Garden Designers Roundtable – Designing with Deer

Sure, it’s tempting to title this post Deer-Proof Plants or something of that nature but truth be told, deer will eat just about anything when they’re hungry.

And not only that, they’re some of the craftiest animals around when it comes to sneaking into your garden.  The second you leave your gate open, they let themselves in and prune your roses to the ground.

Instead of fighting this constant, never-ending battle with deer I’ve found it much easier to accept them as part of the landscape and to design gardens around them.

Yes, it can be done!

Please join my fellow garden designers and me in this month’s Garden Designers Roundtable where we discuss Designing with Deer.GreenBar

1.  General characteristics of deer-resistant plants

Generally speaking, there are a few common characteristics that deer-resistant plants seem to have: their leaves tend to be fuzzy (Lambs Ears), very aromatic (rosemary), thick & leathery (Pride of Madera), thorny (berberis) or contain some sort of irritant or sap (euphorbia).

However, it’s not that simple.

Even a well-known deer-resistant plant might be delectable to a particular deer that frequents your garden.

And as if that wasn’t frustrating enough, certain varieties within a deer-resistant species (salvia or ceanothus, for example) might be left alone while others are delightfully devoured. GreenBar

It basically boils down to experimenting with plants a few at a time until you learn what’s on the top of your local deer population’s menu. What works for your friend across town may not work for you.GreenBar

2.  Design Strategies


1.  When designing a new garden that I know is teeming with hungry deer, I first begin by experimenting.

My goal is to learn about the deer in the specific area – what they like and what they don’t like.

If it’s a very large property, I’ll buy a few of each variety that I’m testing and set them out in the open for a week or so. After a few days, I’ll undoubtedly have my answer.GreenBar


2.  I also play the ‘numbers game’ when designing gardens with deer by using a large number of plants – not only different species but different varieties within a species.

That way, if a deer develops a taste for a specific plant (and they will!) the garden isn’t left with a giant, unsightly hole. I can easily fill the devoured plants in with another variety that I know is deer-resistant.GreenBar


3.  When designing a garden with plants that might taste good to a deer,  I’ll surround them with others that are known deterrents.

This strategy also works well for younger plants that need to have a few years’ growth under their belts before withstanding nibbling deer.

If I’m planting a ceanothus or manzanita, for example, I might surround it with euphorbia (which irritates deer with its milky white sap).

That way, I’m giving the new plants a little extra ‘insurance’ until they can grow a bit taller and tougher, able to better withstand curious, grazing deer.GreenBar

 3.  Successful Deer-Resistant Gardens

Many people seem to think that having a deer-resistant garden means they’ll end up with something boring, with a limited plant palette, and little to no color.

Personally, I  love this type of challenge as I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when I show them the diversity they can have.  Here are some examples of successful gardens that I’ve designed over the years, all completely open to marauding deer.



Manzanita-Grevillea-Berberis-Phlomis-Tiers-Slopes-Northern California GardensGreenBar


Tiers-Slopes-Northern California Gardens-westringea-grevilleaGreenBar

4.  Plants I’ve had success with in my zone 9 gardens:

I can’t begin to tell you what the deer in your area will or won’t eat (you’ll have to asses that using the strategies mentioned above), but I can tell you what my own experience has been.

Over the years, I’ve had much success with achillea, artemesia, berberis (all varieties), calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, echium candicans (all varieties), chondropetalum elephantum, euphorbia (all varieties), callistemon ‘Little John’, many varieties of ornamental grass,  lavender (all varieties), miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, phlomis (all varieties), rosemary, teucrium prostratum, santolina coton, stachys byzantine and certain varieties of salvia.GreenBar

I say ‘certain varieties of salvia‘, because while salvia is touted as being deer-resistant, there are some that have been more successful than others in my gardens.

The salvias that deer tend to leave alone are: s. clevandii, s. leucothe, s. gregii ‘Nuevo Leon’, s. uglinosa, s. spathacea, s. microphylla ‘Hot Lips’.

The salvias that deer have eaten are s. grevii ‘San Antonio’, s. officinalis ‘Purpurea’, s. guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’.

Go figure.GreenBar

This is just a partial list, but to find out more I would highly recommend reading 50 Beautiful Deer Resistant Plants, by Ruth Rogers Clausen.  I’ve found her recommendations to be spot-on for Northern California.


