Rabbits love tender new veggie seedlings and can cause no end of aggravation for a home food gardener.
And once they have a reliable food source with shelter nearby, rabbits will start breeding like… rabbits!
There are a number of techniques for keeping rabbits out of the garden, some more effective than others.
Fences and other physical barriers are the most reliable as long as they are constructed effectively. But physical barriers are not always desirable for various reasons.
Other rabbit deterrents, scare tactics, strategic plant selection or population control measures might be a better fit for you, depending on your rabbit situation.
Ideally, try adopting a combination of these techniques, with barriers around your veggie bed or most valued plants and simple deterrents or less rabbit friendly plant selections for your ornamental beds.
If you’re not sure which critters are eating the plants in your garden, there are a few clues that can tip you off if rabbits are the culprits. Rabbits tend to feed at night and are most active at dawn and dusk.
Looking at the damaged plants, if you see clean cuts rather than jagged edges the damage is most likely from rabbits with their long, sharp teeth. They will favor new seedlings and young plants first.
Obviously, rabbits can only feed on plants within their reach so if you’re seeing damage above knee height it’s probably not from rabbits.
Other clues include round, pellet-like rabbit droppings, which are smaller than deer droppings – about the size of a pea. You may notice tufts of fur and signs of digging or bedding down, particularly in your compost or brush piles.
You may also see signs of chewing damage to your hoses or irrigation lines. If you have a garden shed, check it for any gaps that a rabbit could squeeze through and for signs of nesting activity.
Part 1. Physical Barriers
Being quite small creatures, one would think it would be relatively easy to keep rabbits out of the garden with a low fence.
However, rabbits are wily animals who will chew through plastic mesh, squeeze through a small gap in a fence, burrow their way under a fence or simply jump over a fence that’s not quite high enough.
When it comes to rabbit fencing, size matters. The size of the gauge of wire mesh or hardware cloth you use will determine whether or not baby bunnies can squeeze through the openings. Look for wire mesh in one-inch gauge or smaller.
And, yes, you will definitely want to use wire or other metal fencing materials if you don’t want to find holes chewed through your handiwork.
Height matters too, some sources say two feet should be sufficient but there are reports of rabbits jumping two-foot fences. To be on the safe side, three to four feet should do the trick.
The trickier part of rabbit fencing, though, is the part you don’t see. If you really want to keep rabbits out of your garden you’ll have to go to the trouble of burying your fencing materials so they can’t dig their way under your fence.
It’s a bit more work, but you can make your fence more secure by taking the time to dig a trench around the perimeter of your fenced area, bend your fencing material outward in an L-shape and bury it.
This way even if rabbits do start to dig, they will run into the wire mesh underground. The deeper you can bury it the better, but about six inches to a foot should be sufficient.
Pay special attention to your fence gate. You wouldn’t want to spend all that work digging and burying your fencing materials, just to leave a gap along the edge of the gate that a rabbit could squeeze through.
Overlap pieces of wire mesh along the edges of the gate to ensure the fence is impenetrable. For added security, one two lines of electric fencing wire a few inches from the bottom edges of the fence will further deter rabbits from trying to find a way through your fence.
Netting or Row Covers
Plastic netting or cloth row covers might act as a deterrent for an ambivalent rabbit, but any determined rabbit will chew right through to get at the tasty veggies underneath.
Fine wire mesh will be a much more effective barrier and can be placed over garden beds on a rectangular cage or hoop frame. Bunnies still may try to squeeze under the bottom edge or dig their way under.
Consequently, this technique will be more effective when placed over a wooden framed raised bed. Wire mesh can also be formed into a cylinder to protect newly planted trees and shrubs from rabbit damage.
Part 2. Rabit Deterrents
Rabbits are prey animals so it is important to them to have convenient places to hide wherever they go.
By clearing away any brush piles, tall grasses, thicket areas or other hiding spots in your yard, you will reduce the likelihood that rabbits will want to spend much time munching in your garden.
A crawl space under your porch, bushy shrubs or piles of wood, rocks or other debris lying around your yard invites rabbits by providing ample shelter and places for them to hide from predators.
Strong smells can deter rabbits. There may be a couple of reasons why this method can be effective.
One is because any strong scent could mask the scent of an approaching predator, so rabbits will want to avoid putting themselves in this potentially dangerous situation. The other reason is simply that the scent itself mimics the scent of a rabbit predator.
