How to Keep Deer from Eating Your Plants

Here’s what you need to know about deer in the landscape and a list of deer-resistant plants that might work for you.

Many of us who live in rural and even suburban areas have a big problem with deer. I have a herd of them living in my backyard. They sleep there in fact. I don’t wish them any harm, but I’ve had enough! They’re eating my landscape!

I don’t want to spend my time thinking about deer sprays, electric fences and guard dogs. Nor do I want to wrap things in burlap. I just want to be able to go outside in a zen-like state, at peace with nature.

Do check with your own local cooperative extension office for information about specific deer problems you’re trying to solve, but here are some general facts as they apply to my neighborhood in upstate New York:

There’s no such thing as a 100% deer-resistant plant.

If it is wintertime and the deer are starving, they will eat anything. This includes barberry, holly, and the sharpest, spiniest evergreens. The only true 100% deer-proof solution is an 8-foot-high fence enclosure, or a double row of lower fences.

Deer-deterrent sprays require constant upkeep.

Professional-grade sprays and even home-made, organic deer repellent mixtures applied regularly can sometimes be effective, but these require consistent upkeep. It’s a commitment you may or may not be willing to make.

Deer-resistant plants can work…sometimes.

Plants that are known to be “deer-resistant” generally do not appeal to deer and can be good choices for a landscape infested with deer. However, there are many variables to consider, including the species and number of deer in the area, and the availability of other food choices.

Plants with thorns do not necessarily deter the deer from eating them. Usually, it’s a plant’s odor that keeps the deer away. Some plants are even toxic to deer (although, again, in a state of starvation, the deer will eat anything).

I’ve had great luck with ornamental grasses. I’m told these plants can damage the deer’s mouth when chewing, so they generally avoid them.

Here’s another thing to consider. Just because a mature plant is generally-deer resistant, all bets are off for a newly-planted tree, shrub, or new foliage from perennial plants emerging in the spring. If a plant is tender enough, deer might eat it. It is important to protect these plants until they are established.

Location matters when it comes to deer.

A plant’s location in the landscape also makes a big difference for its survival against hungry deer. Deer may not venture into semi-enclosed areas, or near busy streets. The same plant that is browsed or eaten in one neighbor’s yard, may remain untouched in another’s.

Sometimes it is possible to “train” your resident deer not to go near your precious plants by spraying or netting for a while until they get used to passing over the area.

Do not plant deer favorites.

This seems obvious, but planting tempting things in your landscape only serves to draw them in. Deer especially seem to love arborvitae, yews, rhododendrons, lilies, hostas, and tulips.

You can ask around at local garden centers and garden clubs to find out which plants are favored by deer in your neck of the woods.

Deer-Resistant Plants

Here are some of my own time-tested choices for non-invasive, deer-resistant landscape shrubs and perennials for where I live (USDA Growing Zone 5a):

Deer-Resistant Shrubs

  • Boxwood | Buxus microphylla var. Koreana  ‘Winter Gem’ (also ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood)
  • Butterfly Bush | Buddleja davidii  ‘Black Knight’
  • Flowering quince | Chaenomeles speciosa
  • Yellow-twigged dogwood | Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ (also many other red- and yellow-twigged species)
  • Smokebush | Cotinus coggygria
  • Forsythia | Forsythia ‘Northern Sun’
  • Rose of Sharon | Hibiscus syriacus  ‘Blue Satin®
  • St. John’s Wort | Hypericum frondosum  ‘Sunburst’
  • Inkberry | Ilex Glabra  ‘Compacta’ and ‘Shamrock’
  • Sweetspire | Itea virginica
  • Russian cypress | Microbiata  decussata  ‘Celtic Pride™’
  • Bird’s Nest Spruce | Picea abies  ‘Nidiformis’ (also most Picea spp.)
  • Potentilla | Potentilla  ‘Happy Face® Pink Paradise’
  • Fragrant Sumac | Rhus aromatica ‘Grow Low’
  • Japanese spirea | Spiraea japonica  ‘Double Play® Artist’ (also ‘Little Princess’)
  • Vanhoutte Spirea | Spiraea x vanhouteii
  • Lilac | Syringa meyeri  ‘Palibin’ (Korean lilac; also Syringa pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim,’ Syringa vulgaris)
  • Korean Spice Viburnum | Viburnum carleseii  ‘Spice Girl®
  • American cranberrybush viburnum | Viburnum opulus var. americanum
  • Doublefile viburnum | Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum

Deer-Resistant Perennials

  • Lady’s mantle | Alchemilla mollis
  • Yarrow | Alchillea millefolium
  • Allium | Allium  ‘Purple Sensation’ and all alliums
  • Astilbe | Astilbe spp.
  • Lady fern | Athyrium filix-femina (also most fern species)
  • Blue false indigo | Baptisia australis
  • Bleeding heart | Dicentra spectabilis
  • Joe Pye weed | Eupatorium dubium  ‘Baby Joe’
  • Blue fescue grass | Festuca glauca  ‘Elijah Blue’ (also most ornamental grasses)
  • Rozanne geranium | Geranium ‘Rozanne’
  • Hellebore | Helleborus spp.
  • Iris | Iris spp.
  • Lavender | Lavendula angustifolia
  • Shasta daisy | Leucanthemum spp.
  • Monarda (bee balm) | Monarda spp.
  • Daffodil | Narcissus spp.
  • Catmint | Nepeta spp.
  • Peony | Paeonia spp.
  • Russian sage | Perovskia atriplicifolia

This post previously appeared on The Simple Landscape blog.


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

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