When Bunnies Aren’t So Funny: Rabbits in the Garden

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I must confess: I don’t have rabbits in my garden. In fact, there are no rabbits where I live. Hares, yes, but they tend to be just occasional visitors more interested in the shrubbery than my vegetables. But I used to have a rabbit problem at a former residence and I remember well the frustration of trying to grow vegetables when rabbits are around. 

Once you get over their cuteness, rabbits can be a scourge in the garden. They are, of course, herbivores, designed by nature to eat plants and do seem more attracted by vegetables than by other plants, or at least the damage is more obvious. They will nibble on lawns (they love lawn grasses and clover), but often cause little to no notable damage, as lawn plants are designed to grow back. Rather, they do a bit of mowing for you! When they munch all your lettuce seedlings to nubs, though, you won’t be quite as forgiving of their actions

There are various species of rabbits found in different parts of the world, but all are renowned for their extreme fertility. Most produce several litters a year, each with from 1 to 12 young. In mild climates, they reproduce all year long; in colder ones, in spring and summer.

Of course, rabbits are controlled by all sorts of predators, from hawks to snakes to just about every predatory mammal, even pets, both dogs and cats. If it weren’t for predators, rabbits would certainly overrun our gardens. 

Different Species

European rabbit. Photo: enfo.agt.bme.hu

The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is originally from southwestern Europe and northwest Africa, but has been introduced widely elsewhere. It is now the common rabbit in all of western Europe and is abundant in Australia and New Zealand as well in parts of South and North America. It’s a very social animal and lives in underground warrens. It varies in size according to conditions, but can measure up to 16 inches (40 cm) in length.

The cottontail is a small rabbit with a cottony tail. Photo: Minnie the Pookie, Flickr

The common rabbit seen in North America is the cottontail (Sylvilagus spp.), a much smaller and less gregarious bunny. It doesn’t live in warrens, but may nest in cavities dug by other animals.

European hare (Lepus europaeaus). Photo: http://www.wideopenpets.com

And then there are hares (Lepus spp.), also called jackrabbits. There are some 30 species of them found all over the Northern Hemisphere and Africa, plus parts of Australia and South America where they’ve been introduced. These long-eared rabbit relatives tend to cause fewer problems to gardens than rabbits where the latter are present, sticking more to wilder areas, but can certainly do serious damage where they are locally numerous.

Rabbits and hares of all kinds do pretty much the same damage to gardens.

How Do You Know You Have Rabbits?

Rabbits can be very discreet. Largely nocturnal (actually, crepuscular), they keep out of sight during the day and may be most visible in the daytime when populations are high, forcing them to risk discovery in order to eat. 

What you will see are neatly chewed plants … and droppings. 

Rabbits often chew plants right to ground, rather than tearing bits off them like deer. Little round pellets about the size of a pea are a good sign the damage was due to rabbits.

What Do Rabbits Like?

This used to be a broccoli plant. Photo: gardening.stackexchange.com

Spring through fall, rabbits especially like fresh green growth, notably grasses and vegetables. Annuals, too, are favorites. And yes, they do like carrots, but, other than in cartoons, are more likely to chew the leaves than to dig up the root. 

In winter, they switch to shrubs and small trees, clipping off buds and gnawing on thin bark. They don’t climb, so any damage will be near the ground or just above that year’s snow. They also pick up seeds knocked to the ground from bird feeders. Rabbits are present all year long: there is no winter hibernation.

As for habitat, they’ll adapt to almost all conditions, but do like a place where they can hide from predators. If rabbits are a problem in your area, therefore, a wood or brush pile might not be a good idea. Block any access to hiding places under porches or sheds. Low shrubs too offer them cover from predators.

Keeping Rabbits Away

There are various methods you can use to keep rabbits out of your garden. Might I suggest concentrating on the vegetable bed and herb garden, as it’s very unlikely you’ll manage to exclude them from your entire property! 

Fencing with tight mesh will keep rabbits out. It should be buried at the bottom. Photo: bonnieplants.ca

Fencing can be very effective as long as you maintain it well. Rabbits jump, but are not good climbers.  A 2- to 3-foot (60 to 90 cm) chicken wire fence with 1-inch (2.5 cm) mesh can usually keep cottontails out, but increase that to 4 feet (1.2 m) for European rabbits and hares. Bury the bottom part 6 inches (15 cm) deep, angling the fence out from the protected area: rabbits dig quite well, but are stumped when they encounter underground fencing.

