Gardener vs Rabbit – Evanston RoundTable

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If your garden has started to look like a bottomless bowl for rabbits, you’re not the only one frustrated. The rabbit population, which remains at a low hum all winter, explodes in the spring, leaving many gardeners tormented with ruthlessly nibbled plants and an Elmer Fudd-esque determination to wipe out the enemy at all costs. While no method is foolproof, a few simple strategies can help protect vulnerable plants and lessen rabbit damage.

Rabbit population increases in spring (Roundtable file photo)

Our local hopper is the cottontail rabbit and weighs about 3 pounds, according to Lawrence Heaney, Negaunee curator of mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago. Rabbits feed on fresh green vegetation, including grass, clover, dandelions, and various garden plants.

Heaney, who lives in Evanston, said he was unaware of the data reflecting an increase in the rabbit population, but said anecdotally that it appeared to be on the rise. “My wife and I will see a dozen rabbits when we go out for a dog walk after dinner. They are everywhere. »

Barbara Schwarz, co-owner and vice president of Nature’s Perspective Landscaping, an Evanston-based company, agreed that the rabbits came out strong. “Rabbits breed like rabbits, so to speak,” she said. “The population is huge and they eat like crazy.” She speculated that the plethora of rabbits could be partly due to a decline in the local crow population, which was badly hit by the West Nile virus years ago. Schwarz said crows are an important natural predator of rabbits, particularly targeting their young.

Other predators include foxes, coyotes, large hawks and owls, but according to Heaney, domestic animals also play an important role in controlling the rabbit population. “I suspect in Evanston the main predator of rabbits would be house cats, with dogs coming in at #2. Most dogs these days are leashed, so they’re quite constrained.”

When left unmolested, rabbits reproduce amazingly quickly. Mating takes place in March and gestation lasts about 30 days. Females typically produce three or more litters, of three or four rabbits each, during the warmer months. Shortly before giving birth, they dig a shallow pit called a form, often in protected areas of the yard, sometimes in the open. After babies are born, mothers fear attracting predators and rarely return to form.

“They’re paranoid,” Heaney said. “The females only return to the nest once or twice a day to nurse the babies, and the rest of the time the mother stays away.” Predators following her to the nest would also keep their distance. It’s an age-old system that works, which is good news for young bunnies and bad news for old gardeners struggling with uninvited guests. But before handing over your hostas to the invading forces, you can try these methods to keep rabbits away.

Erect a barrier. When traditional fencing fails, Schwarz recommends installing fine-mesh chicken wire to fill in the gaps. Dig about six inches and secure it to the base of the fence to eliminate entry points. “It will help keep rabbits out of your garden,” she said, “but of course if you have even a small hole they will come in.”

Heaney also noted that fences can be effective if gardeners remain vigilant. “[Rabbits are] not going to jump over a fence of the same average height. If they can easily crawl under it they will, but I don’t know of any evidence that they will actually try to dig a hole under it. They’ll push stuff out of the way and maybe scratch a bit, but that’s about it.

Wire cages placed over individual plants can be unsightly, Schwarz said, but they’re another good option for protecting new growth. Many plants, such as oakleaf hydrangeas, attract rabbits when they first grow, but less so once they are established.

Use a deterrent. Garden stores and the Internet are full of rabbit repellents that contain foul-smelling and unpleasant-tasting ingredients such as animal urine, chili, and garlic. These can be sprayed on plants or sprinkled in flower beds to encourage rabbits to look elsewhere for a meal.

“The thing about rabbit sprays,” Schwarz said, “is that every time it rains it washes off, so you have to reapply. It helps a little while it’s on, but fine of course, there is the problem of the April showers.

Heaney offered another option. Take a bar of strongly scented soap and place it around the plants at risk. The smell can be strong enough to drive rabbits away. “Irish Spring was recommended to us by a number of people,” he said. “The advantage is that it has to rain several times before it goes away.”

Release the dogs. But not all puppies have the hunting skills or the inclination to hunt garden rabbits. Many appear to be operating under a secret canine-leporine peace accord that dogs are free to doze on deck and rabbits can frolic with impunity. “It really depends on the type of dog,” Schwarz agreed. She added that rabbits learn very quickly that even the most threatening dogs eventually enter, leaving the yard and its succulents unattended.

Choose rabbit-resistant plants. If all else fails, Schwarz recommended installing plants that rabbits will avoid. “If you really have a terrible problem with rabbits, go for things they avoid. Any type of plant that has a strong scent on the foliage. Things like catnip, yarrow, hyssop, bee balm, some of the hardy geraniums.They don’t tend to like them very well.Salvia is another good one.

Cultivate the love of rabbit. Sure, bunnies will eat your delicious green tulip shoots before they’ve ever had a chance to bloom, but let’s face it, they’re undeniably fluffy and adorable. According to Heaney, there is even more to admire than their looks. He stopped short of classifying them as intelligent, but conceded, “They are intelligent in their own way. They are successful.

Additionally, they have dibs on the territory they occupy. “Rabbits are native,” Heaney said. “They were here long before anyone came here, whether European, American or Native American. There have been rabbits here since the days when plants grew millions of years ago. They belong here.

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