Here Comes Peter Cottontail. Beware!

Oh, the wages of indolence. Last year I wrapped my young trees in hardware cloth to protect them from rabbits and voles. This year, however, I got distracted by other things. And then it got so cold.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found much of the bark chewed off the lower trunk of my young Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), still just 5′ tall. The trunk was about half way to being completely girdled.

Rabbit damage of a young tree. Photo from Iowa State University (
Rabbit damage of a young tree. Photo from Iowa State University (

Same story with my two younger ‘Autumn Brilliance’ Serviceberries (Amelanchier x grandiflora).

So even though it is a bit like closing the barn door after the rabbits have escaped, I wrapped hardware cloth around my more vulnerable young trees and shrubs yesterday.

Petey “the Gnasher” Cottontail in our back garden. Don’t let the cuteness fool you.

But now I’m getting paranoid. Should I protect all my trees and shrubs from the marauding rabbits? I’ve always assumed that once a woody plant got to a certain size, the rabbits would leave it alone. But the images I found on Google for rabbit damage to trees seem to contradict that assumption.

Plus, rabbits have been pretty abundant around here the last couple of years. I’m not sure what they do for food in winter other than gnaw on trees. I’ve considered putting out rabbit food to distract them from my plants, but I think that would just attract more rabbits and possibly other rodents even more unwanted.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance'
Serviceberries in autumn. 9 out 10 rabbits prefer Serviceberry bark!

Though it does seem that they have a preference for some woody plants over others. They seem to find Serviceberry particularly toothsome (so to speak). On the other hand, they haven’t even nibbled on my Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) or Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus). I’ve considered putting out rabbit food to distract them from my plants, but that would probably just attract more rabbits – and other even less welcome rodents.

I’m guessing that my Flowering Dogwood and Serviceberry will be OK. When I’ve seen bark damage on other young plants that were not completely girdled they’ve generally survived.

Do you protect your small trees and shrubs from winter nibbling?

55 Comments on “Here Comes Peter Cottontail. Beware!

  1. I hear you! Rabbits are … well, I can’t say it here. Last winter they chewed down my Dwarf Lilac bushes…which they had never done before…and they aren’t even supposed to like Lilacs. As it turned out, the Lilacs needed trimming anyway, so it was ultimately OK. But they continue, each year, to find plants to destroy. I think there are fewer this year because we had a Cooper’s Hawk in the yard toward the end of the summer. Yay. I still see rabbit tracks, but their numbers seem a little smaller. (I have to admit, though, I’ve even felt sorry for rabbits during these polar events. Well, sorta.) I was going to wrap the Lilacs this winter, but I didn’t get around to it either…

    • We have some hawks in the neighborhood but we really need more predators. Wouldn’t mind a coyote or two. I recall there were coyotes occasionally spotted in Madison when I lived there.

  2. I was told to protect my new garden by putting Irish Spring around the plants and shrubs. I purchased some and also got little drawstring bags to hang, since the thought of cut-up soap disturbs me, but apparently this is a common practice and is not particularly harmful to the environment. I haven’t been able to do it yet, guess I better get busy, it’s going to be cold again this week.

      • I know, but when I went looking online to check it out, I found someone suggested getting cheap little drawstring bags and putting it in there, then hanging the bags on a branch or something. That’s what I’m going to do. I have to figure out what knife I want to smell like Irish Spring first…

  3. Luckily there are no rabbits here, or I’ve never seen any! There are hares but not so many because they are hunted from September until February and they’ve never come into the garden. I do hope you trees and shrubs survive.

  4. It’s hard to imagine having to deal with this kind of damage from cute wildlife. We have diggers here (squirrels and raccoons) but nothing as destructive to plants as your rabbits. Sorry!

  5. It’s so pity to see young trees damaged. We have no a lot of rabbits here Don’t know why. I think they like to eat carrots. But I don’t advise you to feed these marauding animals near your garden.

  6. Fruiting trees, roses, barberry, and euonymus seem particularly delectable to these marauders. It might be beneficial to try some grafting on the gnawed side of your cornus. Without the cambrium layer, there be scant if any limbs form on that side as they are not formed without nourishment from below.

  7. Been there, done that! My chokeberry and serviceberry never recovered and are permanently stunted. I protect everything that is reasonable to protect, with a circle of poultry netting, and leave it in place all year round. Usually they leave the forsythia and cotoneaster alone, but in a bad year, even those get nibbled. Good luck!

  8. Damn Wabbits! They are the bane of my gardening existence, too, Justin! I read recently that good old classic Ivory soap bars, chopped up and put in the garden will keep rabbits away. I’m gonna try it! My new knockout rose has been gnawed significantly (doesn’t it hurt to swallow thorns?), and my red twig dogwood that I started from weeny cuttings – chewed to the ground, and half of the twigs left uneaten!!! We have a couple hawks in the neighborhood and I’m hoping they’ll have rabbit for dinner soon. It’s just so frustrating, huh?

