Garden Spaces: Deer? Oh, Dear…Try Herbs

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PLANTING KEY: 1. Cinquefoil (POtentilla fruiticosa); 2. Horehound (Marrubium vulgare); 3. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.); 4. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis); 5. Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum); 6. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); 7. Poppy (Papaver orientale); 8. Barberry (Berberis vulgaris); 9. Baby's-breath (Gypsophila paniculata); 10. French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus 'Sativa'); 11. Lavender (Lavandula spp.); 12. Santolina (Santolina spp.); 13. Basil (Ocimum basilicum); 14. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

In many parts of the United States, deer feast on every garden they can find, chomping and stomping their way through whole neighborhoods with little regard for aesthetics and no sense of fair play. Some frustrated gardeners give up, concluding their carefully tended beds are merely a smorgasbord for the local animal life.

Herb gardeners have a big advantage, though. A fragrant herb garden is a confusing place for deer, which rely on their sense of smell to warn them of predators. Instead of raiding your herb garden, they’ll wander over to the fruit trees and tulips down the street, so you can appreciate these magnificent creatures from afar.

Natural Selection

Growing the right plants is your first line of defense against deer. While no plant is deer-proof when these animals are hungry, rosemary comes close. Its spiky leaves emit a cloud of fragrance that deer dislike. Other Mediterranean herbs, such as oregano, sage and thyme, have a similar effect.

The plants illustrated in this sunny garden have escaped browsing deer in different regions, but by all means experiment. If you love spring bulbs, tuck in some daffodils, which are more deer-resistant than tulips. Deer also will ignore many native ornamental grasses, which are lovely additions to any herb garden.

Tips and Tricks

Gardening successfully in deer country depends on many other factors, such as weather, the season and even the attitudes of your neighbors. Here in Texas, many people put out “deer corn” in fall and winter, believing they’re helping the poor deer–but they’re not. This lures the animals closer to your garden and makes them dependent on a nutritionally deficient diet. The high-carbohydrate content of corn can cause malnutrition and liver damage, and even can prevent deer from digesting their normal forage of native plants. Deer corn should be used only as bait by hunters during hunting season. Your job is to convince your neighbors that feeding deer is a bad idea; once deer are attracted to a specific area, it’s difficult to keep them from returning.

Also, remember to protect vulnerable young transplants before they become established. You can use a physical barrier such as a wire cage or plant thorny shrubs, such as barberry, at the edge of the garden.

Or, try spraying the garden perimeter with a deer repellant, such as Liquid Fence, Deer Off or Plantskydd.

NEXT PAGE: More tips on how to repel deer from your garden. Also, which plants to use for your personal Deer-B-Gone Garden (poppy is one of these).

Most of these widely available products are made of natural ingredients, such as bloodmeal, hot peppers, garlic, eggs and mint. Be sure to reapply them after rain or heavy watering.

Some gardeners claim marking their garden territory with urine repels deer, too. (If you try this, consider your neighbors, who probably would prefer you do this discretely.) A dog in the yard, even a small one, also can be very effective at deterring unwanted animals.

Above all, don’t become discouraged. Remember: You’re smarter than the deer!

Plants for a Deer-B-Gone Garden

Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa). This rock-hardy, native perennial shrub with bright yellow flowers is available in varieties that can reach 4 feet. It is widely used in landscaping and hedges; grow it from division or buy a plant.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare). This hardy perennial grows to about 2½ feet; deer usually dislike the bitter, menthol-like flavor of its foliage. Grow from seed or a start from a neighbor’s garden. Deadhead blooms if new seedlings become a nuisance.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Don’t confuse these handsome, native perennials with ragweed–goldenrod is nothing to sneeze at! Sends up 3-foot panicles in late summer. Start from seed or plants of selected garden varieties.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). This fragrant herb forms a lovely perennial shrub up to 5 feet tall in mild climates. In colder areas (Zone 6 or lower), grow it in a container and bring indoors for winter. Choose an upright variety to be sure its scent is at nose level for deer. Prefers a gravelly, somewhat alkaline soil.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). A hardy perennial in the mint family, this herb produces dense spikes of fragrant blue blooms on 3- to 4-foot stems. Easily started from seed.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). A hardy native in the milkweed family, butterfly weed bears yellow, red and orange blooms adored by butterflies. Grow it from seed or divisions.

Poppy (Papaver orientale). This reseeding annual bears pretty blooms in a myriad of colors and forms, including double. Easy to grow from seed; just scatter throughout the garden.

Barberry (Berberis vulgaris).

NEXT PAGE: Six more herbs to guarantee a deer-free garden.


Barberry (Berberis vulgaris). A hardy perennial shrub with bright berries and sharp spines, barberry is easy to grow and pretty in hedges of all kinds. It can reach 8 feet or taller, so put this prickly shrub at the back of the garden. Grow it from seed, cuttings or purchased plants.

Baby’s-breath (Gypsophila paniculata). The airy flowers of this perennial are welcome in any garden or cut flower arrangement. Grows to about 4 feet.

French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’). Bittersweet leaves complement dressings and poultry. Plant this 2-foot-tall perennial where it will receive some shade in afternoon. In the South, substitute Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), a fall bloomer with similar flavor.

Lavender (Lavandula spp.). Available in an array of species and hybrids, lovely lavender offers mounds of aromatic gray-green leaves topped with delicate flower spikes, 2 to 3 feet tall. English lavender (L. angustifolia) and the lavandin hybrids (L. xintermedia) are hardiest. Purchase plants at a nursery or start cuttings from a friend’s herb garden.

Santolina (Santolina spp.). Both gray- and green-leaf forms of this small shrub are strongly scented. At just 12 to 16 inches, santolina makes an appealing, evergreen edging. Grow from cuttings, divisions or seed.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum). This beloved annual herb, in all its different forms, can be tucked in wherever space allows. Sow seed directly in the garden after danger of frost has passed, or purchase transplants at your local nursery.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Grow this biennial, clump-forming herb as an annual. For landscape interest, the bright green curly-leaf kind works best; flat-leaf Italian parsley has better flavor. Start from seed or buy young plants.

Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living in beautiful Austin, Texas.

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