Small Acreage: Gardening Q and A and tips
June 4, 2014
Q: How do I keep rabbits from destroying my new plants?
A: The Eastern cottontail is the most common type of rabbit in urban areas.
This cute, fuzzy critter can cause incredible amounts of damage to new plants in spring and tree and shrub damage in winter. According to Sherry Rindels, horticulture agent for Iowa State University, although cottontails only live 12-18 months, they reproduce like rabbits.
One pair of cottontails can produce up to 18 bunnies each season.
How is the beleaguered gardener able to fend off a hoard of bunnies?
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Rindels says "fortunately, weather, disease, predators, encounters with cars and hunters work together to help control the rabbit population."
Unfortunately, enough rabbits survive to eat the new growth off of tender plants in the garden.
Rindels claims the cottontail will eat almost any plant if they are hungry and preferred food is not available. Annuals, perennials, turfgrass and vegetables are targeted in spring and summer and the bark of tender woody plants is consumed in winter. If food is scarce, the rabbits will consume even plants that are unpalatable or have offensive odors.
To control rabbit damage in the garden, Rindels suggests several alternatives.
Her first suggestion is to install a fence around the area. The fence should be at least 2 feet tall and buried or staked to the ground to keep rabbits from crawling under it. She suggests wire mesh with openings less than 1 inch, such as chicken wire, supported with rebar or wooden posts. The wire needs to be firmly stretched and far enough away from the plants that rabbits cannot reach them by leaning on the fence.
Rindels' second suggestion is to use repellents. Richard Jauron with Iowa State University horticulturist agrees. He states, "Taste repellents, such as thiram and ziram (Rabbit Scat) make plants distasteful. Odor repellents, such as Hinder (ammonium soaps), repel rabbits from treated areas by their strong odor. Unfortunately, repellents are not always effective. Rabbits may become accustomed to the disagreeable odor. Others may ignore the poor taste. In addition, most repellents must be reapplied after heavy rains [or irrigation]."
Both agree that it is very important to read the label prior to use and follow the directions as written on the container.
Rindel and Jauron also advise removal of brush, trash or other debris piles that provide safe places for rabbits to hide. Cottontails avoid large open areas and only come out of cover to feed.
Finding plants that are truly rabbit resistant is difficult. According to Sandra Mason, Extension Educator at the University of Illinois, "Rabbits really love peas, beans and beets. Only a few crops, corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes suffer little damage from rabbits."
Mason states that rabbits "prefer plants in the rose family including roses, black and red raspberries, blackberries, apple, cherry and plum trees."
For more information on plants that tend to be more resistant to rabbit damage in Colorado, refer to the CSU Extension website at http://www.ext.colostate.edu.
■ It's hard to complain about the rain we've had, when we're usually wishing it would rain.
One note of caution — wait until soils have dried out from recent rains before tilling up and working the soil.
Tilling or working wet soil tends to compress soil particles thus making the soil more compact. With compacted soil, air and water penetration becomes very difficult and can pose serious soil and drainage problems down the road.
Tilling wet soil also tends to cause the soil to clump into clods that become very difficult to break up after they dry.
Wait to work your soil until it is dry or dry enough that when you pick it up it crumbles apart instead of making a wet, muddy ball.
■ Many herbs thrive in soils of widely varying pH levels so they are good plants for our high pH soils.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and common oregano (Origanum vulgare) are well adapted to pH levels between 4.5 and 8.7 and mint (Mentha spicata), can grow in soils with a pH of 4.5 – 7.5. Most herbs need no fertilizer and little water, so water only during prolonged dry spells.
If a fungus develops on your herbs after all our rain, cut them back to encourage healthy new growth.
The best time to harvest most herbs is just before flowering, when the leaves contain the maximum essential oils. Cut herbs on a sunny day, early in the morning after the dew has dried.
■Pinch back fall-blooming perennials like chrysanthemums and aster several times before July 4. Pinching after mid July may delay flowering. Or just cut asters back by one half in early to mid-June. Asters can get tall and floppy so pinching or cutting back may reduce the need for staking.❖