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  • Writer's pictureHelen Newling Lawson

Perennial Favorites for Deer-Resistant Gardens

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

The Perennial Plant Association just announced Stachys 'Hummelo' as their Perennial Plant of the Year® for 2019. This pollinator magnet (the name is a play on the German word for "bumblebee") is a great choice for creating eye-catching swaths of bright purple, and works particularly well in mass plantings, low-maintenance designs, and cutting gardens. If you're a fan of using fuzzy plants to deter deer, you might recognize Stachys as part of the botanical name for lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina), but 'Hummelo' has whorls of glossy, bright green leaves. Photo , left, courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Looking at some of the past years' winners got me thinking: most of these plants would be a great starting point for building a deer-resistant design. That's no accident. One of the three main criteria for selecting a Perennial Plant of the Year is being relatively pest/disease-free (the other two being low-maintenance and having multi-season interest), and that seems to extend to deer resistance.

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While every plant on the list is technically a perennial, many of them can also serve other types of plants in a deer-resistant design. The only groups out of my eight categories that aren't represented are annuals (kind of hard when you're talking about perennials) and evergreen shrubs. I did push the envelope a bit on the shrub category and included Russian sage (Perovskia), which is more of a woody subshrub, and Baptisia australis, which commands enough space to fill the role of a small shrub. Case in point: this perennial border in a backyard in the Chicago suburbs, where the blue-green foliage of baptisia creates a hearty backdrop while echoing the color of the conifer at far right (the blue & black sage and boxwood in front are also deer-resistant and help cover the "legs" of the baptisia):

Multi-tasking Deer-Resistant Perennials

Here are some other past PPOY winners who can pull double-duty in the garden, offering texture, interest and function beyond just pretty flowers:


Allium 'Millenium' (2018) - Missouri Botanical Garden confirms that 'Millenium' is a true bulb, but it forms a fibrous, clumping root structure that is easily divided (the way you would with daylilies and hosta).

Grassy Plants

Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' (2014)

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' (2009)

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' (2001)

Foliage Plants

Polygonatum odoratum (Solomon's Seal) 'Variegatum' (2013) *Note: this is not particularly deer-resistant in my garden, but at least they seem to wait until the end of summer.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' (2012)

Athyrium niponicum (Japanese painted fern) 'Pictum' (2004)

Amsonia hubrichtii (2011)

Right: Seen at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, the ferny foliage of Amsonia is beginning to give way to its gorgeous golden autumn hue, creating a bright spot of contrast to the deer-resistant perennial salvias behind.


Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' (2015)

Geranium 'Rozanne' (2008)

Nepeta 'Walker's Low' (2007) - shown left, in combination with Itea

Dianthus gratianopliltanus 'Feuerhexe' (also sold as Firewitch) (2006)

Phlox stolonifera (1990)

Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam'


Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage) (1995)

Baptisia australis (2010)

Award-Winning Deer-Resistant Planting Plans

So how can we use these plants and the other deer-resistant perennials on the PPA's list in some different deer-resistant gardens? Remember, a deer-resistant design, like all planting plans, includes plants that look good together, enjoy the same growing conditions, and work together toward a common design aesthetic or site challenge.

1) Perennial Plant of the Year Pollinator Garden

Try these perennials in a sunny site to support pollinators in all phases of their lifecycle:

  • Asclepias tuberosa 'Butterfly Weed' - The host plant for monarch butterfly larvae.

  • Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' - Did you know that switchgrasses provide important habitat to overwintering butterfly species like (skippers?).

  • Scabiosa columbaria 'Butterfly Blue' - Butterflies flock to the pincushion-like blooms.

  • Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam' - Spreads by rhizomes to fill out informal gardens, although this sterile variety is more controlled than the species since it does not reseed. Attracts butterflies and numerous other less showy but still helpful pollinators.

  • Allium 'Millenium' - Watch the above video from Walters Gardens to see the purple spheres of 'Millenium' ornamental onion come alive with pollinators.

2) Perennial Plant of the Year Shade Garden

Brighten a shady site with splashes of color from flowers and foliage. Most of these selections

prefer a moist site, although hellebores are a champ in dry shade.

  • Hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass) 'Aureola' - Bring the impression of cascading water sparkling with sunlight with the graceful golden foliage of Japanese forest grass. Shown right

  • Phlox stolonifera (1990) - Native to Appalachian woodlands. Clusters of starry lavender flowers dance above this creeping groundcover in spring.

  • Helleborus x hybridus (2005) - One of my deer-resistant all-stars

  • Astilbe 'Sprite' (1994) - Fluffy spires of light pink blooms in late spring to early summer. This, or a similar cultivar, also shown right

  • Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' - Darling light blue flowers in spring, and silver-veined leaves the rest of the growing season.

  • Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum' - Japanese painted fern offers hues of silver and burgundy that I love under a Japanese maple

3) Perennial Plant of the Year Cutting Garden

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm'

  • Leucanthemum 'Becky'

  • Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'

  • Stachys 'Hummelo' - Yes, this would fit equally well in a pollinator garden, but the magenta flower spikes held on wiry stems also make great cut flowers, and complement the hue of the Echinacea while offering a contrasting flower shape to all the daisy-like blooms in this design. Click the flyer image, right, to read more about the 2019 Perennial Plant of the Year.

  • Baptisia australis - I'm including this member of the pea family not so much for its flowers (although they would be lovely in an informal bouquet) as for the dried seedpods, which PPA notes "are useful for dried flower arrangements."

If you enjoyed seeing the combinations of deer-resistant plants in the photos in this article, and want to see more, follow me on Instagram at @SpotOn_gardens, where I post a Deer-Resistant "Quick Fix" every Friday, featuring photos of 2-3 deer resistant plants I've found in public and private gardens. Consider it your dose of weekend inspiration to try a new planting combo in your own yard!

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