By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener
Two weeks ago, MG Lois Scott wrote an article about Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus) and other invasives now on the Invasive Species lists that she is eradicating from her gardens in favour of natives. I actually used to have a beautiful Burning Bush, right at the front of my garden. And then winter came, and a furry rodent.
Rabbits might look cute and fluffy, but they’re not a welcome sight for gardeners; especially between December and March. As cute as they might be, they can cause serious damage to plants in the winter when greens aren’t available for them to easily munch on.
Pretty sure that Bugs Bunny, who we could see in the snow through the living room window, caused the demise of the burning bush. In the spring, it didn’t bud. Most of the outer bark was missing and tooth marks were very evident. It was as dead as a doornail. (Aside: “Dead as a doornail” is one of the oldest idioms found in print, going back to the 14th century. It referred to nails having been pounded through a door, and having the pointed end pounded flat against the door. That nail could not be reused!)
Back to my story. Apparently, our neighbourhood cottontail had made a lunch or dinner (or several of each) out of the soft bark on our small burning bush shrub and also my prized “Perry’s Gold” pine (Picea abies ‘Perry’s Gold’), purchased from Anna’s Perennials; my favourite local garden centre. Sigh. Happily, Anna had another one for me.
Obviously, rabbits don’t hibernate. When winter arrives and greens disappear, they turn to nibbling on the bark of young trees such as birch, crabapple, mountain ash, honey locust, willow and oak. Older trees with their thick rough bark aren’t as tempting as a young tree where the bark is smooth and thin. Green food material is just under the surface of young trees.
The rabbit’s menu also includes bushes/shrubs, such as roses, sumac, Japanese Barberry, viburnum, Burning Bush, Rose of Sharon, arborvitae/cedars and other broadleaf evergreens. It’s all about survival and they won’t be picky when their populations are high. Once a rabbit has chewed the outer bark of a small tree or shrub, little can be done to save it.
While I feel for the starving rabbits out there, there are a few preemptive steps you can take to stop rabbits from wreaking mortality havoc in your gardens. The most effective is to place chicken wire fencing around vulnerable plants like a cylinder. The fencing material needs to be high enough that rabbits won’t be able to climb or reach over the fence after a heavy snow. In most cases, a fence that stands 2-3 ft should be sufficient. To prevent them from crawling underneath the fencing, pin the fencing to the soil with U-shaped anchor pins.
Small trees can also be protected by placing white spiral tree guards around their trunks or by wrapping them/their trunks in burlap. Damage may be further reduced by removing brush, junk piles and other places where rabbits live and hide from around your home.
Lastly, there are a few plants that rabbits seem to find less appealing, particularly plants with thick or prickly leaves, and plants with very strong scents. It may be worth it to experiment around your prized shrubs with hellebores, foxgloves, allium, acanthus (bear’s breeches), and salvia (sage).
A final parting note: One or two rabbits that overwinter in your garden this year could mean dozens returning to munch on your prized shrubs next winter, given the fertility of these furry rodents!