Deer Resistant Plants and Getting Them Established

Deer in California rose garden.

Deer in California rose garden.

Browsing animals and new transplants are a bad combination. Nothing is more annoying than going out the morning after the previous day’s labor of planting, only to find all your plants bitten off at the soil line.  The lesson here is that it’s important to understand that deer resistant plants need some initial protection from our hoofed neighbors after planting.

Experience has shown me that deer resistant plants generally don’t come that way from the nursery.  This is because nursery grown plants are grown in soil-less mixes that use ingredients such composted bark, sphagnum peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, coir, rice hulls and soluble nutrients to create a well-drained, well-aerated mix in which we can grow potted plants.  Most plants that depend on aromatic oils and bitter compounds to repel animals don’t seem to be able to synthesize them in sufficient quantities when grown in non-soil growing environments.  But transplants, after a few months growing in real soil, begin to accumulate these deer resistant compounds in their leaves and stems and their deer resistance increases greatly.

So I strongly recommend deer repellent sprays when it comes to protecting young transplants from being eaten.

Research on deer eating habits has shown that the most effective way to protect your plants with repellents is to rotate their use so the deer don’t become accustomed to any one repellent formula.  It is also important to remember to re-apply the spray as the plants grow and new leaves appear. So every 10 to 14 days is a good interval to spray the repellent.

I once attended a lecture given by an inspired gardener who is a rose specialist and loved to grow Roses and Clematis in Spokane, WA. But apparently deer are a constant hazard in that area and love to eat roses, so she would always plant lavender in the planting hole, and this works quite well for her.  So planting strongly aromatic plants alongside other more palatable ones can be an effective and beautiful way to prevent deer damage.

Here are some of my favorite hardy herbs with strongly scented leaves that deer hate:

In times of drought and a lack of natural forage, additional measures may need to be taken because browsing animals are simply too hungry to be put off by unpleasant tastes and odors that repellents use to detract the animals. Physical barriers are necessary.  Poultry wire cages and bamboo stakes are effective as is covering plants with a light spun fabric known as “row crop cover” used by vegetable gardeners to protect from frost and insects.

Sometimes when deer pressure is simply overwhelming at all times of the year, a deer-proof fence is the gardener’s last resort.   A deer fence can be very inconspicuous when using a thin-mesh fencing wire and small diameter posts. It typically needs to be 6 feet in height to keep the deer from jumping the fence.

Deer Resistant Plants >> View All

  • Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass Calamagrostis acutiflora Karl Foerster

    Starting at $11.99

    Sale: $8.99

    Per Plant - 3.25" deep pot

  • Royal Wedding Oriental Poppy Papaver orientale Royal Wedding


    Sale: $7.99

    Per Plant - 5" deep pot

  • Walker's Low Catmint Nepeta Walker's Low

    Starting at $9.99

    Sale: $7.99

    Per Plant - 5" deep pot

  • Brilliant Oriental Poppy Papaver orientale Brilliant


    Sale: $9.19

    Per Plant - 5" deep pot

  • Rose Bells Pasque Flower Pulsatilla vulgaris Rosen Glocke


    Sale: $7.19

    Per Plant - 2.5" deep pot

  • Zagreb Whorled Tickseed Coreopsis verticillata Zagreb

    Starting at $10.99

    Sale: $8.79

    Per Plant - 5" deep pot

  • Compact Pineleaf Beardtongue Penstemon pinifolius Compactum

    Starting at $9.99

    Sale: $7.99

    Per Plant - 5" deep pot

  • European Purple Pasque Flower Pulsatilla vulgaris Blaue Glocke


    Sale: $7.19

    Per Plant - 2.5" deep pot

Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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5 thoughts on “Deer Resistant Plants and Getting Them Established”

  • ed brown

    Thanks for the blog David. I live in Idyllwild, CA. @ 6,000 ft. I am an avid gardener. Because of a huge wild fire in the high country last year herds of deer have driven down into our valley to add to an already large population.
    Spraying is not practical because I have over an acre under cultivation. I have found that by rotating 'Bounce' strips and Irish Mist to have some success but as you said hungry deer get used to anything.
    Has anyone tried electronic motion sensitive ultra sonic devices like 'The
    I do plant deer-resistant cultivars but because of the big trees and dabbled
    to fully shade sunlight I am limited.
    Don't want to fence me in but it looks like that's where I'm headed. Any other ideas.

    • David Salman
      David Salman 04/02/14 at 1:50 am

      A fence is your best option with high deer pressure, if you want to plant a wider palette of plants on your acre. Especially if the CA drought persists, they will be eating everything. You could try a couple of strands of electric horse wire mounted on some inconspicuous posts. This can be solar powered or use a 9 volt battery. There are also special deer fencing that has be designed to be very inconspicuous using thin posts and wire.

  • James d Wilson
    James d Wilson 02/19/14 at 8:18 am

    How cold-hardy are the two "hardy" Rosmarina varieties. This January, the low was about -5F. I had a year-old rosemary plant, ca. 15 " high, in a 14-inch pot that succumbed.

    Examples that I buy locally, labeled "hardy", seldom survive winters. (I don't have enough winter light to keep them happy indoors.)

    I keep Agastache "Shades of Orange" and "Ava" alive (in 18" pots) alive by shoving them under an overhang to keep them fairly dry yh run the winter.
    That didn't work for the rosemary.


    James Wilson

    • David Salman
      David Salman 04/02/14 at 1:51 am

      I think you are better off planting the Rosemary directly into the ground as the roots are sensitive to very cold temps. Agastache is much more root hardy. I would recommend Rosmarinus 'Alcalde Cold Hardy' or; Arp'. Spring plant them and protect the Rosemary the first two winters (Dec-March) by creating an enclosure of bamboo stakes and burlap and stuffing the burlap enclosure with leaves. By the third winter the Rosemary will be large enough to express its full cold hardiness. Remember to winter water every 3 weeks or so. They are evergreen plants and can die from dessication as well as cold.

  • N Warren

    Vitex works great as a "babysitter" for starting trees - I have deer and horses!

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