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Keeping Peter Cottontail out of your yard and garden

"Growing Together" columnist Don Kinzler says a multi-pronged approach is usually necessary to keep rabbits out of flower and vegetable gardents.

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The best way to prevent rabbit damage is with small mesh fencing. David Samson / The Forum

Did you hear about the rabbits who went on strike? They wanted a higher celery.

Unfortunately, rabbits rarely go on hunger strike, and our flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and landscapes offer a smorgasbord of fresh delicacies. After a lean winter diet of bare twigs, rabbits are hungry for everything our gardens have to offer.

How can we stop rabbits from eating our tulips, hosta, petunias, lettuce, and anything else they crave? We’re all looking for a magic elixir that will put an end to our rabbit troubles, once and for all.

What is the secret to keeping rabbits away? Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. The closest thing to a panacea to cure everyone’s problem is a fence.

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A rabbit munches on a blade of grass for breakfast June 10, 2009, in south Fargo. Garden columnist Don Kinzler says a multi-pronged approach is usually necessary to keep rabbits out of vegetable and flower gardens. Forum file photo

A multi-pronged approach is usually necessary, and here are the possibilities:

Encourage predators. Anything communities do to encourage hawks, owls, and foxes will help. A lack of natural predators is a reason in-town rabbits thrive.

Reduce habitat. Remove brush, firewood stacks, and other materials where rabbits hide. Install wire skirting around open porches, decks and under sheds that provide safe haven.

Fencing. Although not practical everywhere, a wire fence with one-inch mesh kept close to the ground, or buried slightly, is the most reliable way to exclude rabbits. Wooden fences can be rabbit-proofed by adding wire to gaps.

Circles of chicken wire can be placed around individual valuable perennial flowers that have a history of rabbit predation.

A coworker, North Dakota State University Extension Horticulturist Esther McGinnis, reports, “Rabbits love tender leaves such as lettuce and spinach. If you can fence only a portion of your vegetable garden, grow vegetables that are less palatable in the unfenced area. Less preferred vegetables include onions, garlic, corn, asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb, cucumbers and squash.”

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Traps. Apples, carrots and cabbage can lure rabbits into traps. Before catching and releasing elsewhere, be certain additional rabbits are desired in the new location.

Gadgets. Pie pans, water-filled jars, fake owls, plastic snakes, plastic coyotes, flashing lights and ultrasonic devices can work for a short time, but need to be moved almost daily.

Rabbit-proof plants. What can we plant that rabbits won’t eat? Even plants listed as “safe” have all been consumed if rabbits are hungry enough. Although rabbits have preferences, choosing plants from a non-rabbit list can prove unreliable.

McGinnis says, “Keep in mind that no plant is completely safe because individual rabbits have their own taste preferences and may be desperate for food, depending upon the time of year. I once planted a row of stinky marigolds around my garden to test whether the plants could serve as a deterrent. The rabbits in my area thought the marigold flowers were a gourmet treat!”

Shooting. Local ordinances vary, but it’s unlawful to discharge firearms including air rifles, pellet guns, and BB pistols in many cities and towns.

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Repellents work by creating an odor offensive to rabbits or making the leaves taste bad. David Samson / The Forum

Repellents. We’re all awaiting the one spray that will solve our rabbit problem without needing frequent application. Repellents make plants taste bad or create an odor. Results vary widely by location and circumstance, which is why some materials work for some people and not others, like mothballs, soap, human hair, fox urine, old shoes, and marigolds.

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Among the products most recommended by soil conservation districts and university researchers are Liquid Fence and Plantskydd. The former contains ingredients like putrefied eggs, garlic, milk casein and soap. Plantskydd is a blood derivative. Other brands containing the same ingredients might be equally as effective.

A relatively new repellent worth considering, with some systemic qualities, is Repellex granules. This pepper-based product was developed through research at University of Minnesota - Duluth, and is for non-edibles only.

McGinnis adds, “The vast majority of rabbit repellents cannot be applied directly to vegetables or other edible crops. These repellents coat the foliage and stems with hot pepper, putrefied eggs, predator urine or other chemicals that make the plants taste or smell foul. They are suitable for landscape plants and not for plants that will be consumed by humans.

“If using a repellent that is not labeled for edible plants, consider spraying the odor repellent on the soil around the perimeter of the plants rather than on the vegetables that you will consume. When in doubt, thoroughly read the label.”

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.

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Don Kinzler, "Growing Together" and "Fielding Questions" columnist.

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Don Kinzler, "Growing Together" and "Fielding Questions" columnist.

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