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November 8, 2023

Close Down Your Critter Café

It’s amazing what damage those cute wild animals can do to your landscape when you’re inside where it’s warm and comfortable. You never get to catch them in the act anymore than you’ll catch your dog tearing up pillows or your cat scratching furniture.

Wildlife isn’t destroying your landscape plants now because they’re their favorite delicacies. Your landscape plants, especially trees and shrubs, are their diet of last resort. Field mice would rather eat foliage, seeds, insects and fruit. Rabbits prefer fruits and vegetables, but their favorites are grass and other leafy greens. Voles are also among the rodents that nibble on your trees in the winter. They prefer vegetation to bark. Rodents aren’t interested in the rough outer bark, but they chew through it to reach the tender, nutritional inner bark, the cambium layer. Foliage is hard to find in the dead of winter, so rabbits, mice and voles eat what’s available, rather than starve.

Protecting your trees and shrubs against rodents is a relatively easy do-it-yourself project. Go to your local hardware store or home center and buy a roll of hardware cloth. It’s a fine, steel screening material that you can wrap around the trunk or stem. It should extend between a foot and a half and two feet up the trunk. If possible, a couple of inches should be buried at the base of the plant. But don’t cut roots to bury the hardware cloth. You can also use plastic tree wrap but I prefer hardware cloth. Don’t forget to remove the barriers next spring.

In addition to wrapping the trunks and stems, it’s also necessary to keep the base of the trees and shrubs free from snow, leaves, mulch or debris. Rodents are shy and prefer to dine in private. They’ll burrow under the snow or other “camouflage” material. Leaving the plant base bare will discourage them.

When its available, deer prefer to eat vegetation, fruits and vegetables. When that’s not available, they’ll eat whatever they can. And that’s often your trees and shrubs. While you only have to protect the lower trunk or stem against rodents, deer can reach as high as 12 feet to browse. Deer are larger and less easily deterred from eating. They aren’t a bit shy.

There are various commercial and homemade preparation whose odor is supposed to repel deer and rodents, but I’ve not found any that work. Deer deterrents are bigger, more visible and require a bit more labor to install. My deterrent of choice is a burlap barricade. Drive eight-to-12-foot-tall wood poles into the ground all the way around the plant. The stakes should be three or four inches away from the plant. Be sure they’re sturdy enough to withstand deer trying to knock them down. Staple or nail burlap all the way around the plant. Leave your tent open at the top so sunlight and moisture can reach the plant.

Protecting your valuable plants from hungry animals is a challenge every winter. However, wildlife experts will be quick to remind you that your yard was their home before it was yours.