By Erin Marissa Russell & Matt Gibson
If deer are common in your region, as a gardener you already know there’s more to the relationship between people who love plants and deer (who also love plants) than simply enjoying the presence of these graceful creatures as they graze on your lawn. That’s because deer don’t stop grazing at the edge of the lawn. They keep on grazing, continuing right into your flower beds—and they can do some serious damage, especially to young plants or ones they really get a taste for.
Deer Tolerant Plants vs. Deer Resistant Plants
Luckily, there are lots of plants to choose from that are either resistant to deer or tolerant of them. Before we dive into the list of plants that can stand up live peacefully alongside the local deer population, it’s important to understand the difference between plants that are deer resistant and those that are deer tolerant. Put simply, a deer tolerant plant will be eaten by deer, but the resulting damage does not significantly impact the plant in a negative way. For example, a deer tolerant plant may be able to withstand the deer’s chomping if the plant grows quickly and is able to promptly regenerate its lost foliage.
Other plants are deer tolerant because they have the capacity to store a considerable stockpile of nutrients and water (perhaps within the roots or trunk). This type of deer tolerant plant can remain healthy even after an amount of foliage loss that would be fatal for most other plants. Usually, losing lots of foliage means losing at least some of a plant’s ability to perform photosynthesis—which is how plants feed themselves. The more foliage is lost, the less photosynthesis a plant is able to perform. When a deer tolerant plant is able to survive on its stashed food and water supply while it grows new foliage, the deer’s feeding doesn’t damage or endanger the plant. There are many other reasons a plant may be described as deer tolerant. We’ve just provided two examples.
Deer resistant plants, on the other hand, have the power to prevent being damaged by deer in the first place. These plants have developed defense mechanisms that result in a reduced likelihood that deer will want to consume them. Examples of a deer resistant plant’s defense mechanisms include growing thorns that keep wildlife from getting close enough to the plant’s leaves to eat them or simply having a flavor or scent that deer find disagreeable. The defense mechanisms of deer resistant plants mean deer aren’t likely to eat the plant, unlike deer tolerant plants, which deer may eat, but the plants will generally be able to recover.
Characteristics of Deer Resistant Plants
There are no plants in existence that are 100 percent deer proof. If deer are hungry enough and food supplies are limited enough, they will consume just about anything. However, there are plenty of deer resistant and tolerant plants that you can fill your garden with. The plants that can survive being munched on by deer and those that deer don’t prefer to eat under normal circumstances generally possess one of the qualities we’ve listed below. You can use these guidelines to tell at a glance whether a plant you haven’t had a chance to research yet is in danger of being eaten by deer or not. Plants with one or more of these traits aren’t likely to be damaged by deer.
- Strongly scented foliage or other aromatic parts of the plant (such as cedar, pine, or fir trees and lavender, onions, or dill)
- Sharp thorns or foliage that is spiky or pointy
- Toxic or poisonous plants
- Fuzzy, downy, or velvety texture to the foliage, as with lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantia), catmint (Nepeta), or coral bells/alumroot (heuchera)
Now that you have a general idea of the types of plants that deer will steer clear of, take a few moments to read over our recommendations for plants that are deer resistant or deer tolerant. We’ve chosen the best deer resistant and deer tolerant plants in many different categories, including ornamental plants (annuals, perennials, and biennials), vegetables, fruit, herbs, cacti and succulents, and shrubs or trees. If you’re looking to add a particular type of plant to your garden, you may wish to skip right to that category in our list of recommendations.
Deer Resistant or Deer Tolerant Ornamental Annuals
French Marigold (Tagetes patula)
Growing Zones: 2 through 11
Plant Size: 6” to 1’ height and spread
Sun/Soil: Full sun; moist but well-drained, average, clay, loamy, or sandy soil, will grow well in any pH range
French Marigold blooms are semi-double, double, or crested, in various shades of red, orange, and yellow. Blooms are quite large, opening up to two inches in diameter above a compact, bushy plant with uniformly divided, fragrant foliage that naturally repels many garden pests. Marigolds are deer resistant, and tolerant to drought and clay-heavy soils. For more information, read the Missouri Botanical Garden’s profile of French marigolds.
Dwarf Marine Heliotrope (Heliotropium ‘Dwarf Marine’)
Growing Zones: 9 through 11
Plant Size: 12”- 18” tall, 12” spread
Sun/Soil: Full sun to partial shade; moist, humus-rich, well-drained, loamy or sandy soil, grows well in any pH range
Heliotrope’s showy lavender-indigo flower clusters pop above rich leafy greens during the summer. Dwarf Marine Heliotrope is deer tolerant. All parts of the plant are toxic. It has no serious disease or pest problems. Heliotrope’s summer flowers are attractive to a wide range of pollinators and beneficial insects. For more information, read our article How to Grow Heliotrope Flowers.
Growing Zones: 2 through 11
Plant Size: 1’-4’ height, 6”-2’ spread
Sun/Soil: Full sun, evenly moist; well-drained, humus-rich, chalk, clay, loamy, or sandy soil, grows well in any pH range
From early summer until the first frost of fall, zinnia’s flowers are on full display in a wide range of sizes, colors, and flower forms. Zinnias are deer resistant, drought tolerant, and known to attract butterflies. For more information, read our article How to Grow Zinnias.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Growing Zones: 2 through 11
Plant Size: 1’-10’ height, 1’-3’ spread
Sun/Soil: Full sun; average, moist, well-drained, chalk, loam, or sandy soil with a slightly acidic pH
Nasturtiums uniquely-refreshing fragrance and lovely single or double blooms attract the attention of both humans and butterflies. The funnel-shaped, two to three inch wide flowers sit atop long stalks above round, dark-green parasol-shaped leaves. Available in orange, mahogany, red, yellow, and creamy white blooms. Deer tolerant. For more information, read our article How to Grow Nasturtium Flowers.
