Stacey Libbert is a gardener, writer and teacher. Because she has various dogs, cats and recently, goats, she has been fortunate not to have too many issues with rabbits.

This article applies to:



What Mr. MacGregor Didn’t Know
by Stacey Libbert    


There’s nothing more satisfying than digging in fresh soil, planting a vegetable and watching it flourish. It’s not only what keeps gardeners coming back year after year, but it also has the same effect on garden pests, such as rabbits.  

Many of us have experienced that roller coaster of emotions that comes from dealing with garden pests. Going to bed, we are elated knowing our lovely, healthy plants are tucked safely in the garden. Yet by morning, we often awake to a nightmare of neatly trimmed stems without a leaf or vegetable in sight. The guilty culprits are easy to determine by the evidence left behind. Deer usually leave a jagged edge on the pilfered plant, while rabbits leave a clean cut.  

Unfortunately, rabbits are notoriously difficult to remove from an area – just ask Mr. McGregor. The story of Peter Rabbit has long delighted young children and elicited sympathetic sighs from gardeners. What can a poor gardener do to rid himself of this cotton-tailed pestilence?  


One simple, though not foolproof, method to deter the long-eared interlopers is to arrange plantings in a way that is less appealing to them. Rabbits eat a variety of plants, but they especially love grasses, clover, carrots, lettuce, peas, beans, strawberries and beets. However, there are a wide variety of other plants they find less palatable. Corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and gourds are often left untouched by rabbits. One tactic is to plant less tempting vegetables at the edge of the garden, while containing their favorite meals closer to the center. However, building this natural fence around the perimeter is only a slight deterrent.  

If you have a serious rabbit problem, set an 18-24-inch high fence made of 1-inch mesh wire. Stake and bury the bottom edge of the fence at least 6 inches deep to prevent the rabbits from burrowing underneath. Another option is an electric fence with strands placed at 4, 8 and 12 inches above ground.  


Unfortunately, vegetables are not the only things that rabbits enjoy. They often gnaw the bark on the trunks, stems and lower branches of ornamental trees, fruit trees and bushes, but they are particularly fond of apples, raspberries, blackberries, cherries and plums. Their appetite even extends to ornamental plants, such as sumac, roses, tulips, basswood, dogwood, red maples, sugar maples, honey locusts and willows. Though they cannot eat the entire tree, the damage they inflict over time is more than enough to kill it.  

The thick, rough bark of older trees may discourage rabbits, but younger trees are particularly susceptible to damage. Surround the trunk with a cylinder of 4-inch mesh hardware cloth set firmly in the ground. The cylinders should be at least 18-24 inches high. Commercial tree wraps and plastic guards may also be used to prevent gnawing.


The obvious disadvantage of visible fencing and tree guards is aesthetic. Depending on the area and purpose of your garden, you may not want to add wire mesh, even if it deters rabbits. Fortunately, there are other options. Chemical repellents such as those containing thiram, an ectoparasiticide used to prevent fungus and other pests, have proven effective in deterring rabbits. Read and follow label safety directions for use of any chemicals on edible crops.  

Another option is to protect flowers with blood meal. It is less effective when food is scarce, of course. Havahart DeFence is a fast-acting formula containing a high concentration of putrescent egg, an effective scent deterrent. Since the eastern cottontail rabbit feeds near dusk and dawn, the best time to apply repellents is in the evening. If it rains, however, their effectiveness is lost, and retreatment of the area is necessary.  


If deterrents are not working, consider habitat reduction. Most rabbits prefer living in fencerows, by hedges or at the edges of fields, but rarely in dense forests and heavily wooded areas. One way to keep the rabbit population at bay is to remove brush, weed patches and stone piles from the edge of your property and control overgrown vegetation along ditches, banks and fence lines. Although family pets such as cats and dogs can keep rabbits from inhabiting your yard, they might also keep birds from the area as well.  

Trapping during the colder winter months is a final solution if all other attempts have failed, or if the population is relatively small. Bait a wire or wooden box trap with apple slices and set it in areas of dense brush. Transport the captured rabbit at least 5 miles away from the property to discourage a return. The drawback of this method is that it is time consuming and problematic because rabbits are easily injured when trying to remove them from the trap.  

It seems that all of us – two- and four-legged creatures alike – are drawn to the beauty and bounty of the garden. We continue to live out the age-old tale: The vigilant gardener, rake in hand, guarding his potential harvest versus the inquisitive, insatiable bunny devouring tender green shoots. If only Mr. McGregor had buried his fence just little deeper or kept his hedgerow a little neater, perhaps poor Peter Rabbit wouldn’t have lost his father, or his pants. 


A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo by Alan Mitchell, ©istockphoto/mitcha


Posted: 03/15/19   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading