Ten Deer-Resistant Plants for Virginia Gardens

In this month’s travel section, I focus on an issue very close to home – how to grow plants that deer won’t eat.

Deer used to bound through the neighborhood at dusk or later. Now it’s common to see them in the middle of the day, munching on greenery. They’re very fond of azaleas. They also chomped on my hosta, turning a sumptuous leafy plant into a sad collection of spiky stems. Short of fencing in our yards, how can we discourage these critters?

My friend Elizabeth Vance, who lives in Midlothian and has a beautifully landscaped yard, gave me some suggestions. “For years I spent hundreds of dollars and many hours spraying deer repellant,” she said. “But applications must be repeated frequently and after every rain and on any new growth. Worse, not only did the plants smell, but I did, too!”

Elizabeth Vance

Although she says deer will eat almost anything if they get hungry enough, there are still many plants that are not on their favorite food lists. Elizabeth has added these to her unprotected front garden, with “No hosta, no roses and definitely no day lilies.”

A hardy choice is mahonia, a prickly evergreen shrub that has large yellow spring flowers, followed by bluish-purple berries. It can grow in sun, shade or partial shade, and in acid, heavy clay or normal soil. This plant also provides lots of volunteer offshoots.


Hellebores, which have evergreen leaves, bloom at the end of January or February and stretch to the middle of March. Stinkweed helleboreis a taller variety whose flowers are smaller and have more of an arching dimension to them.

stink weed helebore

Pieris is another evergreen shrub that is easy to grow, with red leaves in March and lacy flowers in April and May. It does best in acid soil and is tolerant of semi-shade.


An early-spring deer-resistant combination is daffodils, Lenten rose hellebore, stinkweed hellebore, and pieris.

spring daffodils

Rhododendron, with its large leaves and large pink or purple flowers in May, adds a definite “wow” factor to the garden. It prefers acidic soil and dappled shade. It doesn’t like its roots in marshy areas.


Here’s another beautiful combo: a dwarf pieris in front of an Oklahoma redbud, surrounded by rhododendron, arborvitae (careful – deer will eat this one!) and foster holly.

oklahoma redbud with dwarf pieris

Iris of all varieties are deer resistant. There are shade varieties as well as sun, and dwarf as well as super-tall ones. Ask friends to share their bulbs with you. Splitting them actually helps iris bloom better.


A favorite ground cover is Georgia Blue Veronica. This is a sturdy evergreen that has a lovely mahogany color on its underside in winter, then turns into a field of blue flowers in spring.

georgia blue veronica

Lily of the Valley is another low-growing plant that will flourish anywhere. Creeping Jenny with its yellow-green leaves provides a nice color contrast.

lily of the valley and creeping jenny

Lungwort has beautiful flowers and interesting leaves. It does best in shady locations and is also one of the few plants that can survive under black walnut trees.

lung wart

Bear Claw fern does well in shady spots. It adds color and beauty to the garden but holds little appeal for deer.

beer claw fern

Cranebill geranium is a perennial that will grow in dappled shade or full sun. Elizabeth’s plant survived in its container all winter.

cranbell geranium

Elizabeth has spent the past 20 years turning the woods behind her house into wonderful little rooms of color. She gained her knowledge through garden club membership as well as trial and error. Here are a few more shots of her amazing garden.

What plants do you use to ward off deer? I look forward to hearing about them on Facebook.

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