The evil forces that surround us (or, baby bunnies)

By “evil forces,” I am of course referring to baby bunnies. You’re a gardener, so you knew that, right? These horrible pests are now about the size of my fist, and there is one hanging out in each of my perennial beds.

Here is a list of the native plants rabbits most  like to eat, in order of preference, as I have discerned it over 20 years of gardening on this spot: asters and phlox of all species (tied for first place), boltonia, rudbeckia, Culver’s root (Veronicastrum), spiderwort (Trandescantia), coreopsis, liatris, and, of course, strawberries (only the fruit). I didn’t even include echinacea, because it’s been years since I’ve been able to keep one alive, they love it so.  We also have deer and woodchucks, among other wild critters, but the rabbits, due no doubt to their to propensity to multiply like, well, rabbits, seem to do the most damage.

However, I am smarter than they are, so I do manage to grow all these plants, with varying degrees of success from year to year. Last year was the worst I ever experienced. The preceding winter was exceptionally mild, so relatively few critters had been killed off. They repeatedly ate perennial plants to the ground, so not a single phlox or boltonia  or Culver’s root bloomed. I did get a few asters, mostly from plants in pots or tucked far back in the borders. But last year was very unusual.

This past winter was quite cold, and this season is more typical: the rabbits are enjoying my garden, a bit more than I think they should, but most plants are doing fine. (And note that even the plants that didn’t manage to bloom last year are back this year on their own–I didn’t replant them. Native perennials are tough.)

I do have several strategies for minimizing rabbit damage to perennials, and I’ll share three important rules with you. But first, here’s how I figured this all out: My first foray into native plant gardening involved planting 7 grey dogwood shrubs across the backyard. All were immediately eaten down to the ground. My next attempt involved many more plants–upwards of 100 woody plants, all very small. Most survived. So Elaine’s first rule of outwitting furry critters is to plant lots of plants and many of each species.

Those 100 plants were scattered randomly, not planted in neat rows or groupings by species. That’s now nature does it, and I like the random look. But it also helps outwit the pests: if a rabbit likes phlox, I want to make it really hard for him or her to find all the phlox. And these furry guys aren’t really that smart–they tend to return to the same plant over and over, leaving the rest of that species to grow undisturbed. So Elaine’s second rule is to mix it up.

Note that some plants don’t get eaten. These include milkweeds, penstemon, native grasses, sundrops, ferns, and columbine. I tuck the most attractive plants among these distasteful ones as a kind of camouflage–a couple of phlox in the center of a group of milkweeds. So the third rule is to use the critter’s tastes to your advantage.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned poison, or traps, or dynamite, or firearms, all of which have crossed my mind (they are illegal here). I have tried repellents, including our own dog, who spends lots of time in the backyard, but none seem to work. Rabbits invariably make their nests just outside the range of the dog’s chain, and they are not repelled by the scent of fox urine or dog hair or anything else I am aware of.

And then there are the critters in the vegetable garden and herb plot. Don’t get me started.

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