Trees damaged by rabbits may be saved

When the snow had finally melted from around several long-established apple trees, Louis Abelli of Framingham discovered what some orchardists fear the most: The trees had been completely girdled by mice or rabbits in a broad band 8 to 16 inches wide.

If there was any value left in those trees, it was as fuel for the family fireplace; thus, Mr. Abelli marked them down for felling later in the summer. that was in the winter of 1978, yet today those trees are still standing -- alive and well and becoming steadily more fruitful.

What happened was this: E. Dexter Davis, well-known in horticultural circles hereabouts, suggested to Mr. Abelli that he not destroy the trees. Then, armed with some clear plastic film, Mr. Davis set about repairing the damage.

Bark, says Mr. Davis, is made up of many layers. Quite often the mice, or other tree-girdling critters, leave a layer of cambium over the wood that is too fine for the human eye to detect. With a little assistance this thin bark layer will sustain the tree while normal bark slowly reforms over the damaged area. Left on its own the tissue-thin cambium layer might never make it. It would readily fall victim to the hot sun and drying wind.

In this instance, clear plastic, two or more layers thick, was wrapped around the trunks and taped above and below the wounded area. In the resulting humid environment beneath the plastic film, what was left of the bark was able to continue working for the tree. At the same time the light, shining through the plastic, encouraged the formation of new bark.

Whenever the plastic became noticeably brittle or tore, it was replaced.

Obviously, an almost invisible bark layer cannot serve the needs of a tree as adequately as undamaged bark. the trees were noticeably set back the first year , leaf coverage was sparse, and there was no flowering or fruiting at all. But last year they came strongly into leaf and there was some fruiting. At the same time the bark thickened noticeably.

This year new plastic has been placed around the affected area for probably the last time. A moderate harvest is expected in the fall, and next year the trees should be able to go it alone once again, except for the obvious winter precautions which all good orchardists take against girdling.

What this effort has done for Mr. Abelli is to put his established semidwarf trees back into full production in three years and at relatively little cost. In contrast, expensive new semidwarf trees would only start to fruit in the third year at best, and probably not for four or more years. And it would be several years after that before Mr. Abelli could count on a heavy apple harvest.

If there's a moral to this example of horticultural ingenuity, it is this: There may be much more to a girdled tree than firewood.

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