Trees can’t escape the extreme heat. But they do have some impressive coping mechanisms.

How To Protect Vulnerable Trees and Shrubs

Part 2 of a 3-part series

You have spent a chunk of change as well as your time in effort in establishing trees. They are leafing out and adding character and color and perhaps a little shade in your yard. What are you doing to prevent your investment from:

  Rabbits and Deer

Deer grazing on tree banches in winter

Fall is the time to protect young trees and shrubs from deer and rabbits.

While other animals may cause damage during the winter, these are the main culprits in Wisconsin. They can damage and kill trees and shrubs that are expensive to replace. Unless you have a large number of young trees and shrubs to protect, the most economical and practical method is either selecting plants that are deer-resistant or fencing individual plants. Scare devices, such as alarms and cannons, are not practical in urban areas and are generally ineffective as deer get used to them.

When landscaping, you should consider how trees and shrubs suit a site and how it will look long after planting.

  Deer Are Browsers

Deer damage to tree

Deer are browsers, preferring to nibble on the buds, twig ends and leaves of woody plants. Browsing destroys new growth and deforms shrubs and trees. Extremely young trees and shrubs may be eaten completely.

Deer are opportunistic feeders. They prefer a variety of foods, treating landscape plants as a salad bar. Often, feeding injury occurs in irregular patches and surrounding plants may be trampled. Deer do not have upper front teeth, so plants they have damaged often have a ragged appearance. Signs of injury to woody plants include frayed branch ends, development of a browse line on trees and buck rubs on trees.

Buck rubs occur in fall during breeding season, usually on smooth-barked trees. Male deer regrow antlers every year. They remove the velvet from their antlers and scent-mark their territory by rubbing their antlers on trees, shredding the bark and often, if they are young trees, pushing them over.

Repelling Deer

Deer rubbing anters on tree

Fencing is probably the most effective means of managing deer damage, although it can be quite costly. If local zoning allows, electric fences are the most effective means for protecting a garden area. Perimeter fences needs to be at least 8-10 feet tall to be effective. Temporary wire or plastic enclosures around trees and shrubs can be used to protect plants over winter and vegetable gardens during the growing season.

Repellents repel by either taste or smell. Some repellents contain a mix of ingredients that provide both. Check the label to make sure what the product is labeled for. Very few are registered for use on edible plants, so read carefully.

One drawback of using repellents is they will need to be reapplied periodically to be effective, and if the deer are hungry enough, they will likely eat the plants anyway.

Deer Resistant

No plant is completely deer-proof, but trees such as box elders, black locusts, pines and spruces resist deer damage. Barberries, hollies, tree peonies, rhododendrons and lilacs are deer-resistant shrubs.

  Rabbits Eat Bark

Rabbit damage to shrub branches

Rabbits can cause as much damage as deer, chewing the bark off young trees and shrubs. Rabbits can kill plants by girdling them -- gnawing off a ring of bark all the way around the trunks. They frequently damage woody plants in winter and early spring. Damage occurs primarily within 2½ feet of the ground, but can appear higher during the winter due to snow being piled up.

Rabbit damage is easy to recognize. Rabbits prefer thin-barked trees and shrubs and gnaw the bark in patches. Branch ends are cut cleanly with a sharp angle on the end, unlike the ragged chewing caused by deer.

Fencing and Wraps

Rabbit fencing

Wire screen cylinders placed around trees for vole protection during winter are not high enough to prevent rabbits causing damage. Wrap branches with tree wrap up at least 5 feet to provide protection during winter. Fine-mesh chicken wire or poultry fencing can be used to protect beds and vegetable gardens. A double layer of chicken wire fastened to fence posts will make it more secure.

Be sure to bend the wire down in an “L” on the outside away from the garden and bury it or secure with stakes to prevent digging.


Repellents used for rabbits have the same considerations as products used for deer. Check the repellent labels for sites and directions for use. In addition, dried blood can be effective for repelling rabbits in spring or summer, but it loses effectiveness after a rainfall and must be reapplied after it rains.

More Gardening Tips:

 How To Use Coffee Grounds In The Garden
 How To Use Eggshells In The Garden
 Best Practices For Perennial Plant Fertilization
 How To Use Rooting Hormones
 Spring Pruning Basics

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