Gardeners get upset at rabbit damage mostly in spring and summer -- when damage can include the sudden disappearance of two dozen tulip buds or of half a row of succulent lettuce.
But winter's the time when rabbits often cause more serious damage. Because there is no succulent growth in winter, rabbits go for twigs, dormant buds and bark. Damage to these parts of a plant can result in lack of flowers, disfigured growth and even the plant's death.
When rabbits or other rodents chew bark off trunks, they destroy the vital tissues that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. If only a portion of the trunk is damaged, the tree may recover, but the tree will die if bark is stripped from the entire circumference.
No plant is immune to chewing damage, but rabbits do have some favorites, including Euonymus (burning bush and others), roses and fruit trees and shrubs such as Nanking cherry. Rabbits also clip off flower buds and young twigs on other plants, leaving a clean 45-degree angle cut, like a pruning shears. Azalea flower buds and blueberry twigs are frequent targets.
Thwarting the rascally rabbit
The best way to prevent rabbit damage is to protect the entire plant (for small shrubs) or the vulnerable stems or trunk (on large shrubs or trees). Circles of chicken wire can be put around individuals or groups of small shrubs. In my yard I encircle a group of five blueberry plants with chicken wire each fall and remove the fence in the spring. You can make tree-trunk collars out of 1/4-inch mesh hardware cloth or buy spiral plastic trunk guards. Or you can use sections of corrugated plastic drain pipe, slit down the side to fit around the trunk. Remember, the fence or collar must be high enough (about 2 feet); with deep snow, raise the protection, because the snow will give rabbits a boost to the bark.
After a question about rabbit damage, several readers sent in suggestions for repelling rabbits. Only fence provides 100 percent protection, but it's often worth trying different methods to see what works best. Here are some suggestions:
Bloodmeal -- Sprinkle it around the perimeter of the garden area; reapply after rain.
Repellents -- Buy one made from fox urine (available at garden centers) and place strategically in garden.
Soap -- Place bars of Irish Spring soap around the garden. Replace as needed.
Glass jars -- Remove labels from empty jars such as pickle jars. Fill jars halfway with water and place them in the garden; reflections of light or leaf movement on the water surface may startle the rabbits.
-- Nancy Rose is a research horticulturist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-9073 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.