Oh, deer. Oh, dear.

Planting deer-resistant landscape plants this fall can help discourage deer and rabbits from using your garden as a free buffet during the winter.

Fall is a great time of year for planting bulbs, perennials, trees and shrubs, and for seeding wildflower gardens. It is also a great time for planting perennial foods. The problem is wildlife likes to eat many of the same things we do. White tailed deer, rabbits and rodents feeding on our landscape plantings create human wildlife conflict that can leave many of us quite frustrated.

With winter coming, snow cover offers a place of protection for the smaller animals to shred the bark from fruit trees and other woody ornamentals. They can create runs or surface tunnels in the lawn under the snow only to be revealed when the snows melt in the spring. White tailed deer browse again and again, often eating perennials, shrubs or young saplings to the ground.

Deer do have preferences and are seen eating more frequently on one plant species over another. Unfortunately, your ornamentals were watered, fed and tended all summer, so when cold weather arrives, they are a more succulent choice over the neglected wild type. Techniques to hinder deer browsing in your landscape include substituting less palatable plants and creating confusion or blocks to your favorite specimens. Other means of discouragement include fencing, repellents, sudden movement and loud noises. Rest assured that no plant is 100 percent deer-resistant; some are just less tasty so are passed up for better ones, making them less likely to be heavily damaged by deer.

Practicing companion planting by mixing in your deer-resistant plants around and near the more delectable ones will help to confound and confuse both rabbits and deer when they come around to browse a bit in your garden. A few deer-resistant landscape plants are:

  • Annuals: Anethum graveolens (dill), Capsicum annuum (hot peppers), cucumis sativus (cucumber), Rheum rhabarbarum (Rhubarb), and Tagetes (marigolds).
  • Perennials: Allium (onion) family, Anemone, Aquilegia (Colombine), Digitalis (Foxglove), Lavandula (lavender), Pachysandra, Rudbeckia spp. (black-eyed susan), Salvia (sage), and Thymus (Thyme).
  • Ornamental grasses: Miscanthus sinensis (Japanese silver grass), Panicum virgatum (switch grass), Calamagrostis acutiflora (Feather reed grass), and Carix spp. (sedges).
  • Shrubs and trees: Buxus sempervirens (boxwood), Ilex opaca (American holly), Cornus kousa (Kousa dogwood), Syringa bulgaris (lilac), Betula papyrifera (paper birch), Picea spp. (spruces), and Pinus resinosa (red pine).

For more information and a more comprehensive list of deer-resistant landscape plants, read Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-3042, Deer-Resistant Plants for Homeowners.

Remember: No tender young plant is exempt from deer browsing under certain conditions. All you can do is to make things as unpleasant as possible for deer or rabbits to discourage entering your gardens.