Deer love to graze on many types of groundcovers, especially when new, tender growth emerges in the spring.

The ornamental plants and shrubs in your garden should be a feast for the eyes, not a banquet for the local deer population. Nothing is more enticing to these hoofed herbivores than fresh garden greenery, especially when hunger pangs strike and other food sources are scarce. Although it’s impossible to make a backyard completely deer-proof, other than surrounding it by a tall fence or other impenetrable barrier, you can fill it with plants that don’t please a deer’s palate.

“You can still have a lush, thriving garden by making smart choices. Many stunning plants are unpalatable to deer because of their poisonous compounds, fuzzy or aromatic leaves, and tough, spiny, or bristly textures,” says Ruth Rogers Clausen, author of 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants. We’ve included some of Clausen’s smart choices here, along with a few top picks of our own.

ENGLISH BOXWOOD
(Buxus sempervirens)

Zones: 4-8

Boxwoods are among the most versatile broadleaf evergreens for a deer-resistant garden. They come in numerous shapes and sizes and take well to pruning, making them ideal for formal hedges, borders, and topiaries. Deer seem to shun the attractive glossy, green foliage because of its strong scent.

Potentilla fruticosa 'Abbotswood'. Photo by: Gratysanna | Dreamstime.

BUSH CINQUEFOIL
(Potentilla fruticosa)

Zones: 3-7

Cinquefoil is one of the best flowering shrubs for season-long color, brightening up the garden with cheery saucer-shaped blooms from June through September. It is bothered by few pests, most notably deer, which find the finely textured blue-green foliage unappealing. Popular cultivars include the low-growing ‘Lemon Gem’, which can be used as a hedge or groundcover; ‘Sunset’, which bears reddish-orange blooms that fade to yellow; and 'Abbotswood', a white variety that produces masses of showy white blooms.

Pugster Blue® Butterfly Bush. Photo by: Proven Winners.

BUTTERFLY BUSH
(Buddleia spp.)

Zones: 5-9

If you want to attract bees to your garden while fending off deer, butterfly bush is the perfect choice. Bees are drawn to the large panicles of honey-scented blooms, which form on elegant arching branches from summer through fall. Flower colors are typically deep purple, pink, or pure white, although some hybrids have orange and gold blooms. Butterfly bush can grow as tall as 10 feet tall with a spread of up to 15 feet. For smaller gardens, try Pugster from Proven Winners, a new space-saving dwarf variety that produces full-sized blooms on a compact 2-foot plant.

Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’. Photo by: Irontrybex | Dreamstime.

JAPANESE SPIREA
(Spiraea japonica)

Zones: 3-8

It’s a bit of a mystery why deer avoid spirea, but their aversion to this versatile shrub is good news for gardeners who love the abundant clusters of pink, white, or rosy red flowers that adorn its branches in late spring and summer. A wide array of cultivars and sizes are available, ranging in height from 2 to more than 6 feet. Most varieties have finely textured green or blue-green leaves, but some cultivars, such as ‘Goldflame’, have vibrant golden-yellow foliage that turns a coppery color in fall.

Juniperus scopulorum ‘Wichita Blue’. Photo by: Garden World Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

JUNIPER
(Juniperus spp.)

Zones: 3-7

Junipers have many different uses in the garden, from groundcovers and accent plantings to topiaries and privacy screens. Not only do they repel deer because of the volatile oils in their needles, they also are drought tolerant and have few pest problems. Try growing taller junipers in a tight hedgerow to create a deer-proof botanical barrier in lieu of fencing. Attractive options include ‘Moonglow’ and ‘Wichita Blue’, both of which have upright pyramidal forms and dense silvery-blue foliage.

Deer delicacies to avoid:

  • American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
  • Evergreen azaleas (Rhododendron spp.)
  • Hybrid tea rose (Rosa x hybrid)
  • Rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.)
  • Yews (Taxus spp.)

Deer-proofing tip: Deer are often frightened away by loud noises and sudden movement. Keep them on edge by hanging wind chimes from the branches of trees and shrubs or by placing wind spinners throughout your garden. If that doesn’t work, try startling them with a sudden spray of water by installing a motion-activated sprinkler, such as ScareCrow from Ortho.

BLACK COHOSH
(Actaea racemosa)

Zones: 4-9

Also called black snakeroot and bugbane, this plant’s showy bottlebrush-shaped flower spikes add drama and architectural interest to a shade or woodland garden. The creamy white flowers open gradually along the spikes from the bottom upward, creating fluffy spires up to 2 feet long rising above deeply lobed dark-green foliage. Although the spikes can grow as tall as 7 feet, they rarely need staking. The flowers have an unpleasant odor and bitter taste that repel deer.

