Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I grew up as a kid that loved all the wildlife that wandered into our yard. As an adult homeowner with a relatively new landscape in a new subdivision, I feel like I am in constant battle with the local wildlife, trying to defend my tender young plants. With each passing year, the local critters seem a little more accustomed to browsing the smorgasbord of my landscape. Recently I came upon a couple of rabbits feasting on my flowers, and they didn't even move until I was less than