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Not even a deer is going to look at thorny artichokes and say, "Dinner time!"
Here’s the thing about edible gardening—deer agree with us most of the time on what’s edible.
The good, and rather surprising, news is that we eat some herbs, vegetables and berries the deer aren’t so crazy about. Keep in mind there is no such thing as a “deer-proof” plant. Deer resistance is highly regional, seasonal, weather dependent, tied to food availability, and deer populations. Also, deer, like people, have different tastes in food. That said, these edible plants are at least worth a try outside the safety of a deer fence. Deer resistance is usually classified in three categories: Rarely Damaged, Occasionally Damaged, and Frequently Damaged.
So, if you share your yard with a herd of deer you can still grow food that won’t immediately be deer food.
Our good friends of the allium family are favored for their pungency by man, but that quality makes beast turn up their noses at an offering of onions. If space in the deer fenced garden is at a premium plant your onions, chives, leeks, and garlic outside. Garlic is a fantastic companion plant for roses, which are on that frequently damaged list. Garlic planted with roses improves their fragrance, deters some insect pests, and just might make the deer think twice about visiting your roses. Alliums are categorized as rarely damaged.
We savor the aromas of sage, dill, fennel, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and mint. Deer however find these herbs too much for their delicate noses to handle. Plant your herbs anywhere you like without fear of deer, these herbs fall into the rarely damaged category. Basil is also considered deer resistant, but slide it into the occasionally damaged classification.
Lavender is a beautiful and useful addition to the rarely damaged deer resistant garden.
Solanaceous vegetables, also called the deadly nightshade group, are vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers. Peppers and tomatoes carry the badge of rarely damaged. Potatoes are best put in the occasionally damaged slot.
Once you have the artichokes growing you can leave one or two to flower—the bees will arrive en masse to enjoy the bloom! Artichokes are rather prickly, so deer usually find something else to munch on. Grow artichokes from crowns in the winter or from seed in the spring. Artichokes are generally categorized as rarely damaged.
Rhubarb is a beautiful edible ornamental. With it’s bright stalks and huge leaves it is quite a statement piece in the yard. Rhubarb is considered a rarely damaged plant.
Ever wonder if there was a fruit tree that deer didn’t adore? It exists, it is the fig. Deer for whatever reason don’t particularly enjoy waxy, latex sap. Figs are rarely damaged by deer.
The attractive, long lived olive is another tree deer tend to take a pass on. If it gets desperate enough they will nibble on olives so think of them as occasionally damaged.
Currants are vitamin C powerhouses. Growing currants was actually part of England’s strategy to keep healthy during World War II when vitamin C rich fruits were scarce on the island. You can grow this cold hardy, easy to grow, berry bush even if you have deer in the area. Currants are usually placed in the occasionally damaged category. I’ve had the tops of the new spring growth nipped off, but never seriously damaged. These shrubs are suited for light to moderate deer pressure. They can benefit from some deer repellent labeled for use on edibles during high deer pressure times such as late summer to early fall.
A deer resistant landscape and an edible landscape don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Gale Green Says:
May 17th, 2014 at 10:23 am
When I lived in N. MN where deer are plentiful, I planted at least a double row of sunflowers around my garden and the deer would pretty much leave my stuff alone. They just don’t like the often scratchy-ness of that thick fence!
Jo W Says:
May 17th, 2014 at 11:01 am
I disagree about deer not eating tomato plants. The blacktail deer on my property here in WA state eat all the soft new growth on tomato plants but they especially love the flowers. They might not kill the plants themselves, but as you have no flowers, and therefore no tomatoes, they might as well eat the whole thing. The mule deer in N. California eat EVERYTHING, there are no such things as deer resistant plants there. Friends who live there complain that they can’t even put up bird feeders, the deer eat the sunflower seeds and tear apart the feeders. Blood, animal urine etc. sprays to deter the deer, aren’t effective much either. Virtually nothing deters deer other than a deer fence.
Marge Mills Says:
May 17th, 2014 at 5:04 pm
Good article as a refresher. We live outside of Ann Arbor, MI and have a big deer problem in our county. As an organic gardener, we have had to install 8 foot fences around our two gardens. It has stopped invasion quite well, but occasionally rabbits or groundhogs tunnel under.
Ruth Beecher Says:
May 18th, 2014 at 11:04 am
this was really good info. not all of these plants grow in my area and the deer surely do…
Stephanie Brown Says:
May 19th, 2014 at 9:11 am
Hello Jo W,
Yes, there are places of heavy deer pressure where the deer WILL eat things usually left alone. We’re actually based in Northern California and deal with mule deer regularly and there really are plants they’d rather not eat. Carolyn Singer’s books Deer in My Garden are a must have for the deer troubled gardener of Nor-Cal.
May 22nd, 2014 at 10:37 am
We don’t have deer in the high desert of Southern CA but we do have ground squirrels which climb ANY fence as well as dig. Be glad if all you have are deer which can be excluded with a simple chain link fence!
Jun 1st, 2014 at 11:31 am
I have to net everything. The deer will eat everything other wise. I reuse it every year. I use pvc pipe to cage everything. It’s work but I love to garden so it all works.
nolan tew Says:
Oct 16th, 2014 at 10:10 am
I live in southern cal by grand terrace. there are deer in the area but my big problem is the wild burros that roam through the rv park at night. They love my grape leaves but I deter them with several hot pepper plants along the edge of my space. now my grapes are growing very well!
Mar 28th, 2015 at 1:06 pm
Great list. Except deer have eaten every leaf and flower off my tomato and pepper plants every time I’ve tried to grow them outside the fence.
The deer don’t seem to eat my wild thimble berries, though, which make fantastic jam.