Five Plants to Avoid if You Have Deer (and what to plant instead!)

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It can be a thrill to see a deer in your own backyard – until you start to realize how much damage these big, hungry creatures can do to your plants. While hungry deer will eat just about anything, there are certain plants that they like so much that merely having them in your yard will actually *attract* them. Not only does this severely harm or even kill those plants, it encourages them to linger and feed on other plants, causing even more widespread damage. If you don’t mind the deer stopping by but want to stop short of rolling out the welcome mat for them, here are five perennials and shrubs to not plant, and some ideas for what you can plant instead.

1. Hosta

Close up of a hosta with leaves that are light green on the inside and dark green around the border

Hostas are beautiful, elegant, and the go-to plant for shady spots in both warm and cold climates. They’re also at the top of the list of plants that deer love and actively seek out. If your hosta is just a bunch of stems sticking out of the ground with no leaves, that’s a sure sign that deer got to them! Though they can recover, deer favor them so heavily that they will continue to browse them as soon as a single new leaf dares to emerge, so unless you plan to install a fence any time soon, you should consider replacing your hostas with one of these suggestions. They thrive in the same shady conditions and are equally low-maintenance – maybe even more so, since the deer will leave them alone.

Top Hosta Alternatives

Ferns provide the same effortless foliage interest as hostas but are rarely, if ever, bothered by deer. They share the same elegant, urn-like shape, and though many ferns tend to be taller than hostas, there is a huge range of colors, sizes, and shapes available, so you’re sure to find one that works just as well.

Coral bells (Heuchera sp.) are another option to consider for foliage interest in shade. Heuchera have undergone a veritable renaissance in breeding, with hundreds of colors, sizes, leaf shapes, and textures available. They do require well-drained soil, though, and if you can provide some filtered light each day, you’ll find they become much more lively and colorful than if they grow in deep shade.

Foamy bells (Heucherella sp.) and foamflower (Tiarella sp.) are close relatives of coral bells that also merit consideration as hosta alternatives. These North American natives typically have a slightly more “rustic” or “wild” look than hostas, but that may be just what you are looking for!

2. Daylily

Close up a pink-purple daylily with a yellow eye

Ah, daylilies – so easy to grow, so long-blooming, so colorful! And so impossible to enjoy if you have deer. Daylilies are easily tied with hostas for the number one spot on the list of deer favorite foods and they similarly attract deer if you have them in your yard. They begin chowing down as soon as the foliage emerges in spring, but should your plants get to the point of flowering, you can be assured that any neighborhood deer will find them a particular delight. While it’s certainly disappointing to not be able to grow this all-time favorite perennial, take heart: there are some lovely deer-resistant alternatives that can provide the same easy-breezy summer color and are similarly maintenance-free.

Instead of Planting Daylilies, Try These

Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) love the sun and bring tons of colorful blooms to the summer garden. And you don’t have to worry about deer, as they dislike the hairy leaves, stems, and of course, the prominent, prickly cones that serves as the namesake of this hardy perennial.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) doesn’t have the color range of coneflowers, but blooms nearly non-stop all summer, so readily approximates the long blooming period of daylilies without the liabilities (and the flowers last more than just a day, too!).

Finally, consider coreopsis, aka tickseed. This super easy-care perennial blooms its little heart out – particularly the varieties ‘Moonbeam’ and ‘Zagreb‘ – for a flower display that easily rivals that of daylilies. And without the deer!

3. Arborvitae

A cluster of vibrant green Thuja North Pole trees

The next plant on the list is a shrub, and an evergreen, but easily ties with the first two in its favorability with deer: arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis). If you’ve ever crushed the foliage on one, it’s easy to see, or rather smell, why – it has a delicious fruity fragrance that’s quite unique. Arborvitae are the most commonly-used evergreen for privacy hedges and screening, which makes their susceptibility to deer damage even worse. If you have deer in your area, a drive around your town will no doubt reveal arborvitae with the trademark “muffin top” or “ice cream cone” shape, where the deer have browsed to twigs everything that is within their reach, leaving the top portion lush and full. But there goes the privacy!

Alternatives to arborvitae are a bit harder to suggest. Though there are many, few of them grow as quickly as arborvitae does when it comes to providing privacy, but we have a few ideas below. It’s also worth considering that there are two different species of arborvitae out there – Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and Western arborvitae (Thuja plicata). Of these two, Eastern arborvitae is much, much more susceptible to deer browsing than its Western cousin, so if deer pressure in your area is relatively low, opting for Western arborvitae might be a viable solution (though you should definitely plan to protect new plantings for their first three years when they are softest, tastiest, and most-within-reach of the deer).

