I’ve lived in the same home since 1984, just outside the Beltway. So I think about seven years ago, I first became aware of rabbits in the neighborhood, and now they are pretty common. Adrian Higgins, Garden Editor of the Washington Post, commented in an article from August 2013 that gardeners had recently noticed a burgeoning rabbit population. I guess it’s not just at my place.
Since I’ve got a long-standing issue with deer using my ornamental plants for culinary purposes (paying absolutely no attention to the labels), I’ve gone with the thought that most of my yard damage is from the deer. But I know the rabbits have boldly gone into the backyard (where no deer has gone before) and eaten various perennials and bulbs. Including toad lilies (Tricyrtis), liriope, Japanese painted fern, and crocus. So I thought I should learn more about them and pass the information along.
Our rabbits are the native Eastern Cottontail. Like deer, they do well in open areas with adjacent brushy cover, typical of the suburbs. They breed like rabbits, and populations can grow quickly. (Rabbit courtship is called “cavorting.”) They feed primarily just before and after dawn and again at dusk, a pattern called “crepuscular,” which is another cool word. During the day, they mostly shelter. They don’t dig extensive warrens like the rabbits in England (as described in my favorite book about rabbits, Watership Down). Instead hide in wood or leaf piles, tall grass, or in the brush. They do dig a small hole prior to birthing in which to raise their young (which are on their own in as little as two weeks). They are active all winter.
They feed on a wide range of plants, in spring and summer preferring soft, succulent growth. This includs lawn grass and, of course, most of your vegetable garden. They feed on branches, buds, and the bark of younger shrubs and smooth-barked trees in winter and can girdle and kill young trees. (Voles, which look like mice with short tails, will also feed on bark but stay near or below the soil line. Rabbits walk on snow so that they may damage the trunks higher up.)
You can tell the difference between deer and rabbit feeding damage by looking at the ruins of your garden. Adult deer don’t have upper front teeth (which is why they can’t whistle). When they bite, they leave a ragged tear and may even pull the plant out of the ground. Rabbits make a clean cut, which photos show is at a 45-degree angle and is likened to a cut from a pruning shear.
What to do? There are rabbit repellents, which we carry at Behnke’s, similar to deer repellents. (*UPDATE as we have closed please check other local independent garden centers) I have no experience with them. I’m sure they help if you can stand the smell and apply according to label instructions regularly. If they catch them, dogs and cats kill rabbits, as do owls, hawks, and other predators.
There is also the “Rabbit Resistant Plant option.” The Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) has a good article on rabbits, including a list of plants that rabbits “seldom damage” and plants that rabbits “heavily or moderately damage.” As a large and diverse botanical garden that deals with rabbits daily, these lists should be pretty good.
Some people live-trap and release rabbits elsewhere. I’ve always suspected that this is how they got going in my neighborhood. Perhaps a teacher let them go at the nearby school. Besides the ethical issue of dropping your problem on someone else who doesn’t want your rabbits any more than you do, apparently, rabbits are very territorial. The MOBOT article states: “…removing them to a location which forces them to compete for resources with other animals is likely to result in the death of one inhabitant or the other.”
As with deer, the best solution is fencing the rabbits out, either out of the yard or out of part of the yard. Unfortunately, instructions for building a free-standing fence are way outside my comfort zone, so you will have to hit YouTube or get a book.
The key to remember is that the fencing material should be metal and a tight weave, like chicken wire, so they can’t chew through it or squeeze through it. Part two of the article by Adrian Higgins referenced above (Entitled Rabbit Remedies: has three excellent illustrations regarding fencing,
I hope you can access the articles; I still get the print edition of the Washington Post, which also gives me unlimited access to the online edition.
A great suggestion from Mr. Higgins’ article was: if you have an existing fence around your yard, you can attach the chicken wire to the inside of the fence. It should be two feet or higher, reach the ground, and beheld tight to the ground with landscape staples. I think even I could do that. If fencing the entire yard is out of the question, you can build a free-standing fence around a vegetable or other garden or protect individual tree trunks with a wire cylinder around the trunk.
by Larry Hurley, Behnke horticulturist