How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

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Your garden’s young trees, ornamental shrubs, and underground bulbs are especially appealing to certain wildlife in the winter. Follow these steps to keep your plants safe from hungry invaders.

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How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Wintertime is generally considered a time of rest for gardeners, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about in the garden. On the contrary, with fewer leafy green options around, winter is a hungry time for animals. The tender young trees, ornamental shrubs, and bulbs nestled beneath the surface of a garden are alluring to a wide range of wildlife. It doesn’t matter how cute these garden visitors may be — if your garden is on the menu, they will quickly become unwelcome pests!

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Wildlife varies from region to region, but the top offenders in winter gardens tend to be deer, rabbits, raccoons, and burrowing rodents. Protecting plants from wildlife in winter is possible, but the strategy will be different for each type of animal. Read on to learn how to protect your garden plants from wildlife in winter.

Deer

The animal offender most likely to cause serious, visible damage to a garden (in any season, but especially in winter) is deer. A small family of deer can devastate immature shrubs and trees in no time at all. Their favorite plants to graze on just so happen to be some of our favorite garden ornamentals. Deer are especially drawn to azaleas, hostas, cherry trees, maples, and most flowering plants grown from bulbs. There are two very effective ways of protecting plants from deer damage: camouflage gardening and erecting barriers.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Camouflage gardening is a method of using plants rich in chemical compounds that deer dislike as a means of discouraging them from eating the plants they do like. Plants that work well as camouflage include conifer trees, delphiniums, impatiens, irises, forsythia, larkspur, marigolds, yarrow, and zinnias. Many of these plants feature beautiful blooms, so they can be used seamlessly to add color and texture to your garden beds.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Erecting barriers is far less aesthetic a solution, but is the only foolproof solution to protecting vulnerable young trees from deer. Using hardware cloth (a stiff metal mesh), fashion a cylinder at least four feet tall and four feet in diameter. This dimension is important because it is too narrow for a deer to risk jumping inside of and is too wide for a deer to reach in to nibble the bark off a sapling. A tender young tree can survive having some branches munched, but if too much bark is removed from the outside, the tree will die.

Rabbits

As adorable as they may be, rabbits can be devastating to a garden. When normal food supplies run low, rabbits will eat the bark and low branches of garden plants, including leafy vegetables, fruit trees, and ornamental grasses. Even if they don’t destroy these plants, they can permanently disfigure them, leaving them misshapen and weak. Protecting plants from rabbits can be done with visual deterrents or camouflage planting and physical barriers, like with deer.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Camouflaging plants to use against rabbits include buddleia, catmint, coral berry, lantana, marigolds, milkweed, salvia, and spirea. Even yet, baby bunnies may still take a nibble, as they are too young to know better. Because rabbits’ tastes can vary from place to place, the best strategy is to combine camouflaging with another deterrent technique.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Physical barriers, using hardware cloth or chicken wire, can be used to protect individual plants from rabbits. Fashion a cylinder to enclose the plant that stands at least two feet high, and bury the bottom about six inches below ground. If there are too many plants, making this impractical, you may wish to use a visual deterrent instead.

A motion-activated sprinkler works perfectly to startle skittish rabbits. Some people find that suspending CDs from strings so that they move freely with the wind is also an effective visual deterrent. However, that only works during the daytime, and many rabbits come out to feed at night.

Gophers and Voles

Burrowing creatures can do a number on gardens, damaging not only plants but also creating tripping hazards in pathways. Gophers and voles like to nibble on plants’ roots, making it difficult to detect damage until it is too late. They can also girdle trees: eating the bark layer all the way around the base or roots, effectively killing the tree over time. There are two defenses against these burrowing pests: repellents and minimizing vegetative cover.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

The good news is that gophers and voles have a dislike in common: They hate castor oil. This natural repellent can be sprayed in a liquid form or broadcast in granules. Because it is nontoxic and biodegradable, it can be reapplied as needed until your pest problem is gone. The other critical defense against burrowers is keeping the garden tidy and free of food and hiding places. Removing brush and debris, weeding, and removing fallen berries and nuts will make these tunneling winter pests think twice about entering your garden.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter
Raccoons and Skunks

While not a significant problem in most gardens, raccoons are likely to become pests if you have a bird feeder, fruit trees, grape vines, or a water feature. Skunks are much less crafty than raccoons, but both nocturnal creatures will dig up lawns and gardens in search of grubs embedded in the soil. Discouraging these nighttime visitors can be a challenge.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Raccoons are very agile, and will need to be deterred from fruit trees by placing baffles on the trunks. Motion-activated sprinklers or lights can also deter racoons, but they have to be moved frequently to remain effective for long periods of time. If grubs are the food source attracting raccoons and skunks, then your best line of defense will be to eliminate them from the lawn. Beneficial nematodes or milky spore powder are natural and effective grub controls, but it will take some time to completely get rid of them. The bonus is that your lawn will benefit, too. If all else fails, a good fence will work wonders to keep garden pests out.

How to Protect Your Plants From Wildlife in the Winter

Wintertime should be a time to rest, relax, and prepare the garden for spring. With a little observation and effort, you can protect your plants from hungry wildlife and ensure that they are thriving when the weather turns warm again.