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11 deer- and rabbit-resistant plants

By: Garden Gate staff
Struggling with deer and rabbits eating your garden? Here are 11 plants that deer and rabbits usually avoid.

Your neighbors call and tell you how much they enjoy watching the deer and rabbits playing in your garden. You groan, grab a broom and head to the door. Too late—they ate the hostas and the daylily buds that were just opening! What to do? Let’s start by looking at the foraging practices of these four-legged eating machines.

Habitual deer

Deer are creatures of habit. Once they find a route with lots of tasty treats, they follow it. Your objective is to either block that path or give them reasons to move to another area. Fencing helps, but is expensive and not always possible. Sprays that smell or taste bad to deer often work, but need to be reapplied frequently to be effective. One of the best ways to avoid feeding them is to set a table with their least-favorite foods.

Erratic rabbits

Unlike deer, rabbits are more random in their eating habits. One female rabbit can produce five or more litters in a year. And since each litter may have five to eight hungry bunnies, they have to keep moving to find new food sources. Fencing and repellent concoctions help, but are extra work. And the list of foods that rabbits don’t like is shorter than the list for deer.

Bottom line on controls—much will depend on the other food options in the area, the competition for food and the eating habits of the deer or rabbits. No plant is 100 percent resistant to a hungry animal. Once it’s finished off its favorites, the critter will move on to the next least-offensive-tasting plant. The key is to create a garden that contains few of their favorites. So with that said, here are 11 plants that deer or rabbits will pass by in their search for a tasty meal.

Deer- and rabbit-resistant plants

Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)

This bulb, which you plant in fall, has a distinctive “skunky” odor. You may not notice the scent from the foliage or flowers, but animals will and they’ll leave it alone.

Crown imperial needs good drainage, so add an inch of coarse sand under the bulb when you plant. And to prevent water from collecting in the top of the bulb, plant it on its side.

In spring, as soon as you spot the stems poking through, sprinkle fertilizer around your crown imperials. Look for a general-purpose bulb food with an analysis around 9-9-6. After the flowers fade, snip them off, but leave the foliage to feed the bulb. Keep the soil dry after the bulb goes dormant.

Type Bulb Blooms Red, orange or yellow in spring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 40 in. tall, 10 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 5 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Allium (Allium spp. and hybrids)

Once the tulips have all been gobbled up by the deer and rabbits, the large-flowered alliums will still be getting ready to put on their show. ‘Gladiator’ in the photo above is a classic, with blooms that can last three weeks or more. Even after the foliage withers, which it tends to do before the flowers finish and the color fades, the globes will stay standing.

Striking as a single specimen, you get an even bigger impact if you plant in groups. Figure on two to three bulbs per square foot. Yes, they can be more expensive than other spring bulbs, but the flowers usually last much longer than a tulip or daffodil.

Type Bulb Blooms Purple globes in late spring Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 20 to 60 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 9, heat zones 9 to 1

Narrowleaf foxglove (Digitalis obscura)

All parts of any foxglove are toxic to humans and other mammals like deer and rabbits. Somehow they know to leave this plant alone!

Narrowleaf foxglove is notoriously short-lived. You can try to prolong its life for several years, and get more flowers in the process, by keeping it from setting seeds. If you fall behind in your deadheading and seeds form, the plant may expend all of its energy ripening the seeds and die over the winter. In that case let the seeds fall to the ground and look for seedlings next spring. They probably won’t bloom the first year, but mark them and enjoy the flowers the following season.

Type Perennial Blooms Rusty orange in early summer Light Part shade Soil Well-drained to dry Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum)

Make the edge of a bed repellent to deer and rabbits and perhaps they won’t venture into it looking for a meal. This mounding plant is perfect as a low border or in a container. Most cultivars have lavender-blue flowers like ‘Blue Pearl’ here. They all prefer full sun, but if you live in USDA zones 8 or warmer, the color holds best with afternoon shade.

You don’t even have to deadhead. As the flowers fade, new growth and flower buds usually cover the old growth. Over time the plant may grow a bit leggy. Snip or lightly shear a couple of inches off the top and your plants will be back blooming in a week or two.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Lavender-blue, pink or white in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 6 to 30 in. tall, 6 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 9 to 10, heat zones 12 to 1

Spanish dagger (Yucca gloriosa)

When this beautiful plant’s flower stalk is covered with creamy white bells in summer it can stop traffic! And it’ll stop passing hummingbirds that are sure to visit for a sip of nectar. But deer and rabbits won’t even take a nibble from the tough and stringy foliage. ‘Variegata’ has blue-green leaves edged with creamy yellow. In fall, the evergreen leaves take on rosy pink tints.