Deer Resistant or Deer Tolerant Ornamental Perennials
African Lily/Lily of the Nile/Star of Bethlehem (Agapanthus)
Growing Zones: 8 through 10
Plant Size: 2’-3’ height 3’-4’ spread
Sun/Soil: Full sun or partial sun; moist but well-draining and fertile chalk, clay, loamy or sandy soil, will grow well in any pH range
From early to mid summer, African lilies produce clusters of lovely, rounded, aromatic, lavender-blue, funnel-shaped blooms atop upright stems that rise above grass-like mounds of evergreen foliage that keeps the plant looking good year-round. African lilies are resistant to deer, rabbit, and salt. Blooms attract bees, butterflies, and birds. For more information, read our article How to Grow Agapanthus Flowers (African Lily, Lily of the Nile, Star of Bethlehem).
Fountain Grass (Cenchrus setaceus)
Growing Zones: 6 through 9
Plant Size: 2’ -3’ height, 2’-3 spread.
Sun/Soil: Full sun or partial sun; dry to moist, well-drained, chalk, loam, or sandy soils. Will adapt to any pH range.
Fountain grass is one of the most beautiful and elegant ornamental grasses that you can find. The rounded mounds of cascading foliage moves with the wind and turns golden yellow or beige in the fall. The grass actually blooms from early summer into the fall, producing purple-red to tan bottleneck-type flowers that attract birds to the garden. Fountain grass is deer resistant and drought tolerant. For more information, read our article How to Grow Fountain Grass.
Deer Resistant or Deer Tolerant Vegetables
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
Growing Zones: 3 through 8; in zone 9 and above, grow in containers and store indoors for the winter
Plant Size: 3 feet to 5 feet tall; 1.5 to 2 feet wide
Sun/Soil: Partial shade; rice, moist with a pH level close to neutral (6.5 to 7.5) that drains well
You can grow asparagus from seed if you like and you have the time, but asparagus is most commonly grown from “crowns,” which are year-old starter plants you can find at your local nursery or garden center. Asparagus is a perennial vegetable, so once the plants are well established, you can count on them to return every year as one of the earliest plants to wake up to greet warming temperatures in the springtime garden. For more information, read our article How to Grow Asparagus.
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)
Growing Zones: 2 through 11
Plant Size: 9 inches to 18 inches high; vines stretch 3 to 8 feet long
Sun/Soil: Full sun; loose, rich, well draining soil with medium texture and a slightly acidic pH (between 5.5 and 7.0)
Humans have cultivated cucumbers for over 3,000 years for food, and cucumbers are still a favorite in the vegetable garden today. You can plant cucumbers directly in the ground, grow them as part of a container garden, or even grow them vertically—you can’t really go wrong with this high-producing vegetable that’s so easy to grow. For more information, read our article How to Grow Cucumbers. You can also learn about growing cucumbers in a container garden in our article Growing Cucumbers in Pots with These Easy Tips or find out about a less traditional growing method for cucumbers with the article How to Grow Cucumbers Vertically.
Hot Peppers (Capsicum annuum)
Growing Zones: Hardy in zones 9 through 11, but usually grown as annuals in other zones
Plant Size: The size of hot pepper plants can vary widely between pepper varieties, ranging from less than a foot up to more than four feet tall.
Sun/Soil: Full sun; sandy loam rich in organic material that offers good drainage and has a slightly acidic pH level (6.0 to 6.8)
Like other plants in the nightshade family (eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, and Jimson weed), certain varieties of peppers are not just unattractive to deer—they’re actually poisonous to deer as well as other ruminants. Luckily, peppers are also one of the most frequently recommended vegetables for gardeners just starting out growing their own vegetables because they’re so easy to care for and so rewarding.
Pepper plants tend to produce a hefty harvest, and with so many different kinds of hot peppers you can choose to grow in your garden, you can’t go wrong. For more information, read our article Growing a Plethora of Peppers, or read about a certain hot pepper variety in the articles How to Grow Cayenne Peppers, How to Grow Ghost Peppers (Bhut jolokia), How to Grow Serrano Peppers, How to Grow Paprika Peppers, How to Grow Tabasco Peppers (Capsicum frutescens), How to Grow Jalapenos, or How to Grow Habanero Peppers .
You can also learn about growing peppers in a container garden in our article Hot or Sweet, You CAN Grow Peppers in Containers.
Now you should have plenty of options for deer resistant and deer tolerant plants you can add to your garden. Do keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a plant that’s 100 percent guaranteed to be deer-proof. However, the ones we’ve listed here are good bets to stand strong against grazing (for deer tolerant plants) or to be unappetizing, unpleasant options for the deer (for deer resistant plants).
Aside from stocking your garden with plants that won’t be harmed by your local deer, there are plenty of ways you can discourage deer from ever visiting your garden in the first place. To learn more about how to keep your garden a deer-free zone, read our article Humane Ways to Keep Deer Out of Your Garden.