Now that November is here, we can begin to prepare our plants for the winter conditions. Some of those preparations include getting plants ready for cold weather and protecting them from wildlife.
During the winter months, we can see plant damage from deer, rabbits and voles. Deer can chew off the ends of small twigs and bucks can rub their antlers on the trunks of smaller trees. Rabbits can also chew on smaller plants, sometimes chewing those plants off at ground level. Rabbits and voles can also gnaw on the thin bark of our young trees to feed on the green, inner bark areas. There is no cure once it happens, so it's best to protect our plants prior to damage.
Exclusion is the best defense but is sometimes a difficult task. There are fences that can be utilized, but they need to be at least 8 feet tall for deer damage. Rabbits can be managed with a fence that is 2 feet tall. Voles can be controlled by removing tall grass and weeds from around the trunk of trees and by avoiding mulch layers deeper than 3 inches around trees. Placing hardware cloth around tree trunks will also prevent vole feeding. The commercial spray repellents available for deer or rabbits are not very effective and would need to be reapplied often.
Winter mulch can be applied now or within a few weeks when temperatures are consistently dropping down to the 20s each night. Winter mulch is the heavier layer of mulch we apply to herbaceous perennial plants and strawberries to keep them from having temperature fluxes throughout the winter. Any plant that may be prone to frost heaving, being pushed up out of the soil by a constant freeze and thaw condition or plants that were just planted this fall could also benefit from winter mulching. This mulch can be up to 4-inches deep, which is deeper than we usually advise but is needed for winter protection. It is better to use coarse wood chips or leaves for winter mulch rather than grass.
Winter watering is essential in dry winter years. Winter desiccation commonly occurs on evergreen types of trees and shrubs. All trees are still transpiring —or losing water — throughout the winter months. Evergreen trees are transpiring at a higher rate than deciduous trees. Winter desiccation occurs when the amount of water lost is greater than the amount of water the evergreen takes in throughout the winter months. The damage from winter desiccation includes brown needles out on the ends of branches. However, the damage from winter desiccation will not usually show up in our trees until early spring, so they will stay green through the winter. Drought effects can damage deciduous trees as well. Especially newly planted deciduous trees. All of our trees may need to be watered throughout the winter months if natural precipitation or snow cover is absent.
Winter watering should occur during the day when the temperature is 40 degrees or above and is only necessary one to two times per month until spring. It is a good idea to test for soil moisture with a long screwdriver or soil probe prior to watering to determine if watering is necessary. If the screwdriver goes into the soil easily up to 18 inches, watering is not necessary. However, if pushing the screwdriver into the soil is very difficult, watering would be necessary.