Getting Started on a Deer Resistant Garden!

Getting Started on a Deer Resistant Garden!

As gardeners, we have a special connection to and appreciation of the natural world, don't we? We cherish the closeness we have to warm earth, new sproutings, songbirds, butterflies and other visitors to our little corner of Eden. Except when those visitors proceed to eat everything we have spent days, weeks, even months working for!

Deer resistant gardening and plants deer don't eat

Gardening in the company of animals is certainly a challenge, but one in which nature itself can be your ally! Looking at your garden from the animals' points of view - and the plants'! - can make all the difference - let's see how.

First, I find it best to remember that the deer and rabbits were here first, and they are only doing what they have to in order to survive. This is not a battle of wills between enemies, it is a matter of learning to fill your garden with beauty that does not mistakenly look like a salad bar to Bambi and Thumper.

Plants have evolved to coexists with animals, and many have developed ways to keep from being eaten by the local fauna. Use these plants and their strategies to your garden's benefit. Plants that are found time and again to be highly resistant to foraging animals, like deer and rabbits, fall into two main categories, those that taste terrible, and those that are actively toxic. I think of these two groups like stewed spinach (my apologies if this is a personal favorite) and ipecac. If there were a restaurant that specialized in serving just these two items - I would never darken their door, would you? So let's see how this can help with animals ransacking your garden.

Please remember, the best we can do is to fashion a garden with as little appeal to hungry animals as that hypothetical restaurant. If the deer are truly starving, they will try to eat nearly anything, just to survive. So let's make sure your garden doesn't have a huge, tempting buffet!

Siberian Iris Blue King is deer resistantExamples of terrible tasting plants would be the wide family of iris. All iris apparently taste terrible. Though they are not toxic, deer, rabbits, gophers etc will avoid feeding on irises. Bearded iris are extremely drought tolerant and ever green. Japanese iris will grow in semi-bog conditions and are also evergreen. The lovely Dutch Iris of cut flower fame grow from fall planted bulbs and bloom in the spring. There are varieties of iris to suit every climate and growing condition, with a wide array of colors and sizes to match.

Alstroemeria, with their exquisitely marked blooms and lush, tropical foliage are one of myAlstroemeria Louise is deer resistant all time favorite plants, but feeding animals do not agree. These beauties are perfect for your garden bed or containers, blooming for months at a time, but taste very nasty.

Daylilies are another example of terrible tasting plants, but this seems to be a regional issue, with some deer and rabbits turning up their noses at them, while in other parts of the country they dig right in. There are several examples of regional preference for some plants - sort of like grits in the south and fish tacos in southern California!  :)

Narcissus daffodil Sir Winston Churchill is deer resistantThe other category of bulbs and plants that will be useful for you are those that are downright toxic to feeding mammals. No need to fear killing off unwanted visitors, which may seem a bit harsh. The benefit of toxins for a plant's defense is that it acts very fast, burning the soft tissues of the mouth and nose immediately. These plants bite back! And, since the goal is not to be eaten in the first place, they advertise their toxicity very clearly through smell.  While you and I wouldn't notice it, any animal living by instinct respects this signal and gives these plants a wide berth. Daffodils, hyacinths and galanthus are excellent examples of plants that have developed a vigorous toxin in order to keep from being eaten.


Deer Resistant Bulbs and Plants


This is just a partial list to get you started:

 Toxic Bad Tasting
Agapanthus Alstroemeria
Allium Astilbe
Amaryllis - Belladonna Buddleia - Butterfly Bush
Anemone Coreopsis
Asclepias - Butterfly Weed Crocosmia
Brugmansia Dichelostemma
Chionodoxa Eremurus - Foxtail Lilies
Convallaria - Lily of the Valley Iris
Cyclamen Hemerocallis - Daylilies (in some regions)
Dicentra - Bleeding Hearts Kniphofia - Torch lilies
Echinacea - Coneflowers Leucocoryne
Fritillaria Pelargonium - Hardy Geranium
Galanthus - Snowdrops Rosemary
Garlic & Shallots Salvia
Hippeastrum - Amaryllis
Leucojum - Snowflakes
Lavandula - Lavender

Narcissus - Daffodils



Rhodophiala bifida - Oxblood Lilies


Zephyranthes - Rain Lilies
Planning Your Deer and Rabbit Resistant Garden

In addition to recognizing what plants the deer will steer clear of, either due to toxicity or terrible taste, it is important to recognize the plants we love that the deer also favor. Deer enjoy eating most of the plants we like to eat, including lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas and fruit trees. They also will go out of their way to tuck into the tasty tulips, azaleas and hibiscus many gardeners are thoughtful enough to plant for them.

Before you plant your garden - have a plan, based on the plants and bulbs local animals feed on and avoid. Draw as many of your plant choices as possible from the lists of bad tasting and actively toxic plants. Only plant the snacking favorites that you simply must have, and plan to defend it from the local wildlife. 

tulips and daffodils interplanted

Tulips are the equivalent of peanut M&Ms for the animal world. If your life just is not complete without tulips, thickly interplant them with something aggressively toxic, like daffodils to protect them. As temptingly tasty as those tulips are, the deer and rabbits will think twice about chomping on them when the highly toxic narcissus are intermingled with them. (No matter how much you love those M&Ms, you really would skip them if they were doused in ipecac, wouldn't you?) You can use this same strategy to protect other plants in your garden. And the good news is that the protection of plants like narcissus lasts much longer than their blooms do. Because all parts of the daffodil plant are toxic, the leaves continue to protect other plants, and underground, the narcissus bulbs put gophers off enjoying other bulbs, tubers and root crops nearby.

Beautiful, deer resistant bulbs and plants

There are many more strategies to help keep stress with animals to a minimum as you enjoy your garden, but this is the place to start - selecting plants for the garden that have evolved their own defense against being eaten. Selecting these bulbs and plants for your garden is the best start to enjoying deer the way you really want to - watching them glide gracefully past your garden as they head for the salad bar at your neighbor's!  :)

I would love to hear what you think! And if you have any favorite bulbs or plants to add to our list above, please let me know by adding your comment below. And stay tuned - I will return to this subject many times!

Happy gardening!

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  • Kathleen McCarthy
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