Trowel & Error

No bunny's business

Make your garden a less popular dining destination for critters

By Nancy Crowe
Rabbits have vexed gardeners since Eve shooed those first two out of her spinach. Fortunately, there are ways to share the planet with these creatures that don’t involve anything toxic or dangerous (and no recipes for “wabbit stew”).

I was reminded of that on Easter weekend. All I intended to do in the backyard was rake up some debris. I took Ellie the dog outside with me, gave her the usual “No bees!” reminder and went to work.

Well, I couldn’t help noticing the state of the vegetable beds as I raked. Some more tilling and turning of the soil was in order. Then I spotted a couple of weeds near the fence. And a few more in one of the other beds. I started pulling, and soon the ground was littered with extraneous botanical matter. Ellie, in good shepherd fashion, stretched out on the grass and calmly monitored the Easter egg hunt in the neighbor’s yard and the weed-clearing rampage in her own.

The candy-filled eggs were collected and tallied up next door. One of the kids won a $20 Target gift card for his efforts. The weeding continued in earnest, filling three yard waste bags and prompting Ellie to look a bit concerned. Then I spotted some loose, downy fur, quite possibly the beginnings of a bunny nursery, at the base of a clump of weeds I was about to yank. Mission aborted.

Of course I don’t want rabbits nibbling at my flowers and vegetables, but displace a nest? Nope. As soon as the last one fills his backpack and heads for Bunny U., though, those weeds are history.

“No bunnies!” I told Ellie as I put away the hoe. She lowered her ears just enough to reveal that she 1) understood and 2) knew it was no use trying to pretend otherwise.

University publications suggest exclusion techniques and habit modification — that’s educated gardener talk for making your yard a not-so-great great place to raise bunnies and keeping the little thieves out. Ohio State University suggests getting rid of dense vegetative cover, brush piles and weed patches, all of which are prime rabbit real estate. You can exclude rabbits with a 2-foot (or thereabouts) fence made of chicken wire or plastic around the garden bed. Make sure that 1) critters can’t get under it and 2) you can get over it for maintenance and harvesting. Also note that there are no toxicants or fumigants registered for use against rabbits.

You can buy rabbit repellents in stores and online; most of these are taste repellents and are based on the fungicide thiram. Another is hot pepper wax. A friend of mine has had success with an eco-friendly odor repellent — the rotten-egg smell would keep anyone away during and just after application, but apparently it still smells nasty to rabbits and deer after it dries.

My all-purpose critter deterrent strategy includes hot pepper wax and/or ground cayenne around the edges of the vegetable beds, with bits of dog hair tucked in for good measure. Sometimes I’ll spritz hot pepper wax on the plants themselves. That way, when bunny starts sniffing around, he’ll at least suspect this is a dog-infested ’hood. If he’s been around the block a time or two, he’ll say, “Whoa, there’s a 50-pound Aussie-cattle dog mix in these parts. Better hightail it.” If he dares to take a bite, he’ll immediately bolt for the nearest watering hole, wondering why no one made him sign a release form.

Many people border their garden beds with marigolds, which are thought to be distasteful to rabbits. But for every gardener who swears by marigolds, you’ll find another who found marigolds were the appetizer du jour for rabbits. Furthermore, what they like or are willing to eat seems to vary from year to year. Still, if you like marigolds, why not give it a try? They won’t pollute, poison or injure as other pest control strategies might.

To learn more about coping with rabbits and other critters, visit Purdue’s Wildlife Conflicts Information website at www.wildlifehotline.info. Then go take those rabbit real estate signs out of your yard.

Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.

Posted Wed, 06/13/2012 - 2:57 pm