Almost every evening when my husband and I drive home, one single bunny scoots from beneath a patch of forsythias, across the driveway, to safety under my deck. He or she is adorable and we have both expressed a hope that the poor creature isn’t alone. I confess to having placed carrots and greens at the edge of the deck on brutally cold nights. (Lettuce provides some water that all animals need.) I take pleasure in the sight of animals in my yard and find rabbits as scenic and interesting as flowering perennials.
And yet, right next to the forsythias I see my beloved Calycanthus (Carolina Allspice), that had achieved a well-rounded 4-foot shape, with its lower branches shiny and bare, all the bark stripped off. Other nearby shrubs appear similarly nibbled. While deer do pass through there, the evidence is clear: Cutie Bunny has been munching. What’s a gardener to do?
It isn’t easy being a bunny. The average cottontail lives less than a year and fewer than five out of 100 will survive past the second breeding season. They are a primary food source for hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, weasels, snakes and endangered by any other predators that come around, including cats, humans and their cars. During those short, scary lives, rabbits reproduce as often as possible, typically birthing five litters per year, five or six babies per litter. Cottontails (unlike European hares) do not dig burrows, but use woodchuck holes or other cavities, and usually they settle for simple shelters under piles of weeds or grass. In these shallow nests most babies die from exposure to cold or rain, predators or lawnmowers, in spite of attentive mothers who try to care for them for two to four weeks. The first litters of early spring are especially at risk.
To the chagrin of gardeners, rabbits are herbivores, with tastes that encompass most herbaceous plants – the younger and more tender the better – and the shoots and bark of woody plants. Thin-barked trees such as maples are especially vulnerable, but many woody plants can be damaged. Evergreens are less frequent targets, but what rabbits prefer isn’t as important as which plants are available. Most rabbits live within 20 acres of their places of birth. My possibly solo resident (or more likely her 40 children) will be eating a fine collection of perennials and specimen shrubs this season.
Manipulate the odds
I will not advocate hunting or trapping, and live-trapping and removal often just places the animal where it’s someone else’s problem – or puts it in a hostile, overpopulated environment anyway. My preference is to try to protect natural habitat wherever possible, in an attempt to balance the prey and predator populations. Give the rabbits a home, but also respect the needs of foxes, hawks and other predators.
For gardens and landscape plants, a few techniques can tilt the odds in favor of plant survival, with the goal of sending Cutie Bunny to eat something other than our plant collections. They all work, to some extent, depending upon our persistence and the rabbit population.
• Fencing: For rabbits, a 2-foot chicken wire fence usually suffices, the bottom buried a few inches into the soil – but remember that in winter the fence must reach well above snow level. In spring, a chicken wire or screening/mesh hoop or tunnel over bulb plantings – edges well buried – can protect the buds of young bulbs or plants. Take the wire off in time to enjoy the flowers or when guests are coming. (Having written this, I know that many gardeners will be quick to tell me about the time they took the fencing off the just-blooming tulip display, only to have every stem chewed down overnight.) Wire tree-guard cylinders with ½-inch mesh, sold in many garden centers or home supply stores, can protect young tree trunks.
• Shrub Coats and Covers: I wish I had covered a few more precious shrubs, including dwarf conifers, with one of the Shrub Coat line of products this year. Plants under the green teepees or sacks (UV-treated, knitted shade cloth) emerge from winter bright green and undamaged by deer, rabbits, wind and salt. The product is much better than burlap, that easily turns ragged and is readily chewed by animals. Shrub Coats were invented by a WNY professional landscaper, Steve Bakowski, and can be viewed or checked out online or at some local garden centers.
• Repellent sprays and sprinkles: I have observed good results with most commercial repellents as long as I repeat the applications often, especially after rain or snowfall. (There’s the rub – will we get to it often enough?) Many contain coyote or fox urine, and the product Thiram – well tested for effectiveness in deterring both rabbits and deer. Apply these just when you plant something new, because deer are creatures of habit; it helps to convince them early that a certain planting is not good. Similarly, I think it helps to persist with deterrents in spring and early summer when young deer are beginning to explore what they like and don’t like.
• Homemade products: Testimonials abound, claiming that deer or rabbits shun the odors of mothballs, dryer strips, human or dog hair, strong smelling soaps, garlic and human urine. Some folks report success with motion-activated light or sound systems, or scary props that resemble owls or snakes. These can’t hurt, but I just can’t promise they will save the hydrangeas.
Choose different plants
Research and experience have produced lists of plants that rabbits or deer rarely eat, and they are valid to a point. (Animals must eat what’s available.) Select thoughtfully, and avoid the always-eaten list.
Ultimately, a perfect balance of animal needs and human preferences is impossible. Animals nearly always lose in the larger sense, as we sprawl and pollute and degrade habitat – and then complain that they eat what we plant. I encourage all people to support natural ecosystems and to be tolerant and philosophical when animals eat the flowers (or my Carolina Allspice). Cutie Bunny is still precious, however brief his fluffy little life.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.