Dakota Gardener: Protecting your vegetable garden from pesky rabbits

Esther McGinnis
North Dakota State University Extension
Rabbits can be damaging in a vegetable garden.

As a child, I used to feel great sympathy for fluffy little Peter Rabbit in his battle to obtain Mr. McGregor’s prized lettuce.

As an adult growing a vegetable garden as well as costly ornamental plants, my sympathies have changed. Nothing is more devastating than discovering that a row of young pea shoots has been clipped to the ground overnight.

What are your options?

When it comes to your vegetable garden, consider elevating the height. Raised garden beds can place those succulent vegetables beyond the reach of rabbits.

Surprisingly, rabbits have a limited vertical jump height. A raised garden bed of 24 inches or higher is sufficient to deter cottontail rabbits. If jackrabbits (or the mythical jackalope) are the problem, the raised bed should be at least 36 inches high. Your back will thank you for the raised bed!

If you have an in-ground garden, fine-mesh fencing is the best bet. Those cute baby rabbits have no problems squeezing through a chain link fence. One-inch mesh such as chicken wire is small enough to deter the smallest rabbit.

Make sure that the bottom of the fence is snug to the ground or better yet, buried a few inches to deter the most determined rabbit. If you have a chain link fence, you can line the bottom with chicken wire to make it rabbit-proof.

Rabbits love tender leaves such as lettuce and spinach. If you can fence only a portion of your 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.

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!

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.

Finally, make your yard an inhospitable place for rabbits. Fill in existing burrows. American rabbits do not dig burrows but rather utilize abandoned dens from other mammals. Eliminate debris and brush piles. If you have rabbits nesting under your deck, consider enclosing the area.

Don’t feel bad if you feel more in common with Mr. McGregor than with Peter Rabbit. We adults just want to be able to harvest the fruits of our labor.

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/directory/counties.