, grow: Wild Bergamot, Coreopsis, Cosmos, Gomphrena, Linaria, Nicotiana, Poppies, and Strawflower.

For flowers in fall, grow: Calendula (when sown in summer), Marigolds, Spider Flower, Snapdragons, Torth Tithonia, and Zinnia.

Sometimes the best way to enjoy gardening is to take the path of least resistance: work with the soil, weather, and wildlife that come with the territory. Challenging conditions can lead to creative solutions! Keep experimenting to discover what works for you.