Field of Science

Cagey response for a wildlife friendly garden

The Phactors have a large, urban garden that contains not only a surpising amount of plant diversity, but also the sort of food, shelter, and water that attracts wildlife. For the most part things are amicable. Just 10 days ago, winterberry was a featured plant showing fall color; the berries are now all gone having been transformed into wildlife fodder. Fine, although if the display had lasted longer that would have been fine too. Sigh. In another quick change, a witch hazel went from fall color to flowering in 2 weeks. However one component of our garden's wildlife does not really play well with our plants during the winter: bunnies. In the dead of winter, the bunnies turn to browsing, and our shrubs' and trees' bark bear the evidence. When heavy snow filled the privet hedge, the bunnies gnawed all the bark off the stems from 18 to 24 inches and up, and yes, girdling stems did kill the plant above. Without the snow pack shoveled from the driveway to clamber on, bunnies can't reach the younger, gnawable bark. The bunnies also crop the beauty berry bushes back to 12-18 inches every year. In these cases the hedge needed re-juvenating and a heavy pruning back to 12-16 inches did the trick, and the beautyberry flowers and fruits on new wood, so it should be pruned back each spring anyways. However, in many other cases the outcome is not so good when you find a pricey new shrub gnawed back to the ground. Last winter a cage tipped over and a Korean azalea, a very hardy and most excellent plant (R. mucronulatum) got eaten back to the ground, but fortunately their ability to recover is quite amazing and it may even flower a little if the cage stays in place this winter. So yesterday, the Phactors spent a most excellent November afternoon moving relatively unabtrusive wire cages from herbaceous perennials to trees and shrubs for the winter. And so the cycle of cages goes from herbaceous perennials in the spring and summer to trees and shrubs for the winter. Also for some reason the cost and desireability of any particular plant is directly correlated with its tastiness to bunnies, or so it seems. Eventually most trees develop heavy enough bark as the get larger, but shrubs remain more vulnerable. Run-of-the-garden hostas, meh, but fancy new variety of hosta and it'll be rabbit salad by morning. Just wish the top predator component of wildlife were a bit more common to balance out the herbivores. Great opportunity for red fox, and the year our garden was visited regularly, the bunny problem was minimal although a few partial corpses had to be disposed of.

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