Rabbits may be cute but they’re a garden menace


Often times the eastern cottontail rabbit is more visible in our neighborhoods than in areas where people normally hunt them. They’re cute and fun to watch until you find out they’re destroying your landscape and vegetable plants. Just a few can cause hundreds of dollars of damage.
Sometimes we catch them in the act, making identifying the problem easy. However, rabbits are usually somewhat nocturnal. Actually crepuscular is more correct. That means they’re most active around dawn and dusk. Consequently, we often don’t observe them destroying our plants.
So before we jump to conclusions we must know what rabbit damage looks like. Rabbit and deer damage are often similar. Deer, being larger, are able to graze higher and usually leave noticeable tracks. Damage from other small mammals, like groundhogs, often closely mimics that of rabbits. Groundhogs usually dig some type of den, which reveals their presence.
Rabbits have sharp teeth that cut cleanly. They graze patches often to the ground and prefer tender vegetation like leafy vegetables or delicate landscape plants like daylilies and Hosta. In winter they browse twigs and young tree bark.
So how do we stop this, especially in town where shooting them might not be an option? I’ve heard people recommend planting marigolds, but I’ve observed rabbits grazing marigold plants. Furthermore, there are few vegetable plants rabbits won’t damage if food sources are scarce. They generally do leave onions alone though.
That shouldn’t entirely discourage you. There are methods to reduce your damage. Organic fertilizers like blood meal are a general turn-off to these lagomorphs. Unfortunately, they can be a turn-on to dogs and can encourage canines to dig up these places.
Fencing often works. Also, if rabbits are the problem and not deer, fencing need not be tall and unsightly. Two to three feet high is sufficient, so you could step right over it. Fencing should be buried six inches or so, since rabbits are adept at digging.
Pets often keep these critters at bay. I once had a cat that kept our place pretty much rabbit free. Blazer fed our dog with them too. He loved her. Usually most pets are not quite as formidable ridding the yard of rabbits and other small mammals. She cleaned up the squirrels too, so I always had plenty of nuts in the fall.
I must admit when I lived in the country I shot my share of them, but I rarely ate them during hot weather. I was always afraid of parasites or tularemia, a bacterial disease that can be passed to humans. Cats can get it too, but Blazer loved being a cat and Trevor loved being a dog, so I took the chance and let them enjoy their harvests. They both lived into their teens.
Live traps can be effective and humane. You won’t kill the neighbor’s dog or cat. Planting something they like on your property’s edge can work for a while. However, I think for most people the best solution is finding a way to co-exist.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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