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Protecting Plants from Winter, Deer & Wabbits

Q. I have a huge butterfly bush; it grows to around eight feet tall and six feet wide each summer—but the growth is not that sturdy; when it sleets or snows, the branches get bent down low or break off. How and when should I prune the plant in the fall to prepare it for winter? I have heard your advice to not prune in the fall, as it promotes new growth when the plant is preparing to go dormant, but my neighbors cut their butterfly bush back hard as part of their fall 'clean up' and it survives. (But it's not nearly as large or hearty as mine.)

---Tom in South Jersey ("about five minutes east of Philadelphia")

A. I'll bet it's not as nice! The fact that their plant even survives is a testament to the bullet proof nature of butterfly bush (Latin name Buddleia). If Tom values how good his looks in season, he should not follow their foolish lead.

As we've explained many times, cutting perennials back in Fall or Winter exposes the underground root system to severe winter injury. Leaving the dormant plant's biomass on top insulates and protects the roots. So leave it alone now and through winter. Then—because it's an aggressively growing summer bloomer—cut it back as low as you want about two weeks after new growth resumes in the Spring.

And let's be realistic about how it looks during winter weather; you'd get bent to the ground if you got left outside in an ice storm. If a couple of branches wind up blocking a pathway, prune them off when the plant is fully dormant in the winter. But don't otherwise 'clean up' any perennials until Spring (or later if they're Spring bloomers); it's a remarkably bad idea.

Now, we would we remiss if we did not add a word of warning about this plant. Buddleia is not native to the US; it's an Asian plant that has been banned for sale in some areas because it readily self-seeds and can become invasive. It's also not a known host plant for any caterpillars.

BUT it does provide huge amounts of pollen and nectar for pollinators and butterflies. I was recently given one that hosted dozens of different species of native bees this summer. (We also saw quite a few honeybees, so I'm guessing that someone in my neighborhood has a hive or two.) I intend to keep mine—and simply maintain a close eye on the areas near it.

Q. I planted a darling Brown Turkey fig in my garden. It's a Mediterranean plant and I have a somewhat Mediterranean climate. Perfect, right? I planted it in mid-September as the temperatures were cooling and the Oregon rains were beginning. Perfect planning, perfect execution; right? Sadly, the deer stripped it bare and continue to do so anytime fresh leaves emerge. My husband and I plan to fence in our little property this winter. In the meantime, do you think the fig can survive until spring? My husband says yes. I say no. Tell us your prediction.

---Anne in Medford Oregon

PS: I am sharing your wisdom about using red wigglers to make compost in worm bins, and my friends are all on board.

A. Excellent; this is a perfect time of year to get a worm bin started! (Especially if you live in an area where you might have to trudge through snow to get access to an outdoor compost bin.) And the stackable ones with removable trays make great holiday gifts for homeowners who want to correctly and efficiently compost their food waste. My personal 'worm tower' is still going strong after more than a decade!

OK: my 'figgy prediction': A strong vote for survival.

If this were another type of plant, like an apple or peach tree, it might not survive a high level of browsing. Even if they don't attack the mature form of the plant, deer will always eat the bark of tender new trees and shrubs—and a conventional tree will be killed if they eat a complete circle around the trunk. But figs grow back from their roots in the Spring and almost always survive; especially in the kind of mild winter climate she describes.

I suggest she simply erect a big cage of welded wire fencing around the plant to prevent further damage—especially in the Spring, when lots of nibbling could prevent the figs from having enough time to ripen up.

"But she says they're going to fence everything in…"

And I said I'd get enough filing done in my office so that you could see the floor; that was back around 2010—so cage the tree.

And just about everyone with new plantings should also protect them now. Deer, rabbits, mice and voles do the worst damage in the winter, when their natural food becomes scarce. Young or valuable trees and shrubs should be protected with sprays of deer repellant—heavy at the base of the plant to deter small herbivores and then heavy again at 'browsing height'—roughly 28 to 36 inches off the ground—for deer.

Or use hardware cloth to protect the base of the plant from vermin (make it high enough to account for snow) and a sturdy cage around the outskirts for deer, which will also deter antler rubbing, which can severely damage trees.

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