Although most people grow it as a perennial because it’s so slow growing, technically, Spanish dagger is a shrub. After 10 years or so it’ll develop a trunk that raises the rosette of leaves, creating a striking focal point.

Type Evergreen shrub Blooms Spikes of creamy white bells in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained to dry Size Foliage: 2 to 4 ft. tall and wide, flower stalks: to 8 ft. tall Hardiness Cold zones 6 to 10, heat zones 10 to 1

Lilac (Syringa spp. and hybrids)

Lilacs can be found in vacant lots, blooming with no special care. One reason lilacs survive so well on their own? Deer and rabbits turn up their noses at them and chew on something more tasty.

The Persian lilac here is very fragrant, and similar to the well-known French hybrids. But it’s a bit smaller and more delicate in appearance than its popular cousins.

The biggest drawback to most lilacs is that they bloom for such a short time. Plant a mix of species and cultivars—they’re all resistant to deer and rabbits. By doing so you can extend the season of color and fragrance for up to a month.

Type Shrub Blooms Pale red-lavender in spring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 4 to 8 ft. tall, 5 to 10 ft. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 7, heat zones 7 to 1

Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum)

Pretty white bells will make you take a closer look, but deer and rabbits won’t bother—they’re not interested in looks, only in the taste. When you’re shopping, you’ll find other species of Leucojum that open later in the season, some as late as fall—all are critter-resistant.

The foliage of spring snowflake in the photo above takes a while to go dormant. Plant the bulbs among grasslike sedges to disguise the leaves as they ripen. Spring snowflake prefers some moisture during its dormant period, so water the area during dry spells. If blooming decreases, lift the clumps as the foliage dies down, break them apart and reset the bulbs immediately.

Type Bulb Blooms White bells in early spring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, humus-rich Size 6 to 18 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Vinca (Vinca minor)

The evergreen leaves are leathery and the creeping stems are tough — perhaps that’s why critters don’t nibble this ground cover.

When you’re planting, set plants 12 to 18 inches apart and they’ll grow together in a year or two. Set them closer for a faster cover. Stems root where they touch the soil, so soon you’ll have a tight mat. However, to keep it growing dense like the cultivar ‘Sterling Silver’ above, give it a haircut as the flowers finish. In a small area, scissors or hedge shears are fine for clipping it back to about 4 in. Set your lawn mower as high as you can and go over large beds. It’ll fill in again, thicker than before.

Type Perennial Blooms Periwinkle blue in late spring Light Full sun to shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 4 to 6 in. tall, spreading Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

The haze of lavender-blue flowers is irresistible to butterflies. But deer and rabbits don’t like the smell, which is similar to culinary sage (Salvia officinalis)—another plant these critters will quickly walk past. Leave the silver-gray stems standing all winter. As soon as you see new leaves sprouting late next spring, cut all of the stems down to about 6 in. to get a bushy plant. The more stems it grows, the more flowers you’ll have later in summer. Once this perennial is established you don’t have to fertilize or give it extra water—it thrives on minimal care. There’s really no need to stake the wispy stems, either.

Type Perennial Blooms Lavender-blue in late summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Hardiness Cold zones 5 to 9, heat zones 9 to 1

African marigold (Tagetes erecta)

Colorful flowers make marigolds popular. But to most four-legged critters, the pungent scent makes marigolds unpopular as a snack. However, butterflies and bees will spend hours sipping the nectar.

Marigolds are easy to grow. Sow the seeds indoors or directly in the spot where they’re to bloom. Either way they start to flower in seven or eight weeks. Or if you only need a few for a container or two, pick up multi-packs at the garden center.

Taishan® Yellow, here, is part of a series of African marigolds known for sturdy stems. Even after a heavy rain, the flowers will stay standing. And it takes hot, sunny summer days in stride, too.

