How to Keep Rabbits Out of Vegetable Gardens

black and white rabbit nibbling vegetables in garden

Rabbits are cute, furry little creatures that you may see roaming around your neighborhood from time to time. Unfortunately, their cuteness wanes once you find out they've been nibbling on your precious garden plants.

Well known for their breeding skills, rabbits are ravenous feeders who aren't exactly discriminating when it comes to snacks. They're also fast, and difficult to keep out once they've found a good spot.

Thankfully, there are many ways to deter the furry creatures from doing extensive damage, as well as tactics for prevention and co-existing alongside them.

Here are some ways to keep rabbits out of vegetable gardens.

Rabbit Characteristics

The eastern cottontail rabbit is the most popular species of wild rabbit in the United States. It's also likely the one doing the most damage to your garden. These rabbits are gray or brownish-colored with the quintessential short tail and long ears.

They aren't large animals, weighing between 2-4 pounds, and only live for an average of fifteen months. Wild rabbits rarely die of old age as there are many environmental factors and natural predators that keep populations in check.

As most are familiar with, rabbits are prolific breeders, and mama rabbits can produce three litters of six bunnies on average each year. Breeding starts in early spring and the gestation period is only 29 days. You'll see the most "kits" as the weather starts to warm up.

This rapid reproduction rate is where the saying, "breed like rabbits" comes from. Thankfully, the eastern cottontail is not in danger of extinction, and the population is even increasing.

There are many other types of native rabbits that are on the endangered species list like the pygmy rabbits of the Colombia basin, and New England cottontails, so make sure you are identifying the correct species of rabbit if you see them in your yard.

Rabbit Habitats

The eastern cottontail can be found across the United States, in parts of Canada, and in Mexico. Their habitat includes many different climates, which is likely why they've thrived as well as they have.

They prefer to live along the edges of fields where they are protected by forest and brush, but are also able to forage for food, much to farmers' and homeowners' chagrin.

This is another reason why eastern cottontails are the most commonly spotted rabbit in residential yards: they don't usually dig their own burrows, but instead make do with what's around them.

You won't see them in the daylight very often, as they forage for food either in the very early morning or evening. They live in brush, wood, and leaf piles, or other animals' deserted burrows.

Sometimes the only way you'll know a rabbit is around is because you wake up to a garden that's missing most of its flower heads, or newly sprouted perennials. This is usually the point when "cute bunny" turns into "despised pest."

How to Identify Rabbit Damage

Rabbits aren't the only animals or pests to disturb gardens and munch on plants. Squirrels, rodents, deer, and even insects can do a lot of damage, as well. There are a few tell-tale signs to identify the rabbit as the culprit, however.

Squirrel activity generally involves a lot of digging, and you'll see disturbed spots in your garden and planters in early spring and all throughout the growing season. By midsummer, they'll steal tomatoes and peppers off of vines and leave them half eaten, which is another frustrating sight for gardeners who've worked hard for their yields.

Rabbits don't dig like squirrels do, at least not the cottontail species. They aren't interested in finding food they've stored away from last season (they likely weren't even alive last season), and they don't have the physiology for it.

Instead, you'll see clear-cut bites off the tops of plants and flowers in early spring, especially tulip heads and young seedlings. In the fall and winter when resources are scarce, rabbits will even chew off and eat tree bark. Fruit trees are especially prone to rabbit damage as the bark is thin and tasty.

Deer are often mistaken for rabbits as both will eat young plants and flowers, and both will also gnaw on woody shrubs and tree bark when nothing else is available. While the two enjoy similar meals, there are ways to tell the difference.

Deer and rabbits have very different bite marks. Deer have no upper teeth and tend to nibble versus bite. Plants and stems that are gnawed by deer will look frayed or serrated and mostly flat; a rabbit bites the stem clear off on an angle, and usually close to ground level. Deer can reach up higher.

Another tell-tale sign that you have rabbits is their small, round, pellet-sized droppings which they leave in piles around the lawn and in garden beds.

What Rabbits Eat

Since mama rabbits have babies to nurse in the very early spring, first sightings of rabbit activity is usually around this time. You might notice the tops of your favorite bulbs have been bitten off, or young hosta shoots that are cut back to the ground before they've had time to unravel.

Grass and clover are a rabbit staple and tend to make up most of their diet. The tender shoots of young plants are next on their list, and anything green is going to be their main course.

The good thing is that any plants that make it past the seedling stage may be in the clear...mostly. If there isn't enough greenery around to keep them satiated, this is when they start to chomp on fruits and vegetables.

They aren't particularly fond of anything in the Allium genus like chives, onions, leeks, and garlic, nor are nightshade vegetables like tomatoes and eggplant their first choice. Rabbits will go after leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and carrot tops before they start eating peppers or squash.

An easy way to remember this is to think about the rabbit's preferences and ease of snacking. They prefer green, leafy foliage and edible flowers that are easy for them to pick off with their mouths at ground level.

They aren't keen on digging up root vegetables or extending themselves to reach anything too high, so making it harder for them to get at your harvests is a great way to deter them.

rabbit fence

Put Up a Fence

Physical barriers are the best way to keep rabbits from eating your vegetables. Cottontails won't dig underneath fences, but since other wild species like jackrabbits or hares might, it's best to install the fence at least 6-inches under the surface if you can, although 18-inches is even better.

Chicken wire or rabbit fencing is the best kind of barrier to use as the wire mesh keeps out average-sized animals. It won't prevent small rodents like mice and rats, but squirrels, rabbits, and deer won't be able to penetrate through the small holes.