Arborvitae Alternatives

Tall junipers (Juniperus sp.) are a first-choice arborvitae substitute. They are less shade tolerant than arborvitae, but make up for it by being tough-as-nails in terms of drought tolerance and longevity. You do need to wait a bit longer for a juniper hedge to fill in compared to an arborvitae one, but eliminating the risk of catastrophic deer damage should more than makeup for that. Another nice bonus with juniper: the aromatic “berries” it creates attract birds, and can be used in beauty products and cooking.

Another hedge plant to consider is false cypress, Chamaecyparis. These have a similar habit to arborvitae and can grow in more shade than junipers (though some sun is definitely recommended). They are a bit slower-growing, but make up for that in giving you different color options than all-green arborvitae offers. They’re also not as tall as arborvitae, which might be a very good thing, depending on your space.

Finally, if you are looking for small, globe-shaped alternatives to arborvitae like Anna’s Magic Ball or Tater Tot, boxwood makes a great choice. It is notoriously deer resistant, perhaps even deer-proof, shade tolerant, and can be trimmed to any shape. There are even some taller boxwoods that can be planted as privacy hedges, but generally, these are not as cold tolerant as arborvitae, so many not be a viable alternative for all locations.

4. Yew

Stonehenge Dark Druid Yew with vibrant green foliage

Yew – known botanically as Taxus – is quite a puzzler when it comes to deer. It’s widely known to be one of the most toxic of all of the commonly used garden plants, particularly in the North, East, and Midwest, but deer absolutely devour it. How they manage to so completely destroy something that can be deadly to other animals (and humans) if ingested even in very small quantities is a mystery, but their love for eating this plant is enough that a yew in deer country doesn’t stand a chance.

A Few Options to Try Instead of Yew

All of the alternatives to arborvitae described above are equally good alternatives to yew, especially boxwood, which shares its tolerance of deep shade. In addition to those, however, you can also consider plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia. You’re not imagining it: plum yew and regular yew are very closely related in both name and looks. However, plum yew goes untouched by deer compared to its cousin. Weird, right?! Perhaps it’s because plum yew has much longer, broader, bolder needles than regular yew. Plum yew is also much more heat tolerant than yew, and not quite as hardy, but still tolerates deep shade. Important: just because “plum” is in the common name does not mean that any part of this plant is edible; it is just as toxic as regular yew.

5. Roses

Apricot rose blooms dotting green foliage in landscape

Everyone knows that roses are some of the thorniest plants to be found in a garden, so it would be natural to assume that their prickly nature makes them unappealing to deer. This would be a serious mistake, though, because deer are ravenous when it comes to roses. It is theorized that their naturally high vitamin C content makes deer eat them almost compulsively, but whatever the reason, those trying to avoid attracting deer to their yard should avoid planting roses of any kind. Fortunately, we can offer a few suggestions that approximate the long-lasting color – and even the fragrance – of roses but are left alone by the neighborhood herd.

Deer- Ressistant Rose Alternatives Include

Sonic Bloom weigela are tops on our list – weigela tends to be quite deer resistant, but the Sonic Bloom series from Proven Winners is especially suited to replacing roses because it reblooms. It can provide double, even triple the weeks of bloom that a standard weigela does, extending the display well into summer when you’d otherwise be seeing roses. We also love the rose-like colors: pink, red, white, and yellow, all the same, lovely hues that make roses so appealing.

If it’s the fragrance of roses that you miss, try a butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) instead! Their summer-long bloom time easily holds its own against any rose, and their colorful blooms give off a sweet honey scent. It’s quite different from the fragrance of roses, but you’ll be too busy enjoying all of the butterflies and hummingbirds it attracts to worry about that. While there’s no true red butterfly bush, ‘Miss Molly’ does come close, and you’ll have plenty of lovely pinks, purples, blues, and even white to choose from.

Abelia doesn’t boast the color range of roses, or of the previous two suggestions, but it makes up for it in lovely fragrance, non-stop blooming, and practically rock-solid deer resistance.

One last suggestion to consider, with a caveat: rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). Some people report excellent deer resistance, while others report some minor browsing that may take off a few flowers here and there. Like most anything to do with deer, your mileage may vary, as they say. Still, it’s worth mentioning because it is so incredibly long-blooming and easy to grow, providing a similarly long window of color and beauty as roses.

Looking for more options that you can easily grow and enjoy, even in the presence of deer? We’ve got lots of them! Click the collection below to view more options.

Written by: Miranda Niemiec, click here to read bio.

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