You can make a homemade rabbit repellent spray or purchase a commercial spray online or at a local garden store. Fancy backpack sprayers are available at some garden centers or simply reuse an old spray bottle.
Some commercial products are also offered in a granular form that can be sprinkled in garden beds around the plants you want to protect. With commercial products read the labels carefully as some are not intended to be sprayed on food plants.
With any scent spray, it is important to remember that they will need to be reapplied regularly, including after every rainfall.
Some commercial products are formulated to last longer and may not need to be applied as often. Rabbits may also become accustomed to a certain scent over time and realize it’s not a threat. Alternating your rabbit repellents may prolong the effectiveness of them.
Some gardeners swear by the simple method of grating bar soap over the plants they want to protect. Garlic and hot chilies can have a similar effect.
You can make a spray by putting fresh garlic, chili flakes and water in the blender, or simply sprinkle garlic and chili powder around your garden.
Scents that scare away rabbits by mimicking predator scents include things like blood meal, urine, droppings or hair from potential predator animals (dog, cat, human, fox, etc).
If you have an indoor cat you could try disposing of its litter box waste in discreet areas of otherwise unprotected garden beds. The smell of cat droppings should keep the rabbits away. Rags dipped in household ammonia and placed in the garden will mimic the scent of predator urine.
Decoy predators can work to scare rabbits away. Try placing a ceramic owl or a plastic snake in your garden. Move them around often to keep the rabbits on alert.
If you’re lucky this might be enough to convince the bunnies that your garden is not a safe place to have a snack!
If your decoy predators don’t work, perhaps you can enlist the help of your pets.
Dogs and cats may chase and frighten rabbits, even if they aren’t fast enough to catch them. Once they’ve returned indoors their lingering scent in your yard should help to keep the bunnies at bay.
Spinning pinwheels and other moving garden decorations may startle rabbits enough to get them to move on. A motion activated sprinkler can have a similar effect.
Havahart, a company specializing in conscientious wild animal control products, offers a solar powered hoseless motion activated sprinkler that can easily be moved around the garden to keep the bunnies hopping.
There are also ultrasonic repellent devices that are designed to scare rabbits away with high pitched noise that is not audible to humans. The effectiveness of these devices seems to be mixed as rabbits become accustomed to the noise over time.
Part 3. Plant Selection
Rabbit Attracting Plants
Unfortunately for the home gardener, the list of plants rabbits enjoy is a long one. New seedlings of your annual vegetables are in particular danger, as rabbits love young tender edibles.
Beans, peas, carrot tops, parsley, lettuce and spinach are rabbit favorites and will need heavy protection. Rabbits will also happily mow down your lawn to the ground if they’re hungry.
Berries and fruit trees are not safe either. In winter if they are hungry, rabbits will eat the bark off sweet-tasting trees such as maples or fruit trees.
If they manage to girdle the tree by chewing off a circle of bark around the full circumference, this type of damage will be enough to kill a tree.
Protection with a tree cage is vital, especially with young trees. Once a tree is mature its bark hardens making it less vulnerable to rabbit damage.
Many flowers and landscaping plants are also in danger of rabbit damage as well.
Lupines, sweet peas, asters, lilies, pansies, tulips, impatiens and violets are tasty floral treats for your furry visitors.
Hostas, hydrangeas, spirea, dogwood, linden and hawthorne are also likely targets in your ornamental beds.
Rabbit Resistant Plants
Although the list of plants rabbits don’t like is not nearly as long as the list of those they do like, there are some plants that rabbits are less likely to munch on.
In general, plants with strong scents, thick fuzzy leaves, thorny branches or milky sap are less likely to attract rabbits, but that doesn’t mean they never will.
In your edible garden your onions, garlic, rhubarb, potatoes, tomatoes, asparagus and artichokes should be relatively safe from rabbit damage.
Gooseberries, currants and thorny cane fruits seem to be less likely victims as well. Unfortunately, though, most plants that are considered edible by humans are also attractive to rabbits, which is why this list is a relatively short one.
There are a few more options for your ornamental beds. Scented herbs such as lavender, rosemary, mint, sage, oregano and tarragon should be fairly safe.
There are a few other ornamental and landscaping plants that don’t seem to interest rabbits much, such as agave, astilbe, boxwood, columbine, cotoneaster, daylily, daffodil, euphorbia, foxglove, geranium, holly, iris, lamb’s ear, marigold, spirea, yew and yucca.
However, keep in mind that your neighborhood rabbits may not have read this list and might just have their own ideas about what they like or don’t like for dinner.
Part 4. Population Control
Rabbits are known for their exceptional ability to reproduce.
This is a function of their place in the food chain as prey animals. Even if food and shelter are scarce, rabbits will continue to make babies. Rabbits can start breeding when they are only a few months old and their gestation only lasts about a month.
Each litter can produce a dozen or more baby bunnies and the mother can become pregnant again shortly after giving birth. That means each mama rabbit can produce over a hundred offspring every year!
If you are in the unfortunate case of having a serious rabbit problem, there are a few different routes you can take to begin dealing with this sometimes complicated issue.
Patience will be needed as there are often hurdles to overcome when balancing the competing interests of homeowners, local lawmakers, animal conservation officers and animal right activists.
Identifying Rabbit Species
One of the first steps in determining your course of action with a serious rabbit problem is determining what type of rabbits you are dealing with.
The bylaws in your area may be different depending on whether they are wild native rabbits or a feral population made up of the offspring of domesticated rabbits that have been released.
Most wild rabbits have a brown coat, although in colder areas some species will develop a white coat in the winter to blend in with the snow.
If you are seeing white rabbits in summer or black or spotted rabbits at any time, then you are most likely dealing with a feral population and not a native species.
Jackrabbits, cottontails and a number of other hares are the most common species of wild rabbits in North America.
In order to stay cool in hot climates, jackrabbits have developed distinctively long ears and they can also be quite large in size. As their name suggests, cottontails have a small cotton ball of a tail at the base of their usually brown coat.
Cottontails are some of the most common wild rabbit species across North America. Rabbit species that have white coats in the winter include both the Arctic and Snowshoe Hare.
Feral rabbit colonies have become an unfortunate problem in many communities where unwitting owners have decided they no longer want their pet bunnies.
They release them into a location where there is already a known feral population, thinking their rabbit will have a happy life with other rabbits. However, domesticated rabbits often do not survive when they are abandoned.
They lack the necessary skills to forage and create shelter and their breeding has left them without the genetic traits needed for survival, such as a camouflaged coat. Members of established feral colonies can be territorial and aggressive towards newcomers as well.
Different towns and cities have dealt with major rabbit problems in a variety of ways. Everything from trapping and culling to spaying and relocation programs has been tried.
Most of these methods come with some expense and some rabbit relocation programs have cost many thousands of dollars.
Part 5. Get Rid Of Rabbits
If you find a rabbit nest in your yard, you’ll need to check out your local bylaws to determine what you can or cannot do about it.
Wild native species may be protected in your area, in which case you will need to leave the nest alone until the babies are able to fend for themselves.
This should only take about three weeks and the best thing you can do for them is to stay away and leave the nest undisturbed as much as possible.
Absolutely do not handle wild rabbit babies both for their benefit and yours. Wild rabbits have been associated with the spread of the disease Tularemia to humans, although this is uncommon.
If you think you might have a feral population nesting in your yard then that is an entirely different matter and could be much more problematic.
Start by contacting your local animal control officers to report the issue and determine if it is part of a larger problem in your area.
In either the case of a wild or feral rabbit nest in your yard, you can still use the barrier, repellent and scare tactics mentioned above to try to protect your garden as much as you can until the rabbit family has moved on (or been evicted!).
Fortunately for gardeners and unfortunately for rabbits, bunnies are low on the food chain and have a long list of potential predators.
Raccoons, foxes, hawks, owls, eagles and many other larger predatory animals will eat rabbits if they can catch them. Even pet dogs and cats have been known to attack rabbits.
Taking care not to interfere with the habitat needs of common rabbit predators should help to keep the population under some measure of control.
If all else fails, trapping may be an option, but check out the local bylaws and recommendations in your area before you consider this option.
Rabbit relocation may seem like a good idea, but often causes a whole host of other problems and can be stressful and cruel to the rabbits involved.
Some people believe that humane euthanasia is kinder than releasing rabbits into an unfamiliar environment. Make sure you know what you are doing if you decide to take this route.
Love them or hate them, rabbits are here to stay. It’s up to us as gardeners to find a balance we can live with by protecting our most valued plants.
Meanwhile, we may need to accept that some plant damage might be the price we pay to be part of an incredible ecosystem of so many diverse forms of life.
It would be really helpful to people if you would post down below what has (and hasn’t) worked for you for keeping rabbits out of the garden. Thanks!