With hope, I planted 24 seedlings of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts on an October day. By mid-November only two hadn’t been eaten down to the ground by rabbits. This was my first fall in a new house and gardening in a new location, and I hadn’t known how malevolent those cute cottontails could be.
This post is about how I’ve learned to protect my vegetables and young fruit trees over the ensuing seven years. My methods include using various barriers and predators. It’s likely that one of these techniques, or a combination of them, can help keep your plants growing to feed you rather than the wildlife, too.
Barriers for vegetable protection
Here is a photo of part of my vegetable garden showing a few of the ways I protect the plants from rabbits:
First, notice that some plants are not protected. In my experience, rabbits don’t eat certain crops, including peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus, basil, cilantro, parsley, and garlic. And in my experience, rabbits will only eat young plants of onion, strawberry, peas, corn, cucumber, sweet potato, and brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.). But rabbits will always eat lettuce, kale, and carrot tops. Depending on how hungry the rabbits are, some crops might change categories temporarily, but these are the usual preferences of the rabbits in my yard.
So I use two general methods of keeping the rabbits off my vegetables, but I employ them in different ways for different crops and for some crops at different stages of growth.
Fences and cages
I put a fence made of poultry wire around the whole area where I have plants that rabbits are most attracted to, that they will eat at any stage of growth. It’s about two feet high.
Note that chain link is no barrier to rabbits. The openings must be smaller.
For plants that rabbits only eat while the plants are young, I sometimes use individual cages made of poultry wire. The cages must be staked down or a bunny can push it over.
Above are cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower plants. They need protection while young, but once they’ve filled the cages, the cages can be removed because the rabbits don’t find the older leaves of these plants so palatable. Notice that I’ve already removed cages from some plants in the photo.
Tulle fabric covering
Another way to protect these plants is with a covering of tulle fabric. For example, here are some broccoli and cauliflower seedlings under tulle fabric protection.
I also use tulle draped over carrots as soon as the seedlings emerge.
Every couple days you have to lift the tulle so the carrot tops don’t grow through and get stuck in the mesh. Otherwise, the carrot tops just push up the fabric as they grow.
Peas can also be protected with tulle fabric, but I try to keep the fabric above and out of reach of the plants because the pea tendrils will grab hold of the mesh. I use string between posts to suspend the tulle.
Why tulle instead of a row cover that is made for protecting plants? I like the tulle because it lets through almost 100 percent of the sunlight; most row covers or nets provide more shade. Tulle is also cheaper than products made specifically for gardeners or farmers although the tulle probably doesn’t last as long. I buy “Economy Colored Polyester Tulle in Bolts” from Papermart, and I buy a bolt 108 inches wide by 50 yards long, which costs $24 today. I then cut it to the width and length I need for different plantings. I also use this same tulle to protect fruit on my trees from birds. (See “Protecting fruit from birds.”)
One caveat on using tulle as a rabbit barrier is that occasionally I’ve had rabbits chew holes in it, especially when the plants are allowed to grow through the mesh. It seems that the rabbit is trying to eat the plant and inadvertently chews some mesh rather than first chew a hole in the mesh in order to get access to the plant within. So it’s important to lift the tulle frequently to prevent this.
Barriers for fruit tree protection
Rabbits like to chew on the lower leaves, branches, and trunks of young fruit trees so I protect them at planting time in two ways. Often a wrap around the trunk is all that’s necessary, and I’ve made them with different materials. Here is one I made using cardboard:
I also sometimes protect young trees with cages made of poultry wire. Here is a tree that is super protected, with a trunk-wrap plus a wide cage that keeps both rabbits and chickens out (so the chickens don’t scratch away the mulch):
Can you rub or spray something on trees or plants to repel rabbits? I don’t know. I’ve never given it a serious try because what I’ve read doesn’t make this method sound as effective as barriers. (Read about repellents and more on rabbit management in general at the UC IPM page here.)
Predators of rabbits include hawks. Just this morning, my son and I spotted a red-shouldered hawk eating prey on top of the power pole near our yard. We investigated to find that the fur floating down was that of a cottontail.
We had an excellent cat for a few years that I saw eating bunnies many times. Before her, the rabbit damage to our vegetables was higher. Now after her, the rabbit damage is once again higher. But I also know other cats in other peoples’ yards that are poor hunters. Likewise with pet dogs, their usefulness as predators of rabbits varies.
(2022 update: We have a couple of new yard cats that are doing a great job of protecting our plants. The vegetables have had no damage since they arrived. The only downside is that they also love to use freshly raked beds as litter boxes!)
I don’t think it’s realistic to rely on predators to prevent rabbits from eating your vegetables and chewing on your young fruit trees, but they certainly help and I welcome most of them into our yard.
From time to time, I become a rabbit predator myself. Rabbits can be trapped, but mostly I kill them with a pellet gun. Rabbits are easy pickings at dusk or dawn, especially if you use a flashlight to cause their eyes to shine red. But I hate having to shoot the bunnies, even if I eat them. (See my post, “Eating the rabbits that eat my garden.”) It’s just that the natural predators don’t keep the population low enough sometimes and I feel the need to enter the food chain.
By far, my preferred method of protecting my vegetables and fruit trees is some form of a barrier.
All of my Yard Posts are listed HERE