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Wascally Wabbits!

Q. Hi Mike: Apparently mysuburban neighborhood was once "Watership Down" and the rabbits nevermoved out. Why should they when they have my petunias to munch? But thereal problem is that they use my side yard as a toilet and the grass isbeing killed off. Is there anything I can do to neutralize the effectsof the waste? I'm trying to live with them peacefully, but my lawn isreally taking a beating. Thanks,
---Deb; Burlington, NJ

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

A.    Rabbitsare a universal bane. They're ubiquitous too. But I have never heard ofthem killing a lawn. Now maybe the Old Perfesser here missed animportant lesson in Miserable Mammals class, but I'm guessing thatsomething else (grubs, disease, short mowing, poor early childhoodeducation) is afflicting your turf. Those cute little pellets rabbitsproduce are actually a perfect gentle fertilizer—as gardening folks whokeep their bunnies safely behind bars know so well.  Now, thereare three basic ways to prevent the plant polishing off theseprodigiously procreative pests positively perform: Fencing, repellentsand protective pets.

Rescuing a cat or two from euthanasia at the local shelter puts somepoints on your Good Karma Card of Life, and if you provide thosekitties with food and outdoor shelter, they will patrol the premisesand insure that rabbits, mice, moles and voles trouble you no more.Yes, I know some folks are against outdoor cats, but they perform thesame essential task of vermin control that local predators likewildcats and foxes used to take care of before development cut theirnumbers to a pittance. And although outdoor cats do occasionally catchbirds, the vast majority of their prey consists of miserable littlemammals. I could not garden in my woodland setting without the help ofTigger (aka "Fat Boy"), Squeeky ("the bad cat") and Dini ("thebaby")—all personally rescued by us, neutered, vaccinated and kept veryhappy.

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

If you're under assault by all kinds of miserable mammals, buy six foothigh fencing and bury the bottom two feet deep in a trench—adorned withhardware 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 protectedover winter by wrapping the trunks in wire mesh; otherwise thosebunnies will gnaw the bark—be sure the protection extends a good footabove your expected snowfall height.

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

Gardeners tell me they get great rabbit results with commercial deerrepellents. Products containing 'putrescent egg solids' (yum!) are themost reliable at keeping those giant stomachs with legs from dining onyour rhododendrons, and I suspect that rabbits will find it equallyunappetizing. 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 ortwo of garlic and a hot pepper in a pint of water, strain it, add adrop each of vegetable oil and dishwashing liquid (or even better,horticultural oil and insecticidalsoap), shake and spray.  Back when I was editor of OrganicGardening magazine, a reader wrote that he mashed up a big batch ofgarlic in a bucket of water, let it ferment under window screening fora few days and then strained and sprayed that—very aromatic—mixture onhis 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 itsstores of plant-feeding nitrogen to the soil.
  • Spreading dried blood meal, an all-naturalNitrogen rich fertilizer available bagged at garden centers, around theplants. I'm currently mixing up "Plantskydd" brand dried blood meal,sold specifically as a deer repellant, in water and spraying it on mycorn to keep away the deer and maybe even thieving raccoons. I expectthis liquid form will be more effective, but the mixing was prettyyucky. Try a pre-mixed spray.
  • Spreading powdered rock phosphate—another greatorganic fertilizer (this one induces lots of blooms).
  • Buying hot (cayenne) pepper shake in bulk orgrinding up a big batch of peppers and spreading them around the baseof the plants. Be careful you don't inhale a big cloud or get any inyour eyes. And if you do, YES—that is the sound of squirrels andrabbits laughing you hear.
And finally—DON'T USE MOTHBALLS!  (Unlesskidney cancer is your idea of a good time.) These little pellets oftoxic 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

HelpfulProducts From Gardens Alive!®
Wrestling with Rabbits or other Rodents? Send them Packing with theseProducts!

Protects from Rodent Damage
Easy to use Tree Guards simply coil around the trunk of the tree.Protects your young tree's from the damaged cause by Rabbits andRodents, as well as from Winter Sunscald.

DeerOff Repellent
Protects ornamentals, vegetables, and fruit trees
Deer Off's taste and smell repel deer and discourage other browsinganimals like rabbits and squirrels.

Mole-GopherMed Repellent
Deters moles and gophers for up to two months.
Mole-Gopher Med works by omitting a scent that will quickly send theanimals away from your lawn. Although the odor repels the moles andgophers, it doesn't bother people!