      • Don’t worry about it, I get that all the time. You say Ivory Soap, Lisa from birdmusicblog says Irish Spring. Maybe I’ll try both and do a comparison. I guess rabbits just don’t like soap.

  9. This is very interesting. Is there any cultural differences between the rabbits of your town and my town in NJ :-)? We also have many rabbits and I see them running around but they gnaw on any plants or destroy anything. Is your town in the very heart of the city? I am wondering that perhaps the difference could be due to the fact that my town here is not a city or even close to a city; it’s a small suburb/town with lots of nature. That’s why the rabbits do not attack my trees as they get plenty to eat in the surrounding nature.

    • We are an older, inner ring suburb, right on the city line, so we are more of an “urban suburb”. I suppose further out there is more open land for the rabbits to feed on.

  10. Sorry your trees were damaged. It is a frustrating problem here to deal with voles. I can’t understand exactly how the hardware cloth protects the tree from voles as they work underground don’t they? I’ve use solar powered repellent stakes that emit a beep every 30 seconds and they do push the voles elsewhere. Unfortunately the devices are short-lived and replacing them is expensive. I was waiting until spring to get more but after reading your comment that they are more active in winter I guess I’d better get more now. Wish I had some answers for you. Susie

    • You’re supposed to bury the hardware cloth about 2″ under the soil. Impossible to do now, but voles are much less of a problem here than rabbits.

  11. No rabbits here except for Herbert Menninger who lives in a cage and is a member of the family. 🙂 Our challenges come from the deer who like to graze on our property because our next door neighbor feeds them. For them, I put anything stinky out there and so far they are walking through the yard but not stopping to eat.

    • I’m glad you are able to deter your deer. I’m very grateful we don’t have them, as I hear they can do tremendous damage. I have also heard some people say that only fences suitable for use at the state correctional facility will deter them.

  12. You bet I do. Those rascals will eat any young plant woody or soft. My dog keeps them at bay now. The area Foxes have taken many of the destroyers.

  13. Oh yes. I have bought some special bands to wrap around the new trees. I hope they work, but then again, there is no snow here, and fairly green. So I think they prefer other food than the bark of my trees.

  14. I’m in the process of rabbit proofing my garden and will have a post up once I”m done. But only the back garden inside my fence will be protected. The front and sides are completely exposed but they only use those shrubs for shelter. I’ve never noticed any damage. But our winters are so much milder that perhaps there is more greenery available for them to eat. They did a lot of damage last year to my perennials.

    • During the warm seasons they will eat certain perennial plants down to the ground – especially woodland phlox and certain ornamental grasses. They also bite the flowers off my crocuses.

  15. Oh your poor bark, I do hope there is no lasting damage. We have lots of rabiits around here but they don’t come into our garden, maube they dislike Curly

    • I’m sure they want to give your cat a wide berth. Our own cat is deceased, though if we got another I think we’d try to keep it inside to prevent predation on the songbirds.

  16. Those fluffy tailed jerks! I’m going to stop complaining about squirrels now, rabbits sound so much worse.

  17. So sorry about that – it’s about time to reduce their number, don’t you think? Stews, pies…yummie. Luckily none of them here but deer instead 😦

  18. Oh dear, how awful, but as long as it doesn’t go all the way round the tree it should recover. Can’t you get those plastic spiral tree guards over there? They are so quick and easy to put on. We have some black rabbits who find their way innto the garden sometimes. They are all over the place here, I can only think at some pont there must have been some illicit relations with a pet rabbit. They are just as destructive but at least they look cute.

    • You know, I don’t recall ever seeing the tree guards you mention. I’ll have to look for them around here. Must be much easier than the hardware cloth, which gives you nasty cuts if you don’t wear gloves.

  19. It is not unusual to see deer wander toward the apple trees, and once they have stripped lower branches from a tender young tree. Each new anti-deer tactic is critiqued by the local wildlife manager with the same response, “Have you ever heard a deer laugh?” Like every gardener, In The Healing Garden we are vigilant, careful and ready to share. Cooperation seems the shorter path to peaceful gardening. Thank you for your gardeninacity. –

    • I’m OK with cooperation, but I don’t want the rabbits to kill my young trees. The hardware cloth seems to work pretty well, if I get around to putting it out there.

      • Drawing a clear line is important. Without an audience there is no show. Likely these are rabbits could be trained to share as well. I am not familiar with hardware tape, tree guards work well in our garden. Pipe insulation, or a split length of pvc pipe works is an excellent stop gap. And if necessary, a triangle of three posts with wire. No, I am not suggesting throwing out the tree with the rabbits. – The Healing Garden gardener

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