Preparing the Garden for Winter: Protect Young, Ornamental & Fruit Trees from Gnawing Rodents…

My young Royal Frost birch (Betula populifolia x Whitespire ‘Royal Frost’) tree’s golden-orange foliage in November

Several years ago, when my father had heart surgery at the VA hospital in Boston, I was away from home quite a bit during the last three months of the year. Preoccupied with my dad’s health and juggling various responsibilities during his recovery, I neglected end-of-season chores in my garden. Later on, as the first month of winter passed and my father’s condition improved, I found myself staring at a box of unplanted bulbs and a check list of unfinished tasks.

Soon, spring arrived. Waves of forced bulbs —potted and chilled in late December— began to emerge from the depths of my refrigerator. Although I regretted not getting my little treasures into the ground, I was grateful for the bright color of early tulips and tiny, fragrant narcissus when the snow began to recede; exposing muddy patches of half-frozen earth. Later, as I began rummaging around my cellar in search of gardening tools, I made a grim discovery: an entire box of wire cages that never made it around the trunks of my young trees. My heart sank. I looked out into the Secret Garden —at my still-buried Japanese maple— and I knew that I was in trouble. Immediately I raced out the front door and down the steps to my beloved Blue Green Dragon (aka ‘Seiryu’) at the Secret Garden Door. I began furiously digging at the foot of ice and snow still mounded ’round the tree trunk. My cold, raw fingers felt of the smooth bark for tell-tale signs of mouse-damage; scratches, gouges or ridges. Eventually, after clearing the entire base of the tree, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. No rodent damage here. But then, I turned my attention to the Japanese maple inside the Secret Garden -my beautiful ‘Butterfly’.

The gorgeous spring colors of Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly'(from Almost Eden Plants)

I went inside to grab a pair of gloves and shovel. Snow always drifts and piles higher inside the Secret Garden, and the shade prevents early melting. As I began digging, I quickly uncovered a cylindrical channel leading from one of the stone walls toward the tree. Drawing closer to the trunk, I could see tiny bits of bark scattered about the white tunnel. I slumped down in the snow. Still digging, as I uncovered one side of the stripped trunk, I started to cry. I knew what I would find, and I was right. The tree had been completely girdled (living bark gnawed clean off in a full circle around the trunk). If you’ve never seen this kind of rodent-damage before, my reaction may seem a bit over-dramatic. But if you’ve ever experienced the heartbreak of losing a beloved tree or shrub to winter girdling, you will understand. The rodents must have begun their chewing after the sap started to run in late February. As the weather warmed, the tree began to leaf out. What a pathetic scene. The gorgeous crimson-tipped leaves and coral-pink stems taunted me as I watched them unfurl; knowing that this would be my beautiful, young tree’s last spring. I couldn’t bear to dig it up, and I couldn’t stand to walk through the garden.

The beautiful leaves of The Blue Green Dragon (Acer palmatum x dissectum ‘Seiryu’) in Springtime

Eventually, I came to accept reality, and I removed the ‘Butterfly’ from my garden. I could not find another specimen, so I changed course, dug up the earth, and planted a young Stewartia pseudocamilla in her place. She is, of course, stunning in that spot. And one day, I will create another protected nook and bring a new ‘Butterfly’ to my garden.

If you have young trees and shrubs with tender bark in your garden, protecting those valuable plants from winter rodent damage is absolutely essential. Every November, I pull out my homemade wire tubes and surround the base of my precious plants. You can buy protective tree tubes at many garden centers, or easily make your own from fine wire mesh sheeting (available at most hardware stores). I had extra metal lath leftover from several construction projects, and that works well too. The important thing is that the spaces between the wires be small enough to prevent the tiniest of mice from slipping into the tube. Make the width of the cylinder about twice the diameter of the tree, and at least 18″ tall (depending on average snow depth, you may want to make your cylinder two feet tall)  For extra insurance, I often spray the bark of my trees with hot pepper wax before securing the wire tubes, and I also pour a few inches of sharp gravel around the base of the tube to prevent tunneling.

Gently settle the tube around the tree and push slightly into the mulch. Take care not to damage shallow-rooted trees like Japanese maple by pushing wire into the tender roots at the surface.

Secure the tube with medium-guage steel wire. Gasp! Put down those Felcos! Use wire cutters to snip that steel!

Secure the tube well, tucking the wire beneath itself to prevent injury to your fingers in springtime

This is what the tube looks like when properly installed around the base of the tree. Once you have made them, you can easily recycle them from year to year. Replace them every November. Larger trees can withstand a bit of mouse gnawing. Mature trees, with tough bark, rarely experience gnawing. But, I protect all of my smooth-barked specimen trees. It only takes about a half an hour to do my entire (very large) garden.

Japanese Golden Forest Grass (Hachonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) continues to provide late season color in the Secret Garden, and…

It also provides a bit of camouflage for my Stewartia’s protective, wire tree-tube

Before long, the silver-grey tubes in my garden will be buried beneath the snow. But because I am a garden designer, I am very preoccupied with how the garden looks throughout the seasons. So, I try to plant a ‘screen’ at the base of my young trees to help conceal these seasonal tubes in late autumn. In the photo above, golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ provide a fine camouflage.

And although I still pine for my ‘Butterfly’, I accept that sometimes accidents happen. My garden is important to me, but my family and friends are far more important. I’m happy to report that thanks to the team of medical professionals at the VA Hospital in West Roxbury, MA, my father made a full recovery from the heart surgery that saved his life. And every year on November 11th, as I go out in the morning to faithfully wrap my trees, I am reminded of the many veterans I met during my father’s stay at the Veterans Hospital four years ago. Thank you for your service to our country dad, and thank you to all of your brothers and sisters in arms. We are ever-grateful for your sacrifice, and we salute you.

A Time of Reflection- Veterans Day, November 11th


Article and Photographs (with exception noted & linked) â“’ Michaela at TGE

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3 Replies to “Preparing the Garden for Winter: Protect Young, Ornamental & Fruit Trees from Gnawing Rodents…”

  1. Laurrie

    I’ve been there, and lost some little specimens to the winter gnawers. I do the same thing you have done and put cages around everything now. But the multi-branched shrubs that sucker low to the ground are a problem, as I can’t get the mesh cages around all the low stems. Gravel around the suckers and as much icky sticky Tanglefoot as I can paste onto the twigs seems to work.

  2. Michaela

    @ Laurrie – Yes, it’s definitely harder to protect the suckering shrubs. I noticed some gnawing on my summer sweet as well as my winterberry last year. I did tell Dr. Goof to get on the job, but she just rolled over and waved a paw at me. Your method sounds much more reliable! xo

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