Garden Detective: getting rid of rabbits

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They may be cute, but rabbits can decimate

They may be cute, but rabbits can decimate your garden. (June 10, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print

DEAR JESSICA: Help! Every spring I buy hundreds of dollars' worth of plants and flowers, and the rabbits and chipmunks in my yard (which is fully fenced) eat everything. I've tried deer-resistant plants and flowers that rabbits aren't supposed to like, to no avail. I've tried every remedy you could possibly get online and at Home Depot and every remedy that anyone had to offer, including pepper and used cat litter (pine bark). Every year, the rabbits seem to be multiplying exponentially, and they are starting to take over. Are there any remedies you could suggest, and do you have a list of plants and flowers that I could purchase? Otherwise my family better start liking hasenpfeffer! -- Sheryl Bloom, Commack

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DEAR SHERYL: Those small, adorable, rascally rabbits can decimate a garden faster than you can say "What's up, Doc?" And their favorite culinary indulgences include tulips, clematis, roses, blackberries, raspberries, apple trees, rhodendron, juniper, yews, grass, and, yes, carrots, lettuce, cabbage and most other vegetables. Although these are the preferred food groups, they're far from the only items on the menu. Unfortunately, if you're looking for a plant that is absolutely rabbit-proof, it doesn't exist.

There are several plants that rabbits are not likely to eat, but, like many humans, if a rabbit is hungry enough, it will eat anything. Plants that rabbits would rather not eat, however, include American boxwood, butterfly bush, forsythia, pieris, smokebush, witch hazel, viburnum, cleome and spirea.

So how does someone living in a rabbit-infested piece of Long Island suburbia successfully grow a garden? It isn't easy, as you've discovered. Repellents, like cayenne pepper, blood meal, bone meal, Liquid Fence and Messina Rabbit Stopper do offer some benefit and are worth a try. You'll just need to be diligent about reapplying, especially after rainfall. You might also try human hair stuffed into old nylon stockings and hung around the garden at rabbit-eye level.

If you don't have many rabbits, setting live traps around the garden would be another option, but then you'd have to figure out where to release them.

The most effective weapon against rabbit damage is a chicken-wire fence installed around garden beds. Nearly foolproof, a 30- to 36-inch fence with mesh openings of an inch or smaller is your best bet. Rabbits do like to dig, so the fence should penetrate 8 inches below the soil line. I understand you might consider such a fence aesthetically unpleasing, but it beats slaving over a hot pot of hasenpfeffer!

Update: Chipmunks are much more difficult to keep out because they can climb over fences and do all sorts of acrobatic maneuvers; rabbits cannot. However, your strategy should depend upon what you're trying to protect. To protect tomatoes from chipmunk thievery use tomato cages to stake plants and cover the whole thing -- top included -- with bird netting. Ripe tomatoes are big incentives, though, so this is not a foolproof method. Still, it's your best bet. To protect bulbs, cover them with chicken wire at planting time and then cover the whole thing with soil. That also will protect against squirrels. Springtime shoots will find a way through openings and your garden will be unaffected.  Another weapon that perhaps should be used in addition to these methods is foul-tasting repellant. Saturate the soil with a deer repellant or castor-oil based mole and vole repellant. Do not use mothballs or flakes, as they are toxic and carcinogenic to humans and pets. If all else fails, trapping is effective. Live traps, like the Havahart, are quite effective, but then you have to worry about where to release them, and this raises some issues. First, it's not legal to relocate wild animals in every town, so you'll have to check with yours. Second, studies have shown than release should be made as far as 40 miles away to prevent a homecoming. Then, there are measures like rat traps baited with peanut butter. Be aware though, that the neighbor's cat and other animals could fall victim, as well. And that won't be a pretty sight.

DEAR JESSICA: I know on your monthly calendar you said to pot pansies on the 20th of March, but could I have planted them in the ground sooner? Audrey Walker, Smithtown

DEAR AUDREY: I know you've been seeing pansies growing in your neighbors' gardens for quite some time and have been wondering why I would advise you against planting your own. Pansies have sort of an upside-down lifespan: Instead of surviving over the summer from spring through fall, as most annuals do, their lifespan is from fall through spring. It's the heat of summer that kills them, not the winter cold.

The pansies growing around the neighborhood for the past month have been in the ground since autumn and are perfectly acclimated to the cool weather. The ones you buy today have been growing in a greenhouse and wouldn't have survived the outdoor weather a month ago.

Pansies you plant now will bloom throughout spring but then die during summer. The ones you plant in September will bloom twice: throughout autumn and again next spring.


Note to readers

After identifying a reader's mystery plant a few weeks ago as Platycodon grandiflorus, or balloon flower, several of you have written asking where they might be available for purchase locally. I've seen the plants, which are also sometimes called Chinese bellflower or Japanese bellflower, in some of the larger nurseries and garden centers in Nassau and Suffolk. Availability typically begins in spring.

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