Q: I have rabbits eating my pansies! I love animals but is there anyway to discourage the rabbits without harming them?
A: Both rabbits and caterpillars can consume pansies in fall. To distinguish between the two, examine your pansy leaves. If a leaf has small “notches” around the edge or is only partially consumed back to the mid-vein, caterpillars are the culprit. If the whole plant is eaten to the ground, rabbits did it. If you diagnose caterpillars, spray the pansies with an outdoor insecticide labeled for use on flowers. If you still blame rabbits, try combinations of smell and taste repellents against them. Distasteful though it may be, one friend picks up dog droppings with a scoop and hides them near her pansies. She reports fewer rabbit problems as a result.
Ro-Pel is one commercial product that gives leaves a bitter taste. Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper sprays can be mixed at home but be sure to test them on a few leaves before spraying the whole pansy bed. Some of the home remedy sprays have been known to scorch leaves when they are too concentrated.
Most of our ideas about rabbits come from fiction. As children, our parents read to us about Beatrix Potter’s mischievous Peter Rabbit or perhaps Joel Chandler Harris’s cunning Brer Rabbit. Both were renowned for their resourcefulness in escaping enemies by diving under fences or into briar patches. The Easter bunny was so elusive that we never did see him!
According to wildlife biologist Jeff Jackson, “Most garden rabbits are brown to gray in color. If you see a white tail as the rabbit bounds away, it’s an Eastern cottontail. Eastern cottontails reproduce fast and die young. Their gestation period is 30 days. Young weigh about two ounces and are ready to leave the nest in two weeks. In one year females may have three or more litters of three to six young. Most get gobbled up by predators. Disease kills some. Lucky rabbits may live a year. Probably only one in a hundred sees his third birthday.
“Most rabbits live their whole lives in a home range of one to five acres. Rabbits need thick cover and lots of low-growing greens to become numerous. Blackberry thickets in old fields are good habitat. Don’t expect to find many rabbits in dense, shady forests with little green growth on the ground. Sometimes gardens appeal to rabbits. One rabbit can do a lot of damage. He may eat young sprouts, fell mature plants, and girdle bark from young fruit trees.
“What can a gardener do to get rid of rabbits? Eliminate cover if you can. Then try trapping. Make a box trap and set it at the edge of your garden. Dry cob corn or an old apple is good bait. Perhaps the best bait is a handful of fresh rabbit droppings. Rabbits will go in to sniff them to see what other rabbit has been in there. Some repellents do work. Thiram-based (and other bitter substances) repellents will work on ornamental plants. Paint the repellent on tree trunks or woody stems.
“Thiram isn’t labeled for edible plant parts. A gardener’s best bet, if rabbits are a serious hindrance, is to fence the garden with a 30-inch wide strip of one-inch mesh chicken wire. It must be tight to the ground or rabbits will get under. A cylinder of the mesh will protect stems of trees and shrubs.”