What are you supposed to do when a cute little bunny family decides to have your bed of petunias for dinner?
There are ways to discourage this slightly wayward activity without harming a hair on the hare. But first, let’s zoom in for a closer look at what we’re up against.
KNOWING THE ENEMY
You probably know what an eastern cottontail rabbit looks like. If you don’t, see the picture on the left or tune into a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Recognizing damage done by rabbits is a bit trickier since there are other animal pests that also do chewing damage to plants and tree trunks.
One way to tell the rabbit damage is by the sharp, angled cut made on chewed branches. Rabbits’ sharp teeth cut neatly through the branch, unlike the ragged chewing damage done by deer. Rabbits also tend to nibble plants down to or almost down to the ground, unlike ground hogs, which take just a few bites out of just about every plant in the garden. The real telltale sign, though, is the pile of little, round pellets (rabbit droppings) that you’re likely to see on the ground anywhere near where the rabbits have spent much time feeding.
A rabbit might not be as destructive as a deer or groundhog, but what they lack in hoggishness they make up for in numbers. Rabbits are prolific reproducers. Mom rabbits start breeding in early spring and each year produce about three litters of four to six baby bunnies each. The babies hide out in nests in the ground for about two weeks until venturing out on their own for food. The average rabbit life span is 12 to 15 months.
WHAT’S ON THE RABBIT MENU
Rabbits aren’t terribly picky eaters, but their tastes seem to vary from rabbit to rabbit. The literature claims their favorite foods are carrots, lettuce, peas, beans, beets and strawberries, but different gardeners will tell you they eat way more than those. In some yards, the bunnies seem to prefer tulip blooms and petunias. In others, they might go for dianthus and sunflower shoots. This one good way to deal with rabbits is to plant more of what your particular clan doesn’t seem to like and less of what they do.
Rabbits also are a threat to young fruit trees and fruit bushes in the winter after the green plants are gone. (Blackberries, cherry, plum, ash, red and sugar maples, locust, red and white oaks, willow, sumac, roses and dogwoods).
Rabbits are also big fans of grass, dandelions, clover and other lawn weeds, so a fair amount of their diet is garden-friendly.
There most active feeding time is late afternoon through early the next morning. They hate midday heat.
BATTLING THE BUNNIES
The same fence that works for groundhogs also will stop rabbits. That’s a fence that’s buried 2 feet deep with 3 feet of height and an extra foot of unsecured fencing at the top to act as a baffle. Rabbits are good jumpers and fair diggers, but they’re not the gymnastic climbers and deep diggers that groundhogs are. So a lesser chicken-wire fence of 2 to 3 feet in height with just a few inches buried should do the trick if your only problem is rabbits. If rabbits are only bothering a few crops, try covering the young plants with a floating row cover. As the plants grow, they’re less likely to be targeted by rabbits, and the covers can then come off.
EXPLOIT THEIR WEAKNESS
One character weakness of rabbits that gardeners can exploit to great adventure is fear. Rabbits are timid creatures, and so they are easier to scare and repel than other garden-eating pests.
They’re not stupid, though. So if you keep using the same fake snakes or threatening odors over and over again, rabbits will eventually figure out that it’s all a ruse. Out-smart the rabbits by using more than one repellent and rotating them frequently.
One of the better tricks is Predator Urine, which is the actual urine from animals that garden pests are afraid of. Fox urine is particularly effective against rabbits. Other repellents that work at least some of the time are mothballs (be careful if little kids are around); cheese-cloth or muslin bags of blood meal; lime; bags of human or cat hair; commercial repellents such as Ro-Pel; hot-pepper and/or garlic sprays; “liver tea” (made by a piece of liver in hot water for several hours and then watering the area with the tea); handing pie tins that blow in the wind, and the aforementioned fake snakes.
Keep in mind you’ll also have to reapply scent repellants every few days or after rains to keep the smell in the air.
As with most pests, having a dog or cat in the yard also usually keep rabbits at bay.
Yet another trick is to cash in on the rabbits’ tender feet. They don’t like to step on jaggy things, so to keep them out of a particular bed they’ve been bothering, line the bed with prunings from raspberries, roses, barberry or pyracantha.
TRY TRAPPING ‘EM
Beyond repellants, you can undertake a rabbit relocation program. You’ll need a live trap, such as the metal Havahart trap. Place the trap in a protected area that blends in with the surrounding area. Rabbits will be suspicious of a box sitting out in the middle of the yard.
Good baits are apples, carrots, a dried ear of corn, celery or some fresh cabbage. Don’t forget to place some of the bait outside the trap to lead the rabbits in.
Rabbits can move around over an acre, so you’ll want to release them at least that far away. For information on live trapping and releasing of rabbits, call the State Game Commission at toll-free 1-800-422-7554 or 1-800-228-0791.
ALSO WORTH TRYING
If you need a few other strategies, it sometimes helps to remove any brush piles, weed patches or other protected area in the yard that might make ideal nesting spots for rabbits.
And you might want to consider planting a “sacrificial garden” that’s located out in the open and planted with rabbit favorites. The idea is that by the time the rabbits are done feasting on that garden, they’ll be too full to mess with the real garden.