Type Annual Blooms Shades of yellow and orange in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 48 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Annual, heat zones 12 to 1

Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)

In many areas, shrubby cinquefoil, even lovely ‘Katherine Dykes’ here, has a bad reputation. People feel it’s common or think it looks ratty at times. But it’s one of the longest-blooming shrubs you can grow. And there are almost no pests or diseases that bother this very hardy shrub.

Regular pruning will keep shrubby cinquefoil looking its best. Use a pair of hedge clippers to cut all of the stems back by at least half in early spring. You can go shorter—down to just a few inches—if you want a smaller plant. Shrubby cinquefoil blooms on new wood so you don’t have to worry about missing the yellow blossoms if you cut early.

Type Shrub Blooms Shades of yellow all summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 2 to 4 ft. tall, 3 to 5 ft. wide Hardiness Cold zones 3 to 9, heat zones 9 to 1

Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)

This bulb, which you plant in fall, has a distinctive “skunky” odor. You may not notice the scent from the foliage or flowers, but animals will and they’ll leave it alone.

Crown imperial needs good drainage, so add an inch of coarse sand under the bulb when you plant. And to prevent water from collecting in the top of the bulb, plant it on its side.

In spring, as soon as you spot the stems poking through, sprinkle fertilizer around your crown imperials. Look for a general-purpose bulb food with an analysis around 9-9-6. After the flowers fade, snip them off, but leave the foliage to feed the bulb. Keep the soil dry after the bulb goes dormant.

Type Bulb Blooms Red, orange or yellow in spring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 40 in. tall, 10 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 5 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum)

Pretty white bells will make you take a closer look, but deer and rabbits won’t bother—they’re not interested in looks, only in the taste. When you’re shopping, you’ll find other species of Leucojum that open later in the season, some as late as fall—all are critter-resistant.

The foliage of spring snowflake in the photo above takes a while to go dormant. Plant the bulbs among grasslike sedges to disguise the leaves as they ripen. Spring snowflake prefers some moisture during its dormant period, so water the area during dry spells. If blooming decreases, lift the clumps as the foliage dies down, break them apart and reset the bulbs immediately.

Type Bulb Blooms White bells in early spring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, humus-rich Size 6 to 18 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Allium (Allium spp. and hybrids)

Once the tulips have all been gobbled up by the deer and rabbits, the large-flowered alliums will still be getting ready to put on their show. ‘Gladiator’ in the photo above is a classic, with blooms that can last three weeks or more. Even after the foliage withers, which it tends to do before the flowers finish and the color fades, the globes will stay standing.

Striking as a single specimen, you get an even bigger impact if you plant in groups. Figure on two to three bulbs per square foot. Yes, they can be more expensive than other spring bulbs, but the flowers usually last much longer than a tulip or daffodil.

Type Bulb Blooms Purple globes in late spring Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 20 to 60 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 9, heat zones 9 to 1

Vinca (Vinca minor)

The evergreen leaves are leathery and the creeping stems are tough — perhaps that’s why critters don’t nibble this ground cover.

When you’re planting, set plants 12 to 18 inches apart and they’ll grow together in a year or two. Set them closer for a faster cover. Stems root where they touch the soil, so soon you’ll have a tight mat. However, to keep it growing dense like the cultivar ‘Sterling Silver’ above, give it a haircut as the flowers finish. In a small area, scissors or hedge shears are fine for clipping it back to about 4 in. Set your lawn mower as high as you can and go over large beds. It’ll fill in again, thicker than before.

Type Perennial Blooms Periwinkle blue in late spring Light Full sun to shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 4 to 6 in. tall, spreading Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Narrowleaf foxglove (Digitalis obscura)

All parts of any foxglove are toxic to humans and other mammals like deer and rabbits. Somehow they know to leave this plant alone!

Narrowleaf foxglove is notoriously short-lived. You can try to prolong its life for several years, and get more flowers in the process, by keeping it from setting seeds. If you fall behind in your deadheading and seeds form, the plant may expend all of its energy ripening the seeds and die over the winter. In that case let the seeds fall to the ground and look for seedlings next spring. They probably won’t bloom the first year, but mark them and enjoy the flowers the following season.

