Is anything really deer-proof? Well… the truth is…when deer are hungry, especially in spring and fall, they will eat just about anything.
They crave nutrition- and moisture-rich plants—getting up to one-third of their water from young leaves, stems and buds. Although, deer-weary gardeners will try almost anything to protect their landscapes from foraging deer—electrified fencing and plastic netting are usually the last resort. However, if you want to be the most effective, appropriate plant selection is the first option. Although deer might nibble these plants too, your garden will stand a better chance when choosing plants that are not the equivalent of a ‘can’t eat just one’ potato chip.
Since deer have delicate noses, they usually avoid plants with a strong scent, thorny stems or fuzzy leaves. Some plants have even incorporated chemical defenses that taste bad or are poisonous such as daffodil bulbs or foxglove. Even if you have carefully chosen the most deer resistant shrubs, it always helps to include an extra line of defense—repellent products that deter deer by smell or taste. It’s easiest to stop the foraging cycle before it begins!
Trees & Shrubs That Deer Dine On Less Often
'Green Giant' Arborvitae (Thuga standishii x plicata 'Green Giant') is a large and fast-growing evergreen (pictured)—shooting skyward as much as three feet per year. It displays a regal, pyramidal shape and is chosen for its dense, rich-green foliage that makes an exceptional hedge, screen or single specimen tree. This hybrid is resistant to wind and can stand up to the heavy ice and snow of our Midwest winters. And, best of all this one shows a better resistance to browsing by deer than most arborvitae.
Size: 50-60’ tall and 12-20’ wide at maturity.
Light: Full sun and partial shade. This arborvitae grows best with a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day.
Soil: This one tolerates a wide range of soil textures but poorly drained and wet sites should be avoided. It is very salt-sensitive.
Green Velvet Boxwood (Buxus ‘Green Velvet’): This compact form of evergreen can be appreciated for its well-pruned shapes that give a formal atmosphere to the garden or its naturally, rounded form when not sheared. These shrubs are hardy in our zone 5 and can be used as a hedge, snipped into a topiary, planted in containers or used as 'slow-growers' in smaller, urban gardens. Boxwood grows easily in either full sun or part shade. The ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood matures from three to four feet in height and width. Plant in a protected area because winter winds and direct sun can dry out the small, evergreen leaves. When pruned, boxwood gives off a distinctive, sharp smell that isn’t attractive to deer (or rabbits).
Size: 3-4’ tall and 3-4’ wide at maturity.
Light: Partial to full sun. Water regularly—once a week or more often in extreme heat or more sun.
Crimson Pygmy Barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pygmy): This dwarf and densely branching barberry, displays deep, burgundy foliage that turns to a more dramatic red in the autumn. It makes an excellent border or small-hedge shrub. The tiny thorns make it a dangerous mouthful for deer!
Size: 2’ tall and 3’ wide at maturity.
Light: Thrives well in full sun.
Add a Second Line of Defense
Natural ingredients such as egg-, soap- or predator urine-based products can also help to keep your garden intact rather than turning it into a mouth-watering buffet for deer.
'Liquid Fence' Deer & Rabbit Repellent is a spray liquid repellent that works by scent. Apply directly to plant foliage and the perimeter. This liquid repellent must be applied a few times. For best results, follow the directions on the label. The main deterrent is a ‘smelly’ scent that deer don't like. After the initial application, the smell will go away after a short period of time—for humans, not deer. The ingredients won’t harm plants or animals and you can use it year round.
‘Bobbex’ is a spray-on liquid made from natural ingredients that are harmless to all wildlife including humans, pets and birds—even fish. Deer don’t like the smell or taste. The scent will go away for humans—not deer—within 24 hours. Ready to use in sprays, pumps or concentrated spray containers for larger areas. Do not use on leafy vegetables, herbs or fruits because it is difficult to wash off.
‘Repels All’ Animal Repellent: This is an all-natural, dry, granular product that you sprinkle around the plants. It will repel deer as well as many other animals (chipmunks, porcupines, rabbits, raccoons, rats, skunks, squirrels and even cats.) The active ingredients, dried blood, egg solids and garlic oil, causes irritation to the animal’s nasal passages and they learn to stay away! It is biodegradable and environmentally safe and effective for up to 2 months in every season.
‘Deer Off Waterproof Deer Repellent Stations' from Havahart: This deer repellent kit contains six waterproof, repellent stations that house the active ingredient of dried blood. This product is enclosed in individual, plastic cases so it doesn’t need to be reapplied like other products after rain or snow. Simply, slide a repellent station on the accompanying metal hoop and press into the soil. Place the stations at the specified distances on the label. You can also protect young trees from foraging deer by hanging the individual cases from tree limbs with invisible, fishing line. Or, use Deer Off in outdoor containers to protect delicate annuals or perennial arrangements. The 100% dried blood ingredient triggers the flight response in deer. It is odorless to humans and safe for use in vegetable gardens. Apply once for season-long protection.
Bonide Go Away! Deer and Rabbit Repellent Granules: This is a repellent specifically for deer and rabbits. The granules are composed of naturally ‘smelly’ ingredients (white pepper, putrescent egg solids, garlic and cloves. One application can last up to two months...not harmful to animals or plants.
Bobbex Rose Deer and Insect Repellent: The active ingredient is fragrant, thyme oil. It is easy to use because it comes in pump form and requires no mixing. This scent and taste will deter deer from feeding on your roses. At the same time, it repels damaging insects such as aphids, Japanese beetles, leafhoppers and others. It won’t wash off with rain or sprinklers.
Mmmmm… Don't plant shrubs that are especially TASTY to deer
Hybrid Tea Rose (Rosa)
Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus)
American Arborvitae (Thuga occidentalis)
Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)
Evergreen Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)