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Deer Versus Gardener…

If you garden in the Thousand Islands you have probably experienced this frustrating scenario: Monday evening at dusk you’re standing outside in your garden admiring the beauty of your annuals and perennials that you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Tuesday morning you look out the window and are shocked (and angry) to see that every flower has been eaten down to the roots in one fell swoop! Welcome to the battle of deer versus gardener.

After feeding my plants and flowers to the deer on Hill Island for more than 25 years, I believe that I finally created the definitive list of plants that deer do not eat. Although the list is short, I can guarantee that these plants will fend off the deer without needing to be covered.


Euphorbia: This is low growing delicate plant with small oval leaves and tiny white flowers. It can be used as a border plant in beds or as a container plant. This plant was available at Minnaker’s last year and sold out quickly. There is a perennial by the same name so don’t buy it by mistake.

Licorice Vine:  This trailing vine that has a licorice smell is great for window boxes and planters. It is hardy and wind-resistant so can be used in pots on the dock and deck. It has a silvery soft colour that makes a nice compliment to brighter colours. Plant sparingly in your planters as this vine grows quickly and can crowd out other flowers.

Potato Vine:  Potato vine is a perfect trailing plant for window boxes and planters. Its large triangular leaves come in a variety of colours from lime green to dark burgundy. I usually add potato vine to planters on my deck railing as a beautiful compliment to impatiens. It seems to grow well in full to part-shade areas.

Zinnias: These flowers have large dahlia-like heads and come in a range of bright and cheerful colours. They are great for summer borders and in planters. They flower all summer and are great cutting flowers. They can be easily started indoors or sown outdoors two weeks after the last frost date.


Barberry:  An excellent shrub or hedge with lots of thorns that deer will avoid. These can grow to 2 – 3 feet in height and come in a range of rich variegated colours. They also produce a red shiny berry. These plants are great for covering areas at the base of the house or the septic system.

Boxwood: Another shrub or hedge that deer avoid. These plants have a beautiful green colour all year and can be used as a border or a hedge. They can be easily shaped with trimming, hence the name.

Clematis: I planted some Clematis as an experiment two years ago and was excited to see them survive! This is a climbing plant that grows well in a sunny location but likes to keep its “feet” in the shade. They need to be supported by a trellis. Clematis has beautiful large flowers that come in a wide range of colours from white to dark purple.

Daffodils: Daffodils are one of the only spring plants that deer will avoid. Like other deer proof perennials they are poisonous. They usually bloom in April and can be planted in all areas of your property including beds, lawns and wooded areas. Once established they spread on their own. The bulbs should be planted in the fall before the ground hardens. Daffodils are great cutting flowers for spring bouquets and may also discover that the cast-offs will seed themselves.

Foxglove Foxglove is actually a biennial (flowers every two years) but with enough plants you will have it growing every year. If you have ever visited Hill Island in June, you will have seen this yellow flowering plant growing wild everywhere. It is also known as Digitalis (the source of the heart medication) and is poisonous to people and animals. I have successfully transplanted the wild plants from our property into my garden beds and also purchased other colours from the nursery. It is a tall and showy plant that needs to be staked when in bloom and cut back after blooming.

Japanese Maple:  This beautiful, delicate Maple has survived in my garden for more than four years. However I have placed a wooden box trellis about two feet high around the trunk. The deer could certainly reach over and eat leaves on the lower branches. So I am not 100% sure that the Japanese Maple is deer proof. It is certainly worth trying.

Lamb’s Ear:  This plant comes in a range of sizes but I have used the smaller, low growing plant as a border and ground cover. Like their name, the plant’s leaf is soft and hairy with a silvery green colour. Lamb’s ear grows prodigiously and can be easily divided and planted in both shady and sunny locations.

Thyme This is a perennial herb that can be grown for the kitchen but also makes a great border or ground cover for your garden. The deer definitely don’t eat this plant! It comes is several varieties. One called creeping thyme, is low growing and can be planted between the patio stones on a path. It is indestructible and when walked on gives off a lovely scent. Other varieties grow taller and can be used as a border or filler plant. Be careful where you plant it though as it can become invasive.

In general there are some other tips based on my gardening experience. I have had some great success moving plants that grow wild on our property into my garden beds as they are obviously deer resistant.

As well, be wary of the advice given by staff in garden centres. Their recommendations of other deer proof plants have almost always been incorrect. I have also experimented will all sorts of “remedies” for keeping the deer away including Irish Spring soap, dog hair, human hair and urine. None has worked! Plastic netting sometimes works in the short term but deer will pull it away and eat the plants underneath.

Finally be careful about children and pets around some of these plants as they can be harmful if eaten!

I hope this list helps and good luck with your gardening in 2011.

By Judith Gould

Judith Gould has taught, coached and mentored both staff and managers for more than 25 years in the private and public sectors most recently as the the Organizational Development Educator at Kingston General Hospital.  Before joining Kingston General Hospital, Judith was a faculty member with St. Lawrence College and Loyalist College. Judith has Master of Education from Queen’s University with a specialization in adult learning.  While Judith continues her consulting work in retirement, she has returned to her real passion – drawing and painting. She has begun a series of watercolours of the Thousand Islands and the St. Lawrence River and is also creating an “almanac” that documents the trees in the region as 2011 is the International Year of the Forest. This spring she will teaching an outdoor watercolour course and plans to hold art workshops for people undergoing treatment for cancer.

Editor’s Note:  When we were putting this article together, we received this helpful hint:  “We have found that stringing monofilament fishing line, tree to tree to tree around where we can, on our property's periphery on Murray Isle, has been a huge deterrent. We've seen deer, but we no longer have wipe-outs of our plants at all, it has worked for us for over six years.  It is strung about the height that would come across their freaks them and they go elsewhere”. Judy Munro.  

If you have other helpful hints, please share them with our readers in the Comment section below.

Posted in: Nature
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Comment by: ROGER SHANTZ ( )
Left at: 12:38 AM Friday, April 15, 2011
We have been having success keeping deer away from our yard using a motion detector sprinkler from Contech. Havahart also offers a similar device.
Robin Heberling
Comment by: Robin Heberling ( )
Left at: 9:24 AM Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Judith, Thank - you for your article. I've been looking for something like this for along time. I too am on Hill Island and struggle with this problem in my garden. I will be here next spring/summer and am also interested in your watercolor class. How can I find out more about it?
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 2:16 AM Monday, January 2, 2012
Linda Twichell
Comment by: Linda Twichell
Left at: 5:51 AM Saturday, August 4, 2018
Hi Judith, Thanks for this informative article. Many of us feel that pang of dismay to find our gardens raided by the Munchers. I appreciate your suggestions! Linda