Type Perennial Blooms Rusty orange in early summer Light Part shade Soil Well-drained to dry Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 8, heat zones 8 to 1

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

The haze of lavender-blue flowers is irresistible to butterflies. But deer and rabbits don’t like the smell, which is similar to culinary sage (Salvia officinalis)—another plant these critters will quickly walk past. Leave the silver-gray stems standing all winter. As soon as you see new leaves sprouting late next spring, cut all of the stems down to about 6 in. to get a bushy plant. The more stems it grows, the more flowers you’ll have later in summer. Once this perennial is established you don’t have to fertilize or give it extra water—it thrives on minimal care. There’s really no need to stake the wispy stems, either.

Type Perennial Blooms Lavender-blue in late summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Hardiness Cold zones 5 to 9, heat zones 9 to 1

Floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum)

Make the edge of a bed repellent to deer and rabbits and perhaps they won’t venture into it looking for a meal. This mounding plant is perfect as a low border or in a container. Most cultivars have lavender-blue flowers like ‘Blue Pearl’ here. They all prefer full sun, but if you live in USDA zones 8 or warmer, the color holds best with afternoon shade.

You don’t even have to deadhead. As the flowers fade, new growth and flower buds usually cover the old growth. Over time the plant may grow a bit leggy. Snip or lightly shear a couple of inches off the top and your plants will be back blooming in a week or two.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Lavender-blue, pink or white in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 6 to 30 in. tall, 6 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 9 to 10, heat zones 12 to 1

African marigold (Tagetes erecta)

Colorful flowers make marigolds popular. But to most four-legged critters, the pungent scent makes marigolds unpopular as a snack. However, butterflies and bees will spend hours sipping the nectar.

Marigolds are easy to grow. Sow the seeds indoors or directly in the spot where they’re to bloom. Either way they start to flower in seven or eight weeks. Or if you only need a few for a container or two, pick up multi-packs at the garden center.

Taishan® Yellow, here, is part of a series of African marigolds known for sturdy stems. Even after a heavy rain, the flowers will stay standing. And it takes hot, sunny summer days in stride, too.

Type Annual Blooms Shades of yellow and orange in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 48 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Annual, heat zones 12 to 1

Spanish dagger (Yucca gloriosa)

When this beautiful plant’s flower stalk is covered with creamy white bells in summer it can stop traffic! And it’ll stop passing hummingbirds that are sure to visit for a sip of nectar. But deer and rabbits won’t even take a nibble from the tough and stringy foliage. ‘Variegata’ has blue-green leaves edged with creamy yellow. In fall, the evergreen leaves take on rosy pink tints.

Although most people grow it as a perennial because it’s so slow growing, technically, Spanish dagger is a shrub. After 10 years or so it’ll develop a trunk that raises the rosette of leaves, creating a striking focal point.

Type Evergreen shrub Blooms Spikes of creamy white bells in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained to dry Size Foliage: 2 to 4 ft. tall and wide, flower stalks: to 8 ft. tall Hardiness Cold zones 6 to 10, heat zones 10 to 1

Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)

In many areas, shrubby cinquefoil, even lovely ‘Katherine Dykes’ here, has a bad reputation. People feel it’s common or think it looks ratty at times. But it’s one of the longest-blooming shrubs you can grow. And there are almost no pests or diseases that bother this very hardy shrub.

Regular pruning will keep shrubby cinquefoil looking its best. Use a pair of hedge clippers to cut all of the stems back by at least half in early spring. You can go shorter—down to just a few inches—if you want a smaller plant. Shrubby cinquefoil blooms on new wood so you don’t have to worry about missing the yellow blossoms if you cut early.

Type Shrub Blooms Shades of yellow all summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 2 to 4 ft. tall, 3 to 5 ft. wide Hardiness Cold zones 3 to 9, heat zones 9 to 1

Lilac (Syringa spp. and hybrids)

Lilacs can be found in vacant lots, blooming with no special care. One reason lilacs survive so well on their own? Deer and rabbits turn up their noses at them and chew on something more tasty.

The Persian lilac here is very fragrant, and similar to the well-known French hybrids. But it’s a bit smaller and more delicate in appearance than its popular cousins.

The biggest drawback to most lilacs is that they bloom for such a short time. Plant a mix of species and cultivars—they’re all resistant to deer and rabbits. By doing so you can extend the season of color and fragrance for up to a month.

Type Shrub Blooms Pale red-lavender in spring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 4 to 8 ft. tall, 5 to 10 ft. wide Hardiness Cold zones 4 to 7, heat zones 7 to 1


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