Part of the fun for gardeners is enjoying the fruits of their labor.
Part of the frustration is watching some unidentified visitor slowly eating their hard work. Although it is winter and most plants are dormant, many animals are still actively feeding as they try to survive the winter chill. With so many plants and different animals, it is not always easy to determine what is eating your plants.
Here are a few tips to help you determine who is eating what in the garden:
Mice can damage a variety of plants. The animals like to hide in dead grass, weeds and mulch piles at the base of trees and shrubs. They often tunnel near the soil surface and feed on tree bark by stripping off small sections while they work their way around the plant. Trunks and roots of apple trees are among their favorite meals. The feeding may be severe enough to girdle trunks and kill the trees completely.
The best method of control is prevention. Clean up around the base of landscape plants. Remove debris and pull mulch away from trunks and stems. To check for mice in a planting bed or area, place baited mouse traps in polymerized vinyl chloride pipes or other pipes near the trees. Put the traps far enough inside the tubes so pets are unable to reach them. Check the stations regularly and reset the traps if necessary.
Squirrels are very similar to mice, but the cause damage in the upper portion of trees. Like mice, they use their teeth to peel away large sections of bark on limbs and stems, which often results in branch death. Often times major damage is not observed until spring when the affected branch fails to leaf out. But sometimes, the peelings can be found littering under the tree. Because squirrels are highly mobile, there is not much that can be done to curtail this activity.
Rabbits can damage landscape trees and shrubs as well. They strip bark from various plants and eat the buds off fruit and evergreen trees. The clipped branches have a clean "knife-like" cut to them. They usually clip stems 1/4 inch in diameter or less. And they can reach as high as 20 inches off the ground. Repeated clipping can cause unusual plant growth and development. Rarely do they damage the bark enough to cause plant death. Control methods include excluding the animal from the plant material. Clean up winter hiding sites in the area, and possibly use taste deterrents found at garden centers and home improvement stores.
Deer also cause damage to plants in winter. Although mainly known for rubbing their antlers on small trees, deer can eat buds of fruit and evergreen trees all winter. The result is decreased yields and misshapen plants. Deer feeding damage is easy to spot. Deer do not have upper incisors, so twigs are not cleanly cut but have a more rough or uneven torn look to them. They usually do not browse more than about 6 feet off the ground, but they can reach as high as 8 feet when standing on their hind legs.
Control is difficult to achieve. Taste and smell deterrents do not work reliably and need to be reapplied regularly. Scare tactics, such as motion-activated noise makers and lights, can work for a short time. But soon the deer will find a way in if they need to. Physical barriers are the most reliable, but they are pricey and impractical for the average homeowner trying to protect a few trees.
-- Bruce Chladny is horticulture agent at K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County. For more information, call him at 843-7058 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.