There was a time when you didn't have to worry about deer eating your garden. But over the past decade or so these hungry herbivores, along with their bunny friends, have become so numerous and bold that they think nothing of prancing right up your deck or porch stairs to feast on your favorite flowers and veggies. If deer and rabbits are turning your deck into their personal buffet table, here's a list of colorful and/or tasty plants that deer and rabbits will avoid. Just remember that every animal, like every human, has different tastes, so no plant can ever be considered 100 percent safe. And remember that rabbits and deer don't always avoid the same plants.
As a general rule, deer and rabbits avoid gray- or silver-leaf plants. It's probably because most silver plants, such as dusty miller, have slightly fuzzy leaves that don't rate very high on their menu. The other nice thing about dusty miller is that it thrives in containers and creates a lovely contrast to other more brightly colored flowers. Dusty miller grows 6-8 inches tall and maintains its leaf color right up until frost. You might also try growing it along the edge of your pots and planters to help discourage curious nibblers.
Pungent herbs with brightly colored leaves make great companions for annual flowers in pots and planters. Tricolor sage, for example, develops beautiful green, white, and pink leaves that blend well with annual flowers. What’s more, the foliage has a strong sagelike fragrance that deer and bunnies avoid. Happily, the leaves are edible for humans and can be substituted in the kitchen for common sage if you are in a pinch. Tricolor sage grows about 12-15 inches tall and requires full sun. For a fun look, try mixing it with purple and golden sage in the same container.
If you were a rabbit or deer, would you want to eat a marigold? After all, these American beauties have strong smelling foliage and thick, unpleasant tasting sap that most herbivores avoid. Marigolds come in a wide variety of forms that vary slightly in their ability to ward off nibbling marauders. The best marigolds to grow deer-and-rabbit country are the old-fashioned Signet types and the dwarf French varieties. Both types of marigolds grow 12-18 inches tall and are ideal for container culture. The taller American or African marigolds, which grow up to 3 feet tall, aren’t as happy growing in containers and will be sampled by an occasional deer or bunny. All marigolds require full sun and well-drained soil.
Dark-green, pleated leaves and lovely scented flower heads are what makes heliotrope a top choice for a deer- and rabbit-resistant container gardens. Why? It’s because these hungry creatures don’t like to feast on fragrant plants, even if the plants smell wonderful to humans. Heliotrope produces large vanilla-scented, dark blue or purple flower heads all summer long on stems that grow 12-18 inches tall. Heliotrope is a popular plant with butterflies that flock to its nectar-rich blooms. The plants grow in full sun or partial shade and are best treated as an annual in all but the warmest regions of the country.
Deer and rabbits have to be pretty desperate to take a bite out of verbena. That’s because verbena leaves are relatively small and rough to the touch with a sharp flavor that grazers avoid. This stunning annual flower is available in a wide range of colors and comes in either upright or trailing forms that both make superior container plants. The flowers form slightly rounded heads that are perched beautifully on the end of each stem. Verbena is drought-resistant and won’t wilt dramatically if you occasionally forget to water it. Plant verbena in full sun and feed every few weeks to keep the flower show going all summer long.
Ever notice how if you accidentally break off a branch of your holiday poinsettia that it “bleeds” a thick white sticky sap? Well that sap is typical of all members of the euphorbia family, including container gardening varieties such as ‘Diamond Frost’ or ‘Glamour White’. They’re a great “filler” plant for containers and hanging baskets, producing endless clouds of small white blooms throughout the summer. And, like other members of the family, these little charmers contain a thick white sap inside the stem that prevents rabbits and deer from feasting on them. These easy-care euphorbias grow easily in sun or partial shade and prefer a slightly moist soil.
Easily grown from seed in pots or planters, Iceland poppies develop spectacular crepe-paper-like blooms on wiry stems that seem to dance every time the wind blows. Iceland poppy grows 12-18 inches tall and comes in a range of colors including orange, yellow, pink, white, salmon, and cream. The hairy leaves, that deer and bunnies avoid, are all clustered at the base of the plant. Iceland poppies like full sun and a quick drink whenever the soil starts to dry out. To prolong the bloom season of these lovely annuals, remove the flowers as they fade. It’s also probably not a surprise that a plant with Iceland in its name prefers cool spring or fall weather.
The fuzzy, flat-top blue, purple, rose, or white blooms of ageratum are so cute you might be tempted to pet them. But, luckily deer and rabbits won’t give them a second look. Growing 8-12 inches tall, ageratum, occasionally called floss flower, makes an excellent container plant in any sunny location. It does prefer slightly moist soil and will wilt dramatically if allowed to go thirsty. To keep the plants looking good, clip away the flower heads as they fade. Ageratum will flower nonstop right up until first frost.
