rabbits in the garden, take a number?

 photo: david solce

photo: david solce

rabbits in the garden, take a number?

One of the reasons many of us love to be in the garden is for the opportunities this time gives us to interact with wildlife on an intimate basis - to watch the birds at the feeder or splashing in the birdbath, the bees and butterflies alighting on a blossom, or the hummingbirds visiting their favorite flowers. All these interactions bring us joy, but there are other interactions which happen in the garden which can bring us to the breaking point - I'm talking about nuisance wildlife, specifically rabbits. This year has been an especially challenging year on Cape Cod when it comes to gardening and rabbits. The decline of one of their main natural predators, the fox, due to mange has allowed the population to explode and many gardens which normally see only occasional browsing have been decimated by repeated attacks.

So how do you know if it’s a rabbit that is causing the damage you see in the garden, rather than a groundhog or a deer since all have similar appetites when it comes to your vegetation? If the damage is on new growth that is close to the ground - 2 feet high or less - and the cuts are clean, at almost a perfect 45-degree angle, then you have classic rabbit damage. Deer will cause damage higher up on a plant, woodchucks will have a burrow nearby and tend to feed more in the afternoon while rabbits prefer early morning or evening meal times. 

Once you’ve determined rabbits are the culprit, what can you do to prevent them from sidling up to your garden like it’s a salad bar? The solutions offered by seasoned gardeners and retailers are many and varied, and which one you choose to use depends on when you begin a prevention program and what your personal threshold is for damage. Here in the Northeast our nemesis is the eastern cottontail rabbit. Weighing in at 2-4 pounds with a lifespan of 12-15 months, they can produce up to three litters of six babies every year, with the first litter appearing in March. With favorable conditions (food and shelter opportunities) the cottontail can quickly overrun an area. The first line of defense is to reduce shelter opportunities on your property. The cottontail prefers brush or leaf piles, abandoned burrows, and low-growing shrubbery. 

Early prevention is the best route to take, once a rabbit knows there is food to eat in an area it will continue to return and repellents will be significantly less effective. With that in mind, you should implement a prevention program at the first sign of trouble before your garden becomes the regular brunch stop. Fencing is the most effective option, noting it needs to be at least three feet high, using wire mesh having openings of one inch or less, and be buried at least six inches into the ground to discourage burrowing. A second option, for those with a license to do so, is hunting the rabbits on your property. Here on Cape Cod the hunting season for cottontails begins on the first Saturday after Columbus Day and continues until the following last day of February. That said, the law states that “A person shall not discharge any firearm or release any arrow upon or across any state or hard surfaced highway, or within one hundred and fifty feet, of any such highway, or possess a loaded firearm or hunt by any means on the land of another within five hundred feet of any dwelling in use, except as authorized by the owner or occupant thereof.” This generally rules out hunting rabbits in your suburban backyard, and it is also illegal in Massachusetts to trap and transport a rabbit off of your property. 

So, aside from fencing and hunting, what are the other options out there? There are many, and some include old wives tales and folklore. Rabbits have a very sensitive sense of smell, therefore many of the solutions involve using repellents which contain noxious ingredients including dried blood, cloves, garlic, putrified egg, hot peppers, and other foul-smelling compounds which are designed to make your garden unappetizing. Some of the repellent brand names include Liquid Fence, Bobbex-R, and Plantskyyd. Most need to be applied in succession for a few weeks to gain effectiveness and then some should be reapplied after a heavy rain. Another option is a motion-activated water sprayer which will startle your intruder with a burst of water, convincing them to stay out of the protected area. The drawback to these is they scare away ALL wildlife so if you have bird feeders in the area this may not be the best option for you. Ultrasonic animal repellers could be an option in that situation as they repel dogs, cats, deer and rodents but not birds. Other ideas include erecting a fake 3D predator such as a coyote or owl to scare the rabbits away, or placing a few rubber snakes in the garden bed - just remember they’re there so you don’t scare yourself! Garden lore also includes sprinkling human hair clippings on the garden, or shed cat hair, talcum powder, used kitty litter, fox or coyote scent, lavender clippings, Irish Spring soap shavings, mirrors or clear jars full of water (rabbit folklore says they are terrified of their own reflection), crushed boiled eggs, pinwheels, coffee grounds, loud music, or cayenne pepper. 

Another option of course would be to replace your tasty plant offerings with less appealing varieties, although in an area of high rabbit concentration this can have limited effectiveness as they will eat almost anything if competition is high. Suggested rabbit-resistant plants include: yarrow, lady’s mantle, lamb’s ear, hellebore, iris, marigold, anemone, bleeding heart, lily of the valley, blanket flower, veronica, salvia, peony, daylily, lavender, allium, anise hyssop, astilbe, baptisia, snapdragons, lupine, penstemon, bee balm, catmint, daffodils, foxglove, mint, cleome, bergenia, shasta daisy, and montauk daisy.

As my garden seems to be ground zero for rabbit browsing this year I can tell you that I have personally used Bobbex-R, Liquid Fence, and Plantskyyd with little to no results. The echinacea, hollyhocks, pole beans, zinnia, dahlias, dill, shelling peas and coreopsis disappeared in quick succession. The only effective deterrent has been hardware cloth around the above noted plants, at least three feet high. However, as I usually have a very healthy population of coyote, fox, and hawks in the woods around my home I did not begin using them early in the season and the effectiveness of the repellents was significantly reduced because the rabbits had already queued up for their deli numbers by the time I took action. So for this season I am left to watch reruns of Bugs Bunny and my hero, Elmer Fudd!

Elmer Fudd: "Be vewy vewy quiet, I'm hunting wabbits!”