Please make sure to stop my fellow Garden Designer Roundtablers, to read their thoughts on deer resistant gardens:

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA


Enjoyed this article?  Please share it with others: 

Please leave a comment below


  • Beautiful gardens, Rebecca! Funny – in my front garden the deer have left the ‘Black and Blue’ salvia alone; however, the drought did a number on it. If not one thing, it’s another! 🙂

    • You’re so right, Pam. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. But as one of my closest gardening friends says when faced with yet another dead or destroyed plant….”hey – it’s just another planting opportunity!”. 🙂

  • Rebecca, thanks for some great tips – obviously acquired via some consistent, hands-on work on your part. I love your emphasis on *local* – perhaps that explains the huge diversity in recommended plant lists that I see in my region – good to know!

    • Thanks Jocelyn! Yes, ‘local’ as in local to one’s garden even! I’ve seen local deer destroy a certain plant on one street, but leave that same plant alone a few blocks away. Maddening, to say the least!

  • Rebecca, Some beautiful photos of the gardens you have designed which are all ‘open to deer’ – wonderful. Also some very helpful plant suggestions, some of which I haven’t particularly tried – I will next time! Thanks very much for the post.

  • Rebecca, as always, your photos are gorgeous! Isn’t it wonderful we have so many beautiful deer resistance plants to choose from in California? (At least, they’re resistant MOST years.)

  • Your experience sounds similar to mine on the Salvia front. My ‘black and blue’, and ‘purple majesty’ have lost a number of battles with the deer, but S. gregii ‘Nuevo Leon’ is as close to a deer proof salvia as I’ve ever planted here. The only plants our cervids consistently leave alone outside the deer fence are the Lavenders, rosemary, and thyme. Everything else has at least been sample on one occasion or another. I do find that planting out larger, more mature deer-resistant plants can help too, as often very young tender plants are prone to attack, but once more mature the deer may ignore them completely. I’m desperate to get some Ceanothus established outside the deer fence, so I may try transplanting a larger shrub, and try your Euphorbia trick!

    • Yes, try the euphorbia trick! Another plant that works especially well are berberis. I know they’re terribly invasive in other parts of the country, but I’ve never seen a single one re-seed here (thank goodness). They’ve proven to be excellent barbed wire barriers to more tender plants, like the ceanothus. And if you do plant ceanothus, plant the ones with the smallest leaves. The larger the leaf, the yummier it is! p.s. don’t you just LOVE ‘Nuevo Leon’? I’m so happy the deer don’t like that salvia, though it’s so darn brittle it breaks easily as they’re trudging through the garden. At least those darn deer could stay on the paths, right? 😉

  • Great topic and very helpful post. I find my pack of three dogs helps keep the deer at bay. Plus, in Oklahoma, they are still hunted. This also helps keep their numbers in check. However, they do still get into my garden and cause problems occasionally. So do the horses next door for that matter.

    • Yes, Dee, a pack of dogs are most excellent (as long as they don’t just lounge in the shade all day like mine does!)

  • I haven’t had to deal with deer much because I have mostly lived in either very suburban gardens or gardens that would have been difficult for deer to get to for one reason or another. One annoying thing I did learn about Salvia though in a garden I designed is that while deer do not like the taste of the scented foliage they have no qualms about eating the flowers. In this case it was with Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ but I imagine the same my be true of other Salvias. Left the plants alone but the moment they started blooming they came along and chomped the flowers right off. This was with northern coastal California deer so experiences may vary with other deer or other Salvias.

    • Hi Kaveh – I’m so sorry to hear about your flower situation! That would drive me insane!! I’ve had the ‘Black and Blue’ get chomped, but have had really great luck with salvias with really small flowers (like ‘Nuevo Leon’), maybe try those? Though, I’ll admit, they’re very brittle and tend to get broken by the deer clumping through the garden. sigh.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to my blog

Upcoming Speaking Events

September 16,2021
September 22,2021
October 6, 2021
October 22, 2021
February 9, 2022
March 11, 2022

Vertical Gardening

City of Federal Way, WA Garden Series
Zoom Presentation

Topic: TBD

Garden Club of Hingham, MA
10:00am EST
Zoom Presentation

When to Break the Rules (and how to get away with it!)

Diablo Women’s Garden Club, CA
In Person Presentation

The 7 Sins of Garden Design

San Diego Home & Garden Show, CA
Zoom Presentation

When to Break the Rules (and how to get away with it!)

Merced Garden Club, CA
In-Person Presentation

Topic: TBD

University Farm Circle Garden Club, Davis CA
In-Person Presentation

Harmony in the Garden is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to
provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and other affiliate marketing companies.

Scroll to Top