This winter's weather has been difficult for plants, wildlife, and humans. With the recent snow melt, the extent of the damage to landscape plants is just now being uncovered. It isn't just the amount of snow, but also the extended period of snow cover that caused serious problems for wildlife. When denied access to food on the ground, rabbits and deer were forced to feed on unprotected trees and shrubs in windbreaks, home orchards, and landscape plantings.
Rabbits have gnawed off the bark on many young, thin-barked, deciduous trees. Damage has been observed on crabapples, apples, serviceberries, plums, cherries, willows, and honeylocust. On many trees, the bark has been removed completely around the trunk, effectively girdling them. Rabbits also have fed on deciduous shrubs. Extensive damage has been observed on winged euonymus, sumacs, dogwoods, cotoneasters, viburnums, roses, and spireas. The rabbits have debarked large stems and snipped off small twigs. Arborvitae, pines, and other evergreens also have experienced damage.
Deer have been another threat to trees and shrubs. Arborvitae, pines, and other evergreens have been victims of deer browsing. All the green growth on some evergreens has been stripped off as high as the animals could reach.
The prognosis for some trees and shrubs isn't good. Trees that are completely girdled have essentially been destroyed. Wrapping the trunk or applying pruning paint to the damaged area will not save the tree. Most affected trees will sucker from the base. However, since most fruit and ornamental trees are propagated by grafting, suckers that originate from rootstock won't produce a desirable tree.
Many deciduous shrubs have the ability to produce new shoots or suckers at their base. Because of this ability, many severely damaged deciduous shrubs will eventually recover. (It may take some shrubs several years to fully recover.) Girdled stems should be cut off just below the feeding injury.
The key to the condition of damaged evergreens is the presence of growing points or buds on the injured branches. Branches that have had all their buds devoured by hungry animals will not produce new growth this spring. As a result, some small evergreens may be completely destroyed. Larger evergreens may have permanently lost their lower branches. Since buds on arborvitae and junipers are difficult to see, individuals may want to wait until late spring before taking any action. Branches that don't produce new growth by mid-June have been destroyed and can be removed.
To prevent further damage to your trees this winter, put a mesh cylinder around their trunk. The cylinder should extend 18 -- 24 inches above the current snow line for rabbit protection. As the huge snow drifts melt, this cylinder will follow the snow down and provide the tender bark some protection.
Deer can be excluded by fencing, but it must be well constructed and high. Repellants may also be used to give woody material an undesirable taste or smell. However, animals may not be deterred by repellents if feeding pressure is high.
Like many other residents, I have snow drifts in my yard in locations and heights that I have never seen. Some plant materials are completely covered with snow and are currently protected from wildlife damage. It might be difficult, but it may be a good idea to take a backyard hike to see what tree and shrub damage is being done.
If you still have questions about how to remove the damage from winter, plan to attend our Landscape Tree Pruning Workshop being held at the Extension Office on March 25 at 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The cost is free. You can even bring in pictures of your damaged trees and shrubs for our experts to advise you on how to properly prune the tree/shrub. Call ahead, 225-6196, so we know you are coming and can save a seat for you.