When you think of rabbits, images of the Easter Bunny, Bugs Bunny, Little Bunny Foo Foo or even Peter the family pet may come to mind. Rather than cute little Thumper, some, however, may envision these cottontails as fierce rodents that eat everything in sight, especially after this winter and surveying the immense damage to your garden. I haven’t seen this kind of damage from rabbits in at least 20 years.
What a long-drawn-out winter, and as far as the rabbits go, Tommy Boy summed it so eloquently: “I could have done without that.” The good thing about getting so much snow is that we desperately needed the moisture going into spring. The problem with this amount of snow, however, is the higher piles of it. And as the piles grew, so did the rabbits’ access to the sweet somethings of all our favorite trees. Hopefully, you got lucky, and the snow was deep enough to hide some of your more prized possessions. But where the snow protected, it also left too many trees exposed above the normal trunk protectors. Unfortunately, as many of you know, there is not much you can do after a swarm of rodents girdle the trunks and branches or pick the needles clean, leaving nothing but a naked branch behind.
I’m sure many have noticed the rows of evergreens with two feet of nice, green needles that were protected by the snow, then another two feet of bare branches and then finally, the flourishing, green top. One would also observe the nice bright white tree trunks and shrubs that have literally been stripped clean by the “girdling gang.” It’s apparent how desperate local wildlife was trying to survive the winter, just by the sheer volume of damage and the variety of trees and shrubs. Normally, rabbits find a small fruit tree or occasional burning bush to snack on. This winter, however, they ate anything above the snow and not for our lack of trying to defend against them.
After a deep, cleansing breath, we can put all that aside with the long and snowy winter hopefully in our rear-view mirror, and turn our eyes to spring. During our prolonged hibernation, we have had extra time to think warm thoughts and dream up new ideas for our gardens. If we were lucky enough, the rabbits focused on some of the old trees, shrubs and perennials in our backyards that we have been looking for an excuse to switch out and replace. Now that the aggravation is over, let the fun begin!
One main part of gardening is the changing of the seasons. With any luck, if you experienced any damage to the spring flowering plants, there will be just enough nutrients for a flower or two to bloom before trimming below the damaged area and starting over. As for perennials, however, they will all be cut back to just above the soil line and most of the shrubs we normally use can be significantly pruned and come back from the roots. Plants like spirea, lilacs, hydrangeas, forsythias, viburnums and weigela will respond pretty well to a short haircut. A burning bush, on the other hand, might not be so lucky. Unfortunately, I do have a 10-foot-tall, 12-year-old burning bush that I will experiment with and see how well it comes back after getting cut down to about two inches above the mulch.
Girdled trees, however, are also not so lucky. Most small ornamentals don’t necessarily have a central leader, so you might be able to cut out a larger branch or two and correct the damage but be prepared to replant if needed. If you are fortunate enough that the trunk was covered in snow, only allowing rabbits to access the lower branches, you should be able to prune those out, and with a little corrective pruning over the next couple of years, bring a smaller tree back into shape. If the damage occurred on the main trunk of the tree between the lowest branch and the graft of the tree completely around the trunk, it’s unfortunately, time to say goodbye. I have seen plenty of these trees have just enough energy to leaf out and even flower only to succumb to their injuries by July or for sure at the end of summer. I would encourage you to reach out to Oakridge Nursery & Landscaping, your locally-owned, independent garden center, for advice on how to correctly prune or to make some replacement decisions. Make sure to bring along some photos to help identify the tree, shrub or perennial in question which will help us give you the best advice possible.
If your damage is irreversible, it might be time to rethink and redesign a particular piece of your garden. Perhaps the rabbits have forced your hand to pick a different placement spot or a new variety of tree. If so, be sure to contact a professional garden designer who can offer insight and valuable expertise on planning the space and show you what a new garden would look like with the different elements that you might be interested in. The next step would be to create a planting plan, in which Oakridge can assist with picking a mix of plants that might offer another type of flower, a different seasonal item and one that is a little more rabbit-resistant.
The second step is adding a new element to the garden that rabbits don’t stand a chance against. Options could be a small water feature to help you relax after a long day or a new fire feature to entertain friends and family. Perhaps it’s a small area for a quiet getaway or maybe you have been waiting for the right time to make a major addition to your garden.
Wherever you are in your garden adventure, the team at Oakridge and our garden designers are here to help! We love creating outdoor living environments that invite you outside and allow you to connect with the natural world, catch your breath and enjoy what mother nature has to offer. Let’s create a space for you to sip coffee with the morning dew still on the grass and a cool breeze, take a late afternoon nap in the shade or plan an evening with family and friends around the fire on the patio under the stars. The possibilities are endless!