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Wascally Wabbits!



Q. Hi Mike: Apparently my suburban neighborhood was once "Watership Down" and the rabbits never moved out. Why should they when they have my petunias to munch? But the real problem is that they use my side yard as a toilet and the grass is being killed off. Is there anything I can do to neutralize the effects of the waste? I'm trying to live with them peacefully, but my lawn is really taking a beating. Thanks,
---Deb; Burlington, NJ

Dear Mike: My mother loves the flowers in her garden, but the rabbits keep feeding
on them until they are just nubs sticking out of the ground.  Is there anything we can plant or put in the garden to keep the bunnies away? Thanks; I love your show!
                ----Laura from Philadelphia

A.    Rabbits are a universal bane. They're ubiquitous too. But I have never heard of them killing a lawn. Now maybe the Old Professer here missed an important lesson in Miserable Mammals class, but I'm guessing that something else (grubs, disease, short mowing, poor early childhood education) is afflicting your turf. Those cute little pellets rabbits produce are actually a perfect gentle fertilizer—as gardening folks who keep their bunnies safely behind bars know so well.  Now, there are three basic ways to prevent the plant polishing off these prodigiously procreative pests positively perform: Fencing, repellents and protective pets.

Pets:
Rescuing a cat or two from euthanasia at the local shelter puts some points on your Good Karma Card of Life, and if you provide those kitties with food and outdoor shelter, they will patrol the premises and insure that rabbits, mice, moles and voles trouble you no more.Yes, I know some folks are against outdoor cats, but they perform the same essential task of vermin control that local predators like wildcats and foxes used to take care of before development cut their numbers to a pittance. And although outdoor cats do occasionally catch birds, the vast majority of their prey consists of miserable little mammals. I could not garden in my woodland setting without the help of Tigger (aka "Fat Boy"), Squeeky ("the bad cat") and Dini ("the baby")—all personally rescued by us, neutered, vaccinated and kept very happy.

Dogs can also be helpful in this regard, especially terriers, and especially Jack Russell terriers; their only goal in life will be to keep your property rat and rabbit free. Raptors too; set up a perch (across beam about six feet off the ground) and hawks and owls will…well,they'll do what hawks and owls DO, alright?
 
Fencing:
Bugs Bunny is a fraud. Despite the Brooklyn accent, he reveals that he is in fact a European hare by his multi-level underground apartment. American rabbits don't tunnel or live in burrows, so a fence a couple of feet high with the bottom buried a few inches below the soil (to prevent their digging under it) will keep them out. Standard animal fencing (often called rabbit fencing) works well—but if baby bunnies start squeezing through, layer some chicken wire over the bottom half.

If you're under assault by all kinds of miserable mammals, buy six foot high fencing and bury the bottom two feet deep in a trench—adorned with hardware cloth to keep out tiny diggers; that'll keep out moles,voles and other underground pests. Stake three feet above ground,and then bend the top foot out unsupported at a 90° angle; that' baffle' will thwart climbers like skunks, raccoons and groundhogs.

Oh, and tasty young trees and shrubs should be protected over winter by wrapping the trunks in wire mesh; otherwise those bunnies will gnaw the bark—be sure the protection extends a good foot above your expected snowfall height.

Repellents:
Herbivores eat your precious plants because they taste good. Spray the plants with something that tastes awful and they will go off and eat the neighbor's pansies and petunias. Be sure to really coat the bottom of the plant, refresh the spray after a heavy rain, and repeat regularly during the season so that new growth is always distasteful.

Gardeners tell me they get great rabbit results with commercial deer repellents. Products containing 'putrescent egg solids' (yum!) are the most reliable at keeping those giant stomachs with legs from dining on your rhododendrons, and I suspect that rabbits will find it equally unappetizing. Look for one (like Gardens Alive's "DeerOff") that also contains hot pepper and garlic.

If you want to try making your own rabbit repeller, blend up a clove or two of garlic and a hot pepper in a pint of water, strain it, add adrop each of vegetable oil and dish washing liquid (or even better,horticultural oil and insecticidal soap), shake and spray.  Back when I was editor of Organic Gardening magazine, a reader wrote that he mashed up a big batch of garlic in a bucket of water, let it ferment under window screening fora few days and then strained and sprayed that—very aromatic—mixture on his plants and the local rabbits moved to another state.

Other tactics recommended over the years include:
  • Spreading human or dog hair around your plants.This will certainly kill slugs; and the hair will eventually return its stores of plant-feeding nitrogen to the soil.
  • Spreading dried blood meal, an all-natural Nitrogen rich fertilizer available bagged at garden centers, around the plants. I'm currently mixing up "Plantskydd" brand dried blood meal,sold specifically as a deer repellent, in water and spraying it on my corn to keep away the deer and maybe even thieving raccoons. I expect this liquid form will be more effective, but the mixing was pretty yucky. Try a pre-mixed spray.
  • Spreading powdered rock phosphate—another great organic fertilizer (this one induces lots of blooms).
  • Buying hot (cayenne) pepper shake in bulk or grinding up a big batch of peppers and spreading them around the base of the plants. Be careful you don't inhale a big cloud or get any in your eyes. And if you do, YES—that is the sound of squirrels and rabbits laughing you hear.
And finally—DON'T USE MOTHBALLS!  (Unless kidney cancer is your idea of a good time.) These little pellets of toxic waste are hands-down the most vile poison a homeowner can buy,and if you read the label (wear gloves when you pick up the box!),you'll see that they even beg you not to do it.  

You Bet Your Garden   ©2004 Mike McGrath