The other day, I ran into a friend who was out shopping for a young fruit tree. She had just planted one the year before but had lost it over the winter to rabbits. This got us swapping stories about plants we had lost to these hungry creatures. It also made me think of all the advice I have received over the years on how to keep rabbits out of the garden.
The most common type of rabbit we see is the eastern cottontail. The cottontail likes a variety of habitats ranging from fields, farms, and landscaped backyards. Cottontails generally spend their life within an area 10 acres or less. As long as the place offers good food and shelter, they are happy to stay.
The diet of the eastern cottontail is quite varied and depends largely on what is available. In the home landscape, we all know how they enjoy many flowers and vegetables in the spring and summer. The good news is, together with garden fare, rabbits also eat clovers, crabgrasses chickweed, dandelions and quackgrass. During the winter months, they make the switch to woody stems and twigs.
Over the years, I have heard numerous tips on how to protect plants from rabbits. Some of the most common suggestions have to do with using an odor-based deterrent. Rabbits have a well-developed sense of smell. Applying a chemical repellant that offers an offensive, if not biting, aroma can discourage rabbits from eating plants. Other ideas that use odor as a deterrent include sprinkling dried blood meal or human hair around plants or growing strong or pungent smelling herbs near the plants you wish to protect.
There are also products that are designed to deter rabbits by leaving a bad taste on the plants the rabbit nibbles. Capsaicin, which is the chemical that makes certain peppers hot, is an ingredient often found in these taste deterrents. I have had good luck with a homemade repellant that uses eggs, garlic and hot sauce.
Scare tactics are another way to go. People will set out a piece of rubber hose to simulate a snake or leave a radio playing. My dad placed a plastic owl in the garden that hooted every time something passed by. It did not keep the rabbits away but gave mom and me a few good laughs. Some folks swear by leaving water-filled jars that are capped at the end of every second or third plant row. The idea is that rabbits are scared away by reflections off the water. A device intended to scare rabbits may work for a while but, in time, they will most likely become desensitized to it and begin to ignore it (unless the scary object is a dog or a cat).
You can also try changing the habitat to make it less rabbit friendly. Remove brush piles, weed patches or debris that can make good hiding places.
Hands down, however, the most effective way to keep rabbits from enjoying your vegetables or flowers before you do is to put up a fence. Usually a two-foot-high fence made from chicken wire is sufficient. Mesh size should be kept to no more than one inch and the bottom needs to be well secured against the ground or buried several inches deep. Fencing young trees, especially during the fall and winter when rabbits look to woody stems for food, can help save your individual plants.
Whether you like rabbits or really don’t like rabbits, they are an important link in our native ecosystem. They are also well integrated into our culture. Rabbits have been associated with innocence and youthfulness and are often represented in folklore as tricksters that are cunning and tend to outwit their enemies. So perhaps by using one of the above-mentioned techniques or a combination of them, you will be able to outwit your furry garden nemesis this growing season.
Margaret Murphy is a UW-Madison Extension Horticulture Program Coordinator, covering Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire and Polk counties. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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