Keeping a dog in your yard can be very effective … if the dog is outdoors at all times. If you bring Rover indoors at night, rabbits will soon learn his timetable and visit when he’s not around.

Live traps catch rabbits without harming them. Photo: http://www.havahart.com

Catch and release is a popular technique. Various “live traps” (ones that catch animals without hurting them) are available to catch the rabbits, then they can be released elsewhere. You could try a carrot as bait, as per a Bug Bunny cartoon, but a piece of apple, a Brussels sprout or a few leaves of lettuce would work just as well. You need to release the rabbit at least 5 miles (8 km) from your garden or it’s likely to find its way home.

Two problems, though. First, live trapping may well be illegal in your municipality. Call city hall and ask. Secondly, where do you release the rabbits you catch? Not in a forest, certainly (rabbits are not forest animals), but anywhere you release rabbits is likely to cause problems for someone else! 

An aluminum pie pan moving in the wind will keep rabbits away for a short time, but they’ll soon be back. Photo: Lee Manufacturing Company

Then there are scare devices and repellants. Rabbits are very fearful creatures and will avoid anything new … for a while. That’s why animal scare devices and repellants, both purchased and home-made, like aluminum pie pans moving in the wind, white rags attached to bushes, predator urine, garlic sprays and other scented repellants, loud music, bars of perfumed soap, dog or cat fur or human hair, plastic snakes and owls and ultrasound devices often seem to work at first. But when Bunny figures out they are not truly dangerous, he’ll be back. 

Motion-activated sprinkler. Photo: rabbitremover.com

One device that does work long term is the motion-activated sprinkler. Just attach it to a hose, add batteries and point it towards the garden in question. Any time Bunny tries to approach the garden, he’ll be sprayed with water. It’s harmless, but being touched, even just by water, is terrifying to rabbits and they never seem to get used to it. You may need two to cover the entire garden. And do turn off the water before you visit your garden, or it’s you who’ll get soaked!

To prevent winter damage, surround young trees with chicken fencing or a spiral tree guard in the fall to a height at least 2 feet (60 cm) above the expected snow cover. 

Plants Rabbits Avoid

Rather than making lists of plants rabbits eat (it would include most plants!), it’s easier to point out a few plants rabbits don’t much like. They tend to avoid the following plants unless they are starving. You’ll note that many of the most resistant ones have strongly scented stems or leaves, milky sap, abundant thorns or are poisonous. 

Vegetables, Herbs and Fruits

Rabbits usually avoid chives and other plants in the onion family (Alliaceae). Photo: fineartamerica.com
  1. Anise hyssop (Agastache spp.)
  2. Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
  3. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
  4. Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
  5. Catmint (Nepeta cataria)
  6. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
  7. Cucumber (Curcumis sativus)
  8. Currant (Ribes spp.)
  9. Garlic (Allium sativum)
  10. Gooseberry (Ribes spp.)
  11. Grape (Vitis spp.)
  12. Leek (Allium porrum)
  13. Mint (Mentha spp.)
  14. Onion (Allium cepa)
  15. Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
  16. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
  17. Pepper* (Capsicum annuum)
  18. Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
  19. Rhubarb (Rheum × hybridum)
  20. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  21. Sage (Salvia spp.)
  22. Savory (Satureja spp.)
  23. Squash (Cucurbita spp.)
  24. Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
  25. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
  26. Thyme (Thymus spp.)
  27. Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

*Rabbits will sometimes eat young pepper plants.

Annuals

Cleomes or spider flowers (Cleome hasslerana) are among the annuals rabbits rarely nibble on. Photo: http://www.harrisseeds.com
  1. Agastache (Agastache spp.)
  2. Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)
  3. Angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia)
  4. Begonia (Begonia spp., waxy-leaved types)
  5. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
  6. Browallia (Browallia spp.)
  7. Canna (Canna spp.)
  8. Cleome or spider flower (Cleome hasslerana)
  9. Dahlia (Dahlia spp.)
  10. Dusty miller (Senecio bicolor)
  11. Flax (Linum spp.)
  12. Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
  13. Four O’Clock (Mirabilis jalapa)
  14. Geranium (Pelargonium spp.)
  15. Lantana (Lantana spp.)
  16. Larkspur (Consolida spp.)
  17. Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)
  18. Marigold (Tagetes spp.)
  19. Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
  20. Morning glory (Ipomoea spp.)
  21. Nicotiana (Nicotiana spp.)
  22. Pelargonium (Pelargonium spp.)
  23. Poppy (Papaver spp.)
  24. Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)
  25. Strawflower (Helichrysum spp. & Xerochrysum spp.)
  26. Verbena (Verbena spp. & Glandularia spp.)
  27. Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)

Perennials, Biennials and Hardy Bulbs

Rabbits rarely touch daffodils (Narcissus spp.), as they are poisonous to them. Photo: http://www.evenleywoodgarden.co.uk
  1. Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa)
  2. Agastache (Agastache spp.)
  3. Anemone (Anemone spp.)
  4. Autumn crocus (Colchicum spp.)
  5. Baby’s breath (Gyposphila spp.)
  6. Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflora)
  7. Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.)
  8. Bear’s breeches (Acanthus spp.)
  9. Beard tongue (Penstemon spp.)
  10. Beebalm (Monarda spp.)
  11. Bergamot (Monarda spp.)
  12. Betony (Stachys spp.)
  13. Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’)
  14. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
  15. Blanket flower (Gaillardia × grandiflora)
  16. Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.)
  17. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.)
  18. Bluebell (Hyacinthoides spp.)
  19. Bluestar (Amsonia spp.)
  20. Brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla)
  21. Bugbane (Cimicifuga spp.)
  22. Bugleweed (Ajuga repens)
  23. Butterfly weed (Asclepias spp.)
  24. Cactus (most species)
  25. Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
  26. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis
  27. Carex (Carex spp.)
  28. Catmint (Nepeta spp.)
  29. Christmas rose (Helleborus spp.)
  30. Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum spp.)
  31. Cinquefoil (Potentilla spp.)
  32. Clematis (Clematis spp.)
  33. Colchicum (Colchicum spp.)
  34. Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)
  35. Coral bells (Heuchera spp.)
  36. Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
  37. Corydalis (Corydalis spp.)
  38. Cranesbill (Geranium spp.)
  39. Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)
  40. Daffodil (Narcissus spp.)
  41. Daisy (Leucanthemum spp.)
  42. Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)
  43. Dead nettle (Lamium spp.)
  44. Delphinium (Delphinium spp.)
  45. Euphorbia (Euphorbia spp.)
  46. False indigo (Baptisia spp.)
  47. Ferns (most species)
  48. Flax (Linum spp.)
  49. Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia)
  50. Forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.)
  51. Foxglove (Digitalis spp.)
  52. Fritillaria (Fritillaria spp.)
  53. Fumitory (Corydalis spp.)
  54. Gaillardia (Gaillardia × grandiflora)
  55. Geranium (Geranium spp.)
  56. Geum (Geum spp.)
  57. Globe thistle (Echinops spp.)
  58. Globeflower (Trollius spp.)
  59. Goat’s beard (Aruncus spp.)
  60. Gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides)
  61. Hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum, syn. Eupatorium coelestinum)
  62. Helenium or Helen’s flower (Helenium spp.)
  63. Hellebore (Helleborus spp.)
  64. Heuchera (Heuchera spp.)
  65. Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
  66. Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis)
  67. Ice plant (Lampranthus spp.)
  68. Iris (Iris spp.)
  69. Japanese spurge (Pachysandra spp.)
  70. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
  71. Ladybells (Adenophora spp.)
  72. Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina)
  73. Lamium (Lamium spp.)
  74. Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
  75. Lavender-cotton (Santolina spp.)
  76. Leopard’s bane (Doronicum spp.)
  77. Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis)
  78. Lily-turf (Liriope spp.)
  79. Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)
  80. Lupine (Lupinus spp.)
  81. Maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.)
  82. Mallow (Malva spp.)
  83. Meadow rue (Thalictrum spp.)
  84. Meadowsweet (Filipendula spp.)
  85. Miscanthus (Miscanthus spp.)
  86. Monarda (Monarda spp.)
  87. Monkshood (Aconitum spp.)
  88. Moss pink (Phlox subulate)
  89. Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia spp.)
  90. Mullein (Verbascum spp.)
  91. Mum (Chrysanthemum spp.)
  92. Narcissus (Narcissus spp.)
  93. Ornamental onion (Allium spp., some species)
  94. Pachysandra (Pachysandra spp.)
  95. Pasque flower (Pulsatilla spp.)
  96. Penstemon (Penstemon spp.)
  97. Peony (Paeonia spp.)
  98. Perennial sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
  99. Periwinkle (Vinca spp.)
  100. Pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.)
  101. Poppy (Papaver spp.)
  102. Primrose (Primula spp.)
  103. Queen of the meadow (Filipendula spp.)
  104. Red hot poker (Kniphofia spp.)
  105. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
  106. Salvia (Salvia spp.)
  107. Saxifrage (Saxifraga spp.)
  108. Scabiosa (Scabiosa spp.)
  109. Sea holly (Eryngium spp.)
  110. Sea thrift (Armeria spp.)
  111. Sedum (Hylotelephium spp.)
  112. Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)
  113. Siberian iris (Iris siberica)
  114. Snow in summer (Cerastium spp.)
  115. Snowflake (Leucojum spp.)
  116. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.)
  117. Speedwell (Veronica spp.)
  118. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum spp.)
  119. Stachys (Stachys spp.)
  120. Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis)
  121. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
  122. Veronica (Veronica spp.)
  123. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
  124. Wild ginger (Asarum spp.)
  125. Wormwood (Artemisia spp.)
  126. Yarrow (Achillea spp.)
  127. Yucca (Yucca spp.)

Trees, Shrubs and Woody Climbers

Rabbits tend to be more interested in shrubs during the winter, preferring herbaceous plants during the summer months. Photo: trustbear.club
  1. Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)
  2. Barberry (Berberis spp.)
  3. Bayberry (Myrica spp.)
  4. Beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis)
  5. Beech (Fagus spp.)
  6. Blue mist shrub (Caryopteris × clandonensis)
  7. Boxwood (Buxus spp.)
  8. Buckeye (Aesculus spp.)
  9. Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
  10. Butternut (Juglans cinerea)
  11. Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)
  12. Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala petiolaris)
  13. Cotoneater (Cotoneaster spp.)
  14. Daphne (Daphne spp.)
  15. Deutzia (Deutzia spp.)
  16. Dogwood (Cornus spp.)
  17. Fir (Abies spp.)
  18. Goldenchain tree (Laburnum spp.)
  19. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
  20. Heath (Erica spp.)
  21. Heather (Calluna spp.)
  22. Holly (Ilex spp.)
  23. Honey locust (Gledtsia spp.)
  24. Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)
  25. Horsechestnut (Aesculus spp.)
  26. Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.)
  27. Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
  28. Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
  29. Juniper (Juniperus spp.)
  30. Lilac (Syringa spp.)
  31. Magnolia (Magnolia, some species)
  32. Mockorange (Philadelphus spp.)
  33. Mountain laurel (Kalmia spp.)
  34. Pine (Pinus spp.)
  35. Privet (Ligustrum spp.)
  36. Rhododendron (Rhododendronspp.)
  37. Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata)
  38. Spirea (Spiraea spp.)
  39. Spruce (Picea spp.)
  40. Sumac (Rhus spp.)
  41. Summersweet (Clethra spp.)
  42. Sweet gum (Liquidambar spp.)
  43. Trumpet vine (Campsis spp.)
  44. Tulip tree (Liriodendron spp.)
  45. Viburnum (Viburnum spp.)
  46. Walnut (Juglans spp.)
  47. Yew (Taxus spp.)

In a nutshell, using a careful choice of plants combined with exclusion methods can often reduce rabbit damage to very tolerable levels. You’ll probably never get rid of them entirely, but at least you can learn to live with them.

3 thoughts on “When Bunnies Aren’t So Funny: Rabbits in the Garden

  1. Thanks, Larry. Rabbits seem to be much more numerous this year and I haven’t seen a fox in 3 years, which may explain why. Our rabbits in Southern Ontario have expensive tastes and are eating many of the perennials on your recommended list, including my purple bergenia, astilbes, crocosmia, lilies, ornamental allium and even my phlox. I’ve tried sprays and chicken wire but I might have to try the sprinkler you suggest.

  2. Our little cottontails, which are also known as bunnies, can be surprisingly voracious! It as if they come in herds to graze. Weirdly, they do so only on occasion, and then may not return for months! I don’t know why they do it that way. No one traps them because they re not very meaty. There are no jackrabbits here.

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