Rabbits – Arghh!

Almost all gardens have a predator problem, mammals who use the garden as an all-you-can-eat buffet. For many, deer are the big issue.  Not in my garden – since I let the briar grow in along their preferred pathway, I am not on their primary feeding route.

For me, it’s the rabbits.  Those cute little critters seem to munch on all the best plants. There’s not much I can do to keep them out, except for the fence around the vegetable garden.  Spraying with repellants is more work than I am willing to do and is not reliably effective anyway. So mostly I just hope the coyotes, foxes and hawks have a good hunting season, and find other ways to cope.

Woody Plants

For a while, I thought that most of my woody shrubs would be immune, and mostly they are when they are tall and mature enough.  But any tender branches below 8” tall are fair game.  New Jersey tea, low-bush blueberry and landscape roses have all been eaten, and only the blueberry has come back.  The Virginia sweetspire, black huckleberry, and sweet fern are doing fine so far, as are all the taller shrubs like chokeberry and beach plum.

I also learned to my chagrin that rabbits will eat the bark of young trees with sweeter sap and bark – they girdled the bark of a paper-bark maple last spring. Now, I protect young trees with burlap and hardware cloth. For shrubs, I am either buying taller plants or surrounding them with chicken wire while they are small.

Herbaceous Plants

There’s very little in this category they won’t try, especially if it is tender and green and they are hungry. In general, they shy away from plants that are aromatic, fuzzy, prickly, leathery, or that have sap.  Herbs, ferns, mints, lamb’s ears, and sedums have proved safe, for instance.

As I start designing my 2019 plantings, I will have rabbit-proofing on my mind.  My strategy will be three-fold:

  • Focus on plants they don’t like and avoid the ones they do like. This is an ongoing exercise – see the charts below to find out what I have learned so far.
  • Provide alternative food – like the clover and violets in my Cape Cod lawn. Now if they only would eat ground ivy!
  • Try a technique I found in Larry Weamer’s terrific book Garden Revolution: intermingling close plantings of plants rabbits like with those they won’t touch. The theory is they will pass over the good plants to avoid the bad ones.

This spring, I am expanding the woodland garden and need some low plantings at the edge, right in prime rabbit territory.  To find some plants, I started with a list of plants that like sandy/acidic soils and shade, then cross-referenced that list with the “Rabbit tolerant” evaluations in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder (a terrific resource).   I have found three that I am going to try next spring – Geranium maculatum, Tiarella cordofolia, and Phlox stolonifera.  Keep your fingers crossed!

Plant Tables

I’m tracking the list of their favorites from my gardens – planting any of these is pretty much a waste of time and money.  But the list of plants they have avoided is longer than I expected.  Note that this list is not complete, and your experience may be different – different rabbit families have different tastes!

Above: Rabbits love: Blazing star (Liatris spicata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpura), and New England aster (Symphotrichum nova-angliae)

Plants Rabbits Eat

Native Non-Native
Almost anything in the Aster family Daylilies (Hemerocallis) – when plants are small; once they are 6” tall rabbits leave them alone
False indigo (Baptisia) – sometimes they chew off the stem, decapitating the plant Hosta  – same as daylilies
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Coneflower (Echinacea)
Coral bells (Heuchera) – all species and most cultivars
Blazing star (Liatris)
Above: Plants rabbits don’t like: wild geranium (geranium maculatum), foamflower (tiarella cordifolia), phlox (unidentified)

Plants Rabbits Don’t Eat Often

Native Non-Native
Anemone Daffodil
Anise Hyssop (Agastache) Herbs (thyme, mint, basil, oregano, chives)
Beards tongue (Penstemon) Sedum (e.g. Autumn Joy)
Bee balm (Monarda) Foxglove
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) Santolina
Blanketflower (Gaillardia) Iris
Blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) Salvia
Blue star (Amsonia) Geranium (e.g. ‘Rozanne’)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) Lavender
Columbine (Acquilegia) Veronica
Coreopsis (sometimes) Geum
Evening primrose (Oenothera) Russian sage
Ferns Astilbe
Goldenrod (Solidago) Catmint
Helenium Lamb’s ears
Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium) Epimedium
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanicum) Allium
Species and swamp milkweed (Asclepias) Peony
Yarrow (Achillea) Sea holly (Eryngium)
Lady’s mantle