For an animal that isn’t overly large, rabbits sure can do a lot of damage in the garden! Rabbits don’t hibernate for the winter and have to eat to stay alive – When the weather turns cold, rabbits will turn to anything that is still alive, including your shrubs and groundcovers. If you’ve had rabbit damage in your garden in the past, don’t despair. We’ve tried just about anything on the nursery, so read on to find out what actually works!
Plant Shrubs the Rabbits Won’t Eat
Rabbits have their preferences, and some shrubs just aren’t attractive to rabbits. While planting rabbit-resistant shrubs won’t guarantee a complete end to the damage, you may at least see less damage.
Red Osier Dogwood
This native shrub (Cornus sericea ) is a very rabbit-resistant plant, and it offers good winter form, to boot. RedOsier Dogwood grows around 8-10 feet tall, though there have been some more compact varieties released in the last few years.
We’ve never had any problems on Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) with rabbits in the Midwest – Though they can be a challenge to grow, they are very resistant to rabbit damage. Ironclad Catawba hybrids are more reliable than the straight species, and they tend to be rabbit resistant as well.
As an odd side note, rabbits love Rosebay rhododendron ( R. maximum) – They won’t eat mature ones, but we’ve had more than a few seedling Rosebays completely cleaned off over the winter.
Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus ) is a slightly toxic plant, so the rabbits completely avoid it. It makes a good screening shrub, able to take a reasonable amount of sun along with dense shade. The fruit-scented flowers make a good presence in the summer garden, and they are reasonably fast-growing.
Fothergilla is hit-and-miss as far as rabbits go – We’ve never had much trouble other than occasional nibbling. Rabbits will bite off small stems of Fothergilla, but they don’t eat them. Protect Fothergilla for a year or two to let it get established, and you shouldn’t have any trouble.
We grow both Hydrangea arborescens (Smooth Hydrangea) and Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea), and neither of them have had any rabbit damage. Oakleaf hydrangea can suffer from winterkill in the northern parts of Zone 5, as we found in the winter of 2013-2014, but they spring back fairly quickly. Smooth hydrangea is completely cold hardy, and makes a great informal shrub.
Rabbits won’t bother holly, especially the prickly American Holly, Ilex opaca. Inkberry Holly (I. glabra) makes another good evergreen holly; the deciduous hollies are reliable as well.
Bayberry is a tough, reliable landscape shrub. Though it doesn’t offer much in the way of colorful flowers or foliage, it is able to grow in just about any kind of soil, even the most difficult ones. Bayberry is often used as a commercial landscaping shrub because of its tenacity and tolerance of pollution – In addition to this, rabbits will not touch it. The aromatic bark is off-putting to the rabbits, and they leave the shrubs alone.
We’ve had rabbits nibble spicebush seedlings that we just planted, but they don’t eat the twigs. After trying them once, they tend to leave this shrub alone. Spicebush is a beautiful native shrub for all seasons – It is one of the earliest-blooming shrubs in the Eastern Forests, sometimes opening at the end of March. These flowers offer vital pollen and nectar for the first pollinators to emerge; spicebush is also a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly larvae. Female plants produce bright red berries in the fall, which contrast nicely with the clear yellow foliage. Add to that, all parts of this shrub smell really good!
Construct a Rabbit Fence
If you’ve got a small garden area you’re worried about, rabbits can be kept out with a simple line of 3-foot fencing. Rolls of 3-foot wire fencing are readily available from your local hardware store, or even on Amazon. You will need some basic wood stakes as well – We use a lot of 3-foot erosion control stakes for this purpose. Make sure to bury at least 6 inches of the wire fencing in a trench so the rabbits don’t try to burrow under the fence.
In areas that receive a lot of snow, it’s important to make sure the fence sticks up at least 2-1/2 feet above the snow line, so plan accordingly when you install the fence.
In the main season, a fence doesn’t have to be a fixed object – Some plants, rabbits can’t stand. Marigolds are especially effective as rabbit repellants, due to their strong smell. Plant a hedge of marigolds around sensitive plants, and you won’t have any rabbit problems! Of course, this method really only works in the frost-free season, but it does work. It is especially good to use if you’d rather not have to put up a semi-permanent low fence around everything.
Protect the Most Vulnerable Plants
For shrubs that the rabbits really like to eat, you can make a simple fence around just the shrub. You’ll just need the same 3-foot wire fencing above, some wood stakes, and a pack of reusable zip ties. Roll out the fencing so it completely encircles the shrub, leaving a few inches to prevent branches from rubbing on the fence. Cut the fence and overlap the ends, attaching to a wood stake with cable ties.
Low-growing shrubs and groundcovers can be protected with thin bamboo stakes placed 4 inches apart on a diagonal grid – As long as the stakes are about 4 inches taller than the groundcover, the rabbits won’t bother the plants. Of course, this does look somewhat unusual, so this method is best used for times of the year that the rabbits tend to do the most damage, like winter and early Spring.
Some people will even go as far as putting plastic forks into the ground over garden areas – This may get some askance glances from your neighbors, but it definitely works! This method will keep cats from digging in your garden, as well.
Use a Rabbit Repellant
A lot of people swear by this method, but we can’t vouch for it as we’ve never used this. The big disadvantage is that you have to keep reapplying the spray whenever it rains – It also seems hit-and-miss, especially in the winter when rabbits will eat just about anything! Over in Amazon Land, “Liquid Fence” seems to get the highest reviews.
If you’d rather bootstrap your own repellant, cat or dog hair placed in a sachet and hung in the garden will do the trick. Some people even use their own urine, which is effective – This can cause unpleasant smells in the garden, so use it as a last resort…
Make it More Attractive Somewhere Else
The last step can be a bit subjective and difficult – If rabbits have plenty of food and shelter elsewhere, they should stay away from your garden! If you’ve got a large yard you could make a “rabbit-friendly” corner of the yard, with brushpiles and plenty of food. Put out some clover hay and they’ll stay where the best food is! Rabbits are opportunists, and if they have good, high-nutrient food, they’ll take it over a lower nutrition food, which most tree and shrub barks would be.