The bright, candy-color blooms of snapdragon might look sweet to us but are completely unappealing to hungry grazers such as deer and rabbits. Snapdragons vary in size from 8-inch dwarfs to 3-foot-tall giants, but they all offer plenty of color in pots and planters. There are also trailing forms that are perfect for hanging baskets. Snapdragons like full sun and cool weather, so you can rely on them to brighten your spring garden before the temperatures soar. Colors include white, red, yellow, pink, orange, and bicolor. These annual plants often stop blooming in midsummer but might pop back up again when cooler, fall weather arrives.
Considered an annual in the north and a perennial in the Deep South, lantana blooms its head off during hot weather. Its beautiful, nectar-rich flowers will attract mobs of hungry butterflies to your garden but never seem to be on the menu for rabbits or deer (probably because the foliage releases a pungent scent when rubbed or brushed). Lantana loves full sun and is drought-resistant, which makes it a great container plant for gardeners who forget to drag out the watering can. Colors include yellow, cherry, white, lavender, orange, red, and a host of bicolors.
Cleome is a lot more appealing to you than it is to deer or rabbits. This super easy, sun-loving annual forms lovely rounded heads of purple, pink, or white flowers with long thin stamens that give the plants their common name, spider flower. Cleome can grow 3-5 feet tall so isn’t ideal for container culture, but new dwarf varieties are perfect for pots and planters because they only grow 12-18 inches tall. Hungry marauders avoid this plant due to its sticky, resinous foliage and tiny spines along the stems. But, butterflies and other pollinators love the nectar-rich blooms and will flock to your garden when the buds open.
Low-growing and deliciously fragrant, sweet alyssum makes a superior container plant that mingles well with any other flower that shares its sun-worshipping habit. This little trailer rarely grows over 8 inches tall but can quickly spread 12-18 inches long, tumbling over the edge of pots, planters, window boxes, and baskets. Flower colors include white, rose, and purple. Its honey-scented blooms will attract scores of pollinators to your garden while repelling the hungriest deer and rabbits.
Once you’ve grown Persian shield, also called strobilanthes, you’ll want to plant it every spring. That’s because this amazing plant develops spectacular, iridescent purple, green, and black foliage that shines in sun or partial shade. The plants grow 18-36 inches tall so they make an ideal centerpiece in a large pot or planter. Persian shield is heat- and drought-tolerant and is resistant to both deer and rabbits. These easy-care plants look great right up until first frost.
Annual varieties of Black-eyed Susan, or rudbeckia, bloom quickly from seed and keep on flowering right up until frost. This nonstop color show is what makes them an ideal container plant especially for hot, sunny conditions. Varieties include ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Cherokee Sunset’, ‘Toto’, and ‘Becky’. Heights vary from 8 to 18 inches tall, but no matter how tall they are, these beauties are all attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. However, because the plants have rough, hairy leaves, most deer and rabbits pass them by. Annual black-eyed Susan gets knocked back by the first frost but often self-seeds so you can rely on new plants every spring.
Few herbs are as flavor-controversial as cilantro. Beloved by many cooks and gardeners, this strongly flavorful herb turns some people off, too. But, the best thing about cilantro is that it also makes a wonderful container plant that both deer and rabbits avoid, although they’ll both sample your plants if there’s not much else around to eat. Cilantro develops bright green clusters of flat, pungent leaves that mix well with other herbs or annual flowers. Cilantro prefers full sun and cool weather and will form white flowers once the weather heats up (cilantro seeds are harvested as coriander). This vigorous, easy plant will often spread through your garden if you allow it to spread seed. Clip the leaves at any time for use in the kitchen. It grows 12-18 inches tall.
A top pick for the shade border, columbine or aquilegia, is also available in dwarf forms that fit easily in containers. Growing 10-15 inches tall, columbine develops gorgeous crownlike blooms in shades of pink, blue, yellow, lavender, cherry, white, and bicolor. This eager little plant blooms happily in cool weather, so pot it early in the season. Columbine prefers partial shade, but in the early spring, they can easily tolerate full sun. By summer the plants will go dormant and can be replaced with summer flowering annuals such as ageratum or verbena. Both deer and rabbits avoid this lovely, jewellike plant.
If you wanted to, you could create an entire container garden just using sedums. These fleshy-leaf beauties come in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and colors that mix and match perfectly in containers of all types. Plus, sedums are generally not bothered by deer or rabbits (or anything else for that matter) and can survive periods of severe heat and drought. Use low-growing and creeping varieties such as ‘Angelina’ to edge your pots or baskets and let taller varieties such as ‘Matrona’ take center stage in big planters.
Few things are as frustrating as putting a pretty, flower-filled pot on your deck or patio and coming out the next morning to discover that a deer or rabbit has devoured all your hard work. That's why plant selection is key if you live where these pests gather. Yucca is a great example of a plant that thrives in containers, adds drama and color to your landscape, and completely resists deer and bunny attacks. It's also heat- and drought-resistant, making it an ideal pick for gardeners who don't like to fuss over things. Yucca comes in both green and variegated forms and can grow 12-36 inches tall. If you have young children, you might want to use scissors to gently trim the points of the leaves to prevent accidents.