Dicentra eximia ‘Stuart Boothman’. Photo by: Ball Horticultural Company.

FRINGED BLEEDING HEART
(Dicentra eximia)

Zones: 3-9

Fringed bleeding heart is one of the few native woodland plants that deer don’t go for. Although a bit less showy than the common bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), its attractive fern-like foliage persists throughout the growing season and flowering often continues throughout the summer, especially in cooler climates. The diminutive heart-shaped flowers, which dangle from long leafless stems, range in color from white to various shades of pink.

MONKSHOOD
(Aconitum napellus)

Zones: 3-8

Despite monkshood’s notoriety as a poisonous plant (see 12 Poisonous and Notorious Plants), it has a captivating beauty that few other perennials can match. The exotic indigo-blue flowers resemble the figure of a hooded monk and rise on spikes above deeply divided dark green leaves. Monkshood blooms from late summer through fall, providing a welcome display of late-season color.

PEONY
(Paeonia spp.)

Zones: 2-8

Prized for their large, fragrant blooms, peonies have many attributes beyond their breathtaking beauty. They are tough, reliable, long-lived, and virtually pest-proof. “Pests and diseases are few, and deer, unimpressed with their strong scent, seldom browse them except for a bloom or two,” says Clausen.

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Steel’. Courtesy of Kieft Seed.

RUSSIAN SAGE
(Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Zones: 5-9

The finely-cut silvery foliage of Russian sage makes it an eye-catching filler plant in a sunny perennial garden. In July, tiny lavender-blue flowers form on tall stalks, producing lovely plumes of color. The flowers will often last as long as 15 weeks, well into October, making Russian sage a good companion for other fall-blooming perennials.

Senecio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’. Photo by: Tim Gainey / Alamy Stock Photo

DUSTY MILLER
(Senecio cineraria)

Grown primarily for its attractive silvery-gray foliage, dusty miller has a felt-like coating that deer find unappetizing. Varieties to look for include ‘Silver Dust,’ which has finely cut lacelike leaves, and ‘New Look,’ which features large, heavily felted foliage that resembles oak leaves.

Deer delicacies to avoid:

  • Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)
  • Goat’s beard (Aruncus spp.)
  • Hardy geranium (Geranium endressii)
  • Hosta (Hosta spp.)
  • Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.)

Deer-proofing tip: Interplant aromatic perennial herbs throughout your garden that have scents that deer find offensive, such as mint, thyme, French tarragon, lavender, chives, sage, and rosemary.

Pachysandra terminalis ‘Variegata’. Photo by: John Richmond / Alamy Stock Photo.

JAPANESE PACHYSANDRA
(Pachysandra terminalis)

Zones: 4-9

This popular shade-tolerant groundcover is primarily grown for its foliage, which spreads quickly via underground runners to form a dense carpet of glossy green leaves that retain their color throughout winter. As an added attraction, attractive spikes of tiny white blooms emerge from the creeping shoots in early spring. ‘Variegata’, a cultivar with white markings on its leaves, is especially effective at brightening up shady locations.

Athyrium niponicum var. pictum. Photo by: Ball Horticultural Company.

JAPANESE PAINTED FERN
(Athyrium niponicum)

Zones: 4-9

Deer ignore most ferns, including this stunning low-growing variety distinguished by its silver-gray fronds delicately painted with brush strokes of green and mauve. The fronds hold their color all season, and look lovely when intermingled with other shade-loving groundcovers, such as lily-of-the-valley. Like other ferns, it spreads freely by creeping rhizomes, but not aggressively.

Photo by: Ball Horticultural Company

LADY’S MANTLE
(Alchemilla mollis)

Zones: 3-9

Clusters of tiny chartreuse flowers held on long stems like frothy sparklers make lady’s mantle a garden favorite. The broad scallop-edged leaves, which resemble a lady’s cloak, are covered with soft hairs that deer find objectionable. This easy-care perennial thrives in sun or part shade and is often planted in masses for use in borders or as a tall groundcover.

LILY-OF-THE-VALLEY
(Convallaria majalis)

Zones: 2-9

This shade-loving, deer-resistant groundcover is one of Garden Design’s spring flowering all-stars. Its dainty bell-shaped flowers perfume the air with a heavenly fragrance in early spring. Bright red berries form on the plant after flowering, and the attractive lance-shaped leaves last all summer, serving as an attractive groundcover.

Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’. Photo by: Ball Horticultural Company.

JAPANESE SEDGE
(Carex morrowii)

Zones: 5-9

Sedges are clump-forming grasslike plants that make excellent groundcovers for moist, shady areas. Cultivars with variegated green and white foliage, such as ‘Ice Dance’ and ‘Silver Sceptre’, are particularly stunning in the shade, providing a luminous glow. Japanese sedge spreads slowly by underground rhizomes to create a dense noninvasive groundcover that remains evergreen in warmer growing zones. Like most species of sedges and ornamental grasses, it is not favored by deer.

Deer delicacies to avoid:

  • English Ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Lilyturf (Liriope)
  • Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)

Deer-proofing tip: Deer love the tender new leaves and shoots of groundcovers when they first emerge in the spring. To eliminate the temptation, treat the area with a strong-smelling deer repellent that also doubles as a chemical-free fertilizer, such as blood meal or fish emulsion. “Be careful not to overfertilize, which will result in the soft, succulent vegetative growth that deer love. Just half the recommended dosage at a given time will leave the odor but not overstimulate the plants,” advises Clausen.

Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Horizon’. Photo by: Steffen Hauser / botanikfoto / Alamy Stock Photo.

FLOSS FLOWER
(Ageratum houstonianum)

This shade-tolerant annual blooms continuously from late spring through fall. Fuzzy clusters of lavender-blue flowers and rough-textured foliage keep deer at bay. Cultivars are available in shades of blue, pink, purple, and white. Taller varieties, such as ‘Blue Horizon,’ are especially attractive in fresh or dried flower arrangements.

Photo by: Ball Horticultural Company.

GARDEN VERBENA
(Verbena)

Verbenas will reward you with deer-resistant blooms from spring until frost if trimmed back in midsummer (learn more about shearing plants to encourage new blooms). The small five-petaled flower clusters come in a wide range of colors, including white, pink, blue, lavender, purple, dark red, yellow and bicolor. Oblong, toothed leaves are gray-green to dark green.

Tagetes tenuifolia ‘Lemon Gem’. Photo by: RM Floral / Alamy Stock Photo.

SIGNET MARIGOLD
(Tagetes tenuifolia)

All varieties of marigolds are a turnoff for deer because of their strong, pungent scent. However, the flowers of signet marigolds have a lighter, pleasant citrusy smell and a lemony flavor that makes them popular for culinary use. ‘Lemon Gem’ is one of the best-tasting varieties and features bright yellow petals around a darker yellow center.

Rocket Mix snapdragon. Courtesy of Kieft Seed.

SNAPDRAGON
(Antirrhinum majus)

Dramatic spikes of flowers in almost every color imaginable make snapdragons a stunning addition to a deer-resistant garden. Snapdragons bloom most profusely in the cooler weather of spring and fall, and come in a variety of cultivars, ranging from dwarf and trailing varieties to lofty 3-foot hybrids with densely packed blooms, such as the multicolored ‘Rocket Mix’.

Deer delicacies to avoid:

  • Coleus (Coleus spp.)
  • Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana)
  • Pansies and violas (Viola spp.)
  • Petunia (Petunia spp.)
  • Zonal geranium (Pelargonium spp.)

Deer-proofing tip: You don’t have to avoid growing all the annuals that deer like to nibble on. Instead, put them in containers on a balcony or front porch or plant them in hanging baskets that are too high for deer to reach.

Related: A Modern Garden in Deer Country
Deer-Proof Bulbs

Free Weekly NewsletterSign up for weekly gardening inspiration and design tips

Join thousands of design-conscious readers for exclusive offers, gardening inspiration and innovative design solutions for enjoying outdoor spaces.

* Required Fields
We will never sell or distribute your email to any other parties or organizations.

More about the newsletter

Come on a journey with us! Explore amazing gardens, view beautiful plants, and gain insights from the world’s best designers. Click on the issue to preview its contents.

Autumn 2017 - Issue 200Autumn 2017 - Issue 200
Follow Us Garden Design Magazine Facebook Garden Design Magazine Twitter Garden Design Magazine Google Plus Garden Design Magazine Pinterest Garden Design Magazine Instagram Garden Design Magazine Youtube

Not Ready to Commit to a Subscription?

Try an issue of Garden Design magazine for free (we know you’ll love it)! Just pay $4.95 for shipping and handling.

With our free single-issue trial order, we will send you a copy of the Spring 2017 issue of Garden Design. Offer only available in the United States, and one per household.

Get your free issue!

Subscribe to Garden Design Magazine

Subscribe
Close