Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins
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When rabbits invade the garden

Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post - An Eastern cottontail rabbit .

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For Yvonne Tsikata, the spraying begins in early spring, just as the furled hostas poke up and the tulips produce their buds. It continues until early November. ¶ Every two weeks in between — more frequently if it rains a lot — Tsikata patrols her half-acre garden in McLean, squirting products that are natural but release a stink that only a gardener could love. Or tolerate. ¶ “This one actually makes me nauseous,” said Tsikata, working the pump on a plastic bottle labeled Bobbex-R. It is a proprietary concoction containing whole egg solids, castor oil, vinegar, fish oil, urea — it reads like a menu Roald Dahl cooked up. The “R” in Bobbex-R stands for rabbits.

Tsikata, an economist at the World Bank, is among legions of gardeners across the region who must contend with burgeoning populations of bunnies, specifically the small, alluring, fluffy and voracious Eastern cottontail.

Adrian Higgins

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the Washington Post Garden Book and Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden.

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Without her spraying regime, she would suffer the loss of petunias, liriope, daylilies, hostas, toadlilies and tulips. Much of her beloved garden would be nibbled to nubs.

(Graphic: Tips to rabbit-proof your garden)

In the rogue’s gallery of garden pests, rabbits don’t typically top the list: That honor would go to deer, squirrels, voles, certain birds and, if you are really unlucky, groundhogs. But anecdotally, at least, rabbit populations appear to have exploded in certain communities and are making life more interesting for folks wanting to grow plants for food and ornament.

“I have lived here since 1965,” said Marion Mistrik, who lives in the Bethesda neighborhood of Glenbrook Village. “I have never seen this many.”

In June, she left a little raised bed of squash transplants unguarded for five minutes and returned to see 12 or more of the critters eyeing the nosh: baby, teens and adults. “Some went this way,” she said, motioning toward her house, “some went that way. Some went across the street. They just scattered.” There was a hint of frustration in her voice.

They have eaten her liriope, petunias and various vegetables, many of which are now individually netted. “They took care of the beans before I could put this up,” she said, pointing out another little bed that is now netted. She said she looks out to her neighbor’s front lawn to see “little bunnies playing tag.”

A little later, we watched a bunny springing away from another neighbor’s driveway into an adjoining hedge.

Among rabbit and hare species, the cottontail is a small thing, weighing just three pounds when grown. But its reproductive prowess is kind of scary. Females typically produce three litters a year, with an average size of five babies. If no rabbits died, a mating pair could produce 350,000 rabbits in five years. However, only two out of 10 tend to make it beyond one year — they are devoured by foxes, hawks, owls and coyotes. Domestic and feral cats kill them as well.

Rabbit populations seem to grow in the absence of predators, but the exact cause of these pockets of infestation is elusive: Some speculate that milder winters are behind it, and rabbits thrive where they have ready access to cover.

“I have noticed more rabbits in my own yard in recent years,” said Rob Gibbs, natural resources manager for Montgomery Parks who lives in Damascus. “My wife, being a gardener — well, we’re putting up fences.”

I have talked to gardeners and homeowners in American University Park, downtown Silver Spring, Glen Echo and the Williamsburg area of north Arlington for whom rabbit populations seem to have gone wild in the past two or three years.

They say the bunnies seem almost tame, moving a few feet as you walk past but pretty much staying put. The problem for gardeners is that they appear just so darned cute and vulnerable that it’s hard to get hopping mad.

If individual yards seem like curbside food trucks for these bold bunnies, community gardens are gourmet supermarkets without the checkouts.

“They’re getting kind of brazen now,” said Lisa Crye, who has one of 36 plots at the Barton Street Community Garden near Arlington’s Courthouse neighborhood. Her friend was in her plot, she said, when a rabbit came in, “tore off a leaf of chard and just walked off with it. They’re like rabbit thugs.”

She came to Arlington in 1980, but “I never saw a rabbit until about three years ago. All of a sudden, there were droves of them.”

There are signs the gardeners are fighting back. Like others, Joanne and Powell Hutton have put a fence of hardware cloth around their 250-square-foot plot in the Barton Street garden, which seems to have thwarted the rabbits, if not the voles. “I don’t mind giving 10 percent to the animals, but I would like to get at least 70 percent of the crop,” Powell Hutton said. His wife said she found a young bunny on the compost pile the week before and could have dispatched it with a pitchfork but didn’t have the heart. “The animals are very accustomed to our presence,” she said.

At the large, 60-plot Rocking Horse Community Garden in Rockville, a tall deer fence ensures that the buck stops here. But for the bunnies, the slim gaps beneath and around the garden gates merely offer a little bit of pre-dinner limbo dancing. So many of the gardeners have put up smaller fences around their plots to keep the rabbits at bay. “We allow up to three feet high,” said Pat Lynch, community gardens coordinator for Montgomery Parks.

According to gardeners I’ve talked to (my problem is chipmunks), rabbits are partial to beans — pole bean seedlings won’t get big enough to climb — as well as lettuce and other greens, beets, young cabbages and broccoli. They don’t seem so interested in carrots. Rabbits are not supposed to like tomatoes or peppers, but Lynch showed me where the rabbits had eaten the lower leaves of both, leaving denuded stems. She tells the gardeners: “Harvest, harvest, harvest.” In other words, don’t leave the goodies out there too long. It’s sound advice against squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons, as well.

We come across Maro Nalabandian, who said her Asian squash “is all bitten.”

“A couple of years ago I had watermelon,” she said. “The watermelons were all eaten. I haven’t planted watermelons since.”

Another gardener, Nancy Melvin, gave me some advice that others had also imparted: Don’t use plastic fencing against rabbits. “Last year we had vinyl poultry fencing, and they just ate right through it and destroyed our beans,” she said. This year, her plot is surrounded by a chicken wire fence.

Lynch is planning to add fence flaps to the gaps in the gates and has asked the gardeners whether they want to put up a raptor perch in the adjoining lawn for hawks and owls.

Back at her McLean garden, Yvonne Tsikata showed me how she applies the rabbit repellents, which also keep the deer at bay. She lives in a small cul-de-sac where the yards flow together. A fence would be unneighborly, she said, so five years ago she started the spraying regime.

Tsikata has spent the past 12 years transforming her property into a series of gardens surrounding her home: a hillside shade garden with hostas, viburnums, summersweet, astilbes and ferns; a patio with annuals pouring out of containers; mixed perennial and shrub borders; and a formal but cozy rose garden with a shelter.

She feels that alternating products makes sure the rabbits don’t get used to just one and says it is important to start early in the season when everything is particularly lush and tender.

In addition to Bobbex-R, she uses a product called Liquid Fence Deer and Rabbit Repellent, whose ingredients include egg solids and garlic.

Both sprays emerge as a single stream. She doesn’t squirt every plant, just those she knows are vulnerable, and even then she doesn’t coat them. She will offer a zigzag pattern on things like hostas and liriope, and then target the new growth.

I find the Liquid Fence to be particularly stomach-churning — you think you have come across a den of feral cats.

The odors take up to 30 minutes to dissipate, she said, something to think about if you’re having an outdoor event. “This is not something you want to spray before you have a barbecue,” she says.

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