The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Protect Plants from Winter Damage from Rabbits and Rodents

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Every gardener at one time or another has morphed into Elmer Fudd. With the battle cry of "I'll get that wascally wabbit" we have set off on a crusade to save our flowers, veggies and shrubs. Winter does not mean the end of the crusade. We must be ever vigilant.

In the winter rabbits clip off branches at clean 45 degree angles and eat the bark of many landscape plants. Rabbit menu items include plants in the rose family such as roses, black and red raspberries, blackberries, apple, cherry and plum trees. Young plants are the favorite. Basswood, red maple, sugar maple, red and white oak, sumac, burning bush, blueberry and barberry are other delicacies. I've also discovered a direct correlation between the expense of the plant and its high rating on the rabbit taste-o-meter.

There also seems to be something about newness. The newer the planting the more attractive it is. Our landscapes are just one big smorgasbord and rabbits have to try a little of everything.

Voles, also called meadow mice, feed all winter by gnawing on bark or plant crowns and most any other plant, seed, bulb or rhizome they can find. Voles are stocky little rodents about 5-7 inches long with a short tail and small ears and eyes. Fur color ranges from gray to brown. They make characteristic surface runways often seen after a snow melt. Voles eat the crowns of perennials such as hosta to leave carcasses of stems and hollowed out plant crowns. Luckily rabbits and voles are favorite food of many predators such as owls and hawks but winter damage may still occur.

Work off your Thanksgiving meal by protecting newly planted trees and shrubs. Wire fencing is the most effective protection. Construct cylinders around plants and tree trunks made of hardware cloth with a mesh of no more than 1/4 inch. Bend the bottom six inches of the fence outward at a right angle and bury the bent fence under an inch of soil to discourage digging. The taller the cylinder the better but 3-4 feet tall is usually enough. One winter I had rabbits sit on top of a snow bank to feed above the fencing on my beautiful new apple tree.

Repellants can be effective in deterring rabbits but must be used before extensive damage occurs. Repellants are not as effective if pest populations are high and food supply is low. Repellants for voles have not shown consistent results but may be worth a try. Voles can be managed with mouse snap traps baited with peanut butter-oatmeal mixture or apple slices in their runs. To protect the traps from other creatures cover traps with inverted coffee cans with entry holes for the voles.

Repellants work as odor and/or taste deterrents. The best repellants contain both. A weekly spray of a homemade mixture of 4 eggs, 2 ounces red pepper sauce and 2 ounces of garlic blended with water to make one quart then strained showed some effectiveness in a Consumer Report study. But who wants to have to spray that every week? Other listed repellants include bags of human hair, bars of soap containing tallow, baby powder and predator urine. All these have had mixed results but don't weather well. The smell of some will keep you out of the garden as well.

Commercially available repellents such as Hot Sauce®, Tree Guard®, Deer Away®, Deer Off® and Hinder® have had good results. Read and follow all label directions. One Master Gardener reminded me of another sometimes published repellent. The male gardener of the house does the male dog technique of marking territory. I don't recommend this one for many social and environmental reasons. Plus I have yet to see any university studies on this repellant, but I would love to read the grant application on that one.

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