University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
CHOOSING DEER-RESISTANT LANDSCAPE
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
As deer have become one of the major problems in many gardens, gardeners
have begun learning what plants their neighborhood deer prefer or don't
like. Deer preference for your landscape plants will vary with several
factors, but there are some plants generally more resistant to deer feeding.
Deer seek plants rich in protein, especially in spring and summer as young
grow and deer recover from our long northern winters. Well-fertilized
garden plants provide this-- energy from carbohydrates, and minerals and
salts. Since deer only can store protein nitrogen in small amounts,
they need a steady supply during peak periods.
Deer also get about one third of their water from moisture in plants, hence
the reason they prefer moist and tender plant parts. This is why they
often go for new growth, usually on the outer parts of plants, such as new
leaves and buds, or immature stems (such as on my garden phlox in early
Certain smells of plants also attract deer, just as humans have certain
generally attractive smells, be it popcorn or apple pie. Other times
deer just may want to sample the newest additions to your landscape.
On the flip side, deer seem to know which plants are poisonous and to avoid,
be they certain mushrooms, foxglove, or daffodils. Deer will avoid a
plant they may have tried and didn't like, or which made them sick.
But, hungry enough from lack of preferred food or too many deer in an area
for the food available, and they will eat most any plant rather than
Deer generally avoid plants with a strong aroma that hurts their delicate
sense of smell, with fuzzy leaves such as lamb’s ears, prickly leaves such
as evergreen hollies or barberries, or with a bitter or alkaloid taste such
as yarrows. Deer rely on their fine sense of smell as an early warning
system of approaching danger. Mask this, using aromatic plants, and
deer tend to stay clear. Some such fragrant plants that generally
deter deer include catmint, chives, lavender, mind, sage, and thyme.
Some gardeners interplant these among more favored deer plants to keep them
away from such plants and gardens.
Lists of resistant plants are a good way to start thinking about your
landscape, and to help to varying degrees, just don't rely on such plants as
foolproof all the time and in all places. That is why there are almost
no plants that are “deer-proof”, but merely resistant. Keep in mind
with lists of resistant plants that they will vary with expert, region, deer
pressure and food source, deer preferences, and may even be contradictory.
Some plants that appear both on lists of plants deer like and don't like
include clematis, iris, forsythia, dahlias, vinca, trillium, and peonies.
Which plants are resistant also will vary with year, and season. When
deer are hungry in early spring after a long hard winter, most anything
green (such as your tulips) is a treat. Later in the summer they may
get more selective, in late summer try out some new plants so far left
untouched, and in fall start serious grazing (as in spring) to store up for
Some woody plants that deer generally prefer, so you might avoid if you have
many deer in your area, include yews, euonymus (burning bush), hybrid tea
roses, and saucer magnolia. There are some roses less palatable
(generally with more thorns), such as the rugosa hybrids, some shrub roses
such as Harison's Yellow, and some Moss roses. Herbaceous plants deer
generally eat include crocus, dahlias, daylilies, hostas, impatiens, phlox,
and trillium. Some refer to the flowers of lilies and tulips as deer
Some trees generally resistant to deer include spruce, pines, honey locust,
river birch, and buckeyes. Some shrubs that are generally deer resistant
include bush cinquefoil, barberries (considered invasive, and so not
planted, in many areas), blue mist shrub, forsythia, junipers, lilacs,
evergreen hollies, many spireas, and many viburnum.
Some herbaceous plants to consider as resistant include astilbe, barrenwort,
bee balm, blanket flower, bleeding heart, columbine, dead nettle, false
indigo, ferns, globe thistle, hellebore, hollyhock, lungwort, lupine,
meadowsweet, monkshood, mugwort, peony, primrose, purple coneflower, Russian
sage, Siberian bugloss, speedwell, sunflower, and yarrow. Most
ornamental grasses are considered deer resistant, including such ones as
blue fescue, little bluestem, blue oat grass, maiden grass, reed grass, and
Many bulbs generally are deer resistant, and include daffodils,
fritillaries, Dutch iris, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, squill, and
alliums. Some gardeners with deer problems interplant daffodils with
tulips to train deer early (as daffodils bloom before most tulips) to stay
There are many other "resistant" plants and tips on choosing them, as well
as deer control methods, in the book by Rhonda Massingham Hart, Deerproofing
Your Yard and Garden.
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