These types of fences are usually four-feet tall, which is ideal for keeping rabbits away as cottontails won't be able to jump over this height. Bend the fencing away from the garden bed so it acts as an extra layer of security, and hammer down metal garden stakes near the bottom of the fence to keep them from digging underneath.

Lattice and other kinds of wood fencing will work, but chicken wire allows more sunlight into the garden. Cold frames that can be secured at night or small greenhouses are another excellent way to keep your veggies safe.

Smaller domes and garden cloches can be placed on top of individual plants if you don't want to install fencing. If you notice rabbits are eating trees, prevent girdling before it happens with bark protectors that are sold to fit around the base of trees and shrubs.

Home Remedies to Keep Rabbits Away

Home remedies and scare tactics can be used as rabbit deterrents, but take these suggestions with a grain of salt. (No, salt won't deter rabbits.)

Rabbits sniff a lot, and it's one of the main ways they find food sources or detect predators. Blood meal is a safe and effective way to keep away a variety of garden pests, including rabbits, squirrels, rodents, and even deer.

Sprinkle a little of this nitrogen-heavy fertilizer on top of plants and in the soil and then water the soil lightly with a hose: it will bring out the smell of blood which makes any feeders think there's a predator around.

Dried sulfur has also been known to work on rabbits due to its odiferous smell. Like blood meal, sulfur can also benefit the garden by adding nutrients to the soil, but make sure you aren't overdoing either of them.

Pungent-smelling veggies and herbs like onions, chives, garlic, sage, lavender, rosemary, and catmint can also keep rabbits away, though they may just eat around them if they're hungry enough.

Rabbits are notoriously fearful (who can blame them) and some say placing mirrors in the garden will give them a scare. Other deflectors like fake garden snakes, perching owls, or cat statues may also help to frighten them off.

Of course, real predators work the best: if you have a dog or outdoor cat, just their presence may provoke rabbits to find their meals somewhere else. Rabbits are fairly smart creatures, so a lot of these deterrents will only work for a little while before they catch on.

Humane Traps to Relocate Rabbits

Using humane live traps may seem like a good option for removing pesky rabbits, but they aren't recommended and may even be illegal.

They rarely solve the issue, as removing one pest means another one will take up residence. There's also no such thing as a humane way to ensnare rabbits, as any kind of trap will cause undo stress and injury to a wild animal unless you're a professional.

It also merely passes the problem on to another area, and creates unrest among wild animal populations where the rabbit is released. There will be conflict with other species and competition for food and resources.

Released animals rarely thrive when they are taken away from their home, not to mention that any babies left behind will suffer from being neglected, and likely die.

In many states it's not only illegal to trap and remove an animal, you may also be fined. Better to call local wildlife management to get advice on how to handle any extreme infestations.

Clear Away Potential Rabbit Dens

Dismantle any potential animal dens or housing from your property if you find you have more rabbit action than you can handle. Do this on a regular basis as a preventative measure even if you don't currently have rabbits.

Clear away piles of leaves, wood, or brush and keep an eye out for abandoned animal burrows anywhere on your property. Seal up entry points into sheds, garages, or underneath porches and decks.

If rabbits think they've found a safe spot to breed, they'll stick around. If not, they'll move on to another location.

Remember, rabbits are worrisome creatures that won't stray far from the safety of their shelters. Rarely will they come up to snack on plants near your house or on decks and patios, especially if there is a lot of human presence.

Rabbit Prevention and Maintenance

We often look for the best way to remove or hinder the presence of pests and animals like rabbits, but you may find that the better approach is to learn to live with them.

While prevention and site maintenance will keep rabbit activity down, there are tactics for co-existing with rabbits instead of asserting complete dominion over your garden space. Perhaps you can share a little of what you have, and consider it benevolent charity to animals in need.

We gladly feed our own pets and put out bird feeders, so changing your perspective can be a great way to co-exist with nature, rather than eradicate it.

Of course, you don't want to lose large parts of your garden, especially young plants before they've been able to mature, or girdled trees. Protect the most vulnerable or prized plants with the physical barriers mentioned, and keep beds closer to the house when possible.

rabbit eating leaves in garden

Make a Rabbit Patch

Rabbits don't need to consume a lot of calories per day, so you may consider planting some rabbit-friendly greenery just for them to keep them away from the ones you don't want them to eat.

That way, they get to snack when they most need it, and you get to admire the tulips you planted last year.

A grassy patch with clover and wildflowers can be an excellent source of nutrition for wild rabbits, and if it's planted away from the house and the rest of your garden, this could be a win-win for all involved.

Shrubs like ninebark, dogwood, dappled willow, and vibernum can all easily regrow after buds or branches have been eaten. These kinds of plants can give rabbits something to nibble on when other resources are low, keeping them away from vulnerable trees.

Rabbits aren't dumpster divers, but keep any garbage secured and don't leave food out overnight. While coexisting can be beneficial, you don't want to give the rabbits the idea that freeloading is allowed, either.

Rabbit damage can be devastating, or it may only be a few lost flowers here and there. Either way, learn how to identify the rabbits in your area, and whether it's the eastern cottontail to deal with.

Chances are, you do, as these rabbits are common across the country, in urban yards and farms alike. Thankfully, it's easy to keep rabbits out of your vegetable garden as long as you apply some preventative tactics and protect your plants.

Even if they're pesky, they're still pretty darn cute.