Battling snow, rabbits to check winter pruning off the list

Erin Schanen


Last weekend, I reached peak gardener frustration level. Between the list of jobs to be done in the garden that I’m not able to do and the damage the local wildlife is inflicting on the garden, I’ve had it.

We are officially at the stage where it’s time to do the things that fall into that “late winter” category on the garden jobs list, and chief among these is pruning. That effort has been hampered recently due to the risk of frostbite thanks to a polar vortex that stuck around like a houseguest who just didn’t get the hint that it was time to leave.

Now that temperatures are approaching normal, it’s the piles of snow that are interfering with the gardening plan. It’s hard to prune a tree or shrub when you can’t see the bottom three feet of it, and it’s even harder to drag a ladder out there to prune higher.

On my pruning list is a ‘Goldspire’ ginkgo that was crushed by a fallen tree several years ago that I’ve been slowly coaxing back into a semi-normal shape. The hornbeam hedge  (I grow the European variety, Carpinus betulus), is a work in progress and requires annual pruning at this time of year to help thicken it up and shape it. Planted three years ago, it still appears as six individual trees, but every year it gets closer to becoming the blocky hedge I’ve been envisioning. Ohio garden designer Nick McCullough, who uses hornbeams as hedges in many of his designs, told me last year that a heading cut would help them thicken up, and he was right, so I’m anxious to get that pruning job off the list.

There are other small trees in the yard that need some cleanup, including a crabapple that is looking a bit congested.

There is plenty of time to get to shrubs like panicle hydrangeas, including Limelight, which I like to prune a bit later when the leaf buds just hint at showing some color.

One shrub I won’t have to think too much about is spirea because every spirea in my yard has been pruned for me. Close inspection shows that rabbits, some that may be the size of a dog based on their droppings, are responsible. They nip off stems at a 45-degree angle with such a clean cut I’m beginning to think they are armed with hand pruners and leave typewriter-like tooth marks in the bark. Fortunately, spirea is OK being cut back to about 6 inches as one of several pruning options for it.

A flowering dogwood called ‘Rosy Teacups’ is another story. It grows three feet from the back door, where I naively believed it would be safe from wildlife damage. And it was, until a middle-of-the-night attack by what I assume was an army of rabbits that stood on top of three feet of snow and chewed off branches nearly a half-inch in diameter. The tree will live, but the beautiful vase shape it was growing into is now a long way off.

As I hastily fashioned unsightly armor for it out of burlap, deer fencing and kitchen twine (it was handy), stumbling through snow up to my knees, I had one thought: Uncle. I’m officially over winter.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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