Let’s Talk About Rabbits

Three questions, three reasons, three ideas

Two weeks ago, I did my typical morning look out the window to observe what had changed overnight in the yard. Finches on the feeder. Usual. Wren at typical post on the arbor. Green garden still growing well. And, did I just see something move *inside* the fenced raised bed?! 

Adult Eastern Cottontail looks toward photographer. Rabbit is in a raised bed behind green plastic fencing. Herbs are growing around where she stands.
Good morning. Your fencing merely slowed me down a bit.

This female cottontail had made a nest in the corner, tucked below some sage. She had obviously been working through the night, first chewing a pass-through hole in the plastic fencing, then digging a well in the soft soil mix before topping it off with a blanket of dried grasses. She had not eaten *a thing*. Not even a nibble on the tender pea vines that were just established.

She froze when I went outside and interrupted her, then quickly made her escape out the hole but lingered in the yard. I put a temporary chicken wire patch over the hole – which she came back to investigate (sorry, girl, re-entry denied) – and put soil back around the sage roots that had been exposed by the (thankfully) empty nest.

Three questions about gardening and rabbits

  • Is it possible to love and enjoy both your garden and rabbits?
  • Can you effectively garden with rabbits living in your shared space?
  • Does gardening in a rabbit-friendly space require creativity and compromise?

The answer to each of these is: Yes. 

I know there are growers and gardeners out there who have just become incensed. But you are here to understand ecologies and behaviors. So let’s start with understanding a bit about being Rabbit.

Three reasons rabbits chomp plants

  • A rabbit’s gotta eat. Mostly, rabbits want bulky fiber (grasses and twigs) to keep their unique gastrointestinal tracts functioning well, and high-calorie foods (clover, birdseed, fallen apples) to provide energy. 
  • Rabbits like snacks. Many mammals desire and need variety in their diets to get all necessary micro- and macro-nutrients. They also like varying flavors and textures. (As much as I love french fries, I would not want to eat them for every meal, every day.)
  • Rabbits want to feel safe. Sometimes, your shrub needs to be reshaped in order to make an access path/escape route. Perennials may be remodeled to make a meuse for hidden daytime resting. A lawn or garden corner might be dug up to tuck-in a litter of babies and hide them from predators. 

When a plant’s leaves and/or stems are gone – perhaps just the largest, most inner stems remaining – there was a hungry rabbit. 

When a stem or leaf was bitten off and left on the ground, there was a curious rabbit taste- and texture-testing. Young rabbits are notorious for this as they learn what is and isn’t delicious and nutritious, what has fuzzy hairs or sticky latex or nasty toxins versus what goes down easy.

When a bare patch appears surrounded by dense growth, there was a rabbit who had a snooze, cooled off, or might be readying to have babies.

Three (or more) Ideas to Garden with Rabbits

Young cottontail's head and ears barely visible above a patch of clover, tall grass, dandelions
  • Fill their tummies with the stuff they want and need. Let your grass grow longer and let them trim it. Allow (encourage!) dandelions and clover to grow in your lawn. Both are beneficial to bees and birds, and they provide easy calories to rabbits. Consider a decoy garden of lettuces, kale, and cabbage that you cheaply start from seed. These also have the benefit of serving as a trap crop for cabbage moths and slugs. 
  • Fence and physically guard what you can, and allow for some compromise. Protecting your plants does not have to be “ugly” or merely utilitarian. Chicken wire cloches are pretty cute. You can order online or make them yourself for a fraction of the cost. In a future post, I will share how to use “pet rabbit” cages for what I believe is their best purpose: imprisoning your plants. Even with protection, a determined rabbit (think: Peter Cottontail) will find a way in if he really wants it. Expect some plant loss. Nature gives, Nature takes.  
  • Design your gardens with access paths for urban wildlife. I’m a fan of intentional rocks. A group of stones or a well-placed rock can be attractive while also holding space open in what will be eventual understory of your plantings. Rabbits will not need to chew down your plants <<timber!>> to make escape routes through the garden. Plus, some birds like to stand on rocks to poop (robins, I’m looking at you), hunt for insects and worms under and around them, and toads hide-out beneath them until dinnertime, then eat bugs you don’t want around. Win-win-win! 
Female cottontail peers at photographer. She is under a piece of green plastic fencing and is framed by tomato vines

Here at FUF, we often feel outnumbered by rabbits. And we love it. Sure, I mourned my favorite coleus that one of them destroyed, but in the big picture? It’s ok. And the mom-to-be cottontail has since dug a nest (still empty) in the tomato garden and that’s ok. It’s better than ok, because I’m no Mr. McGregor. Our place is their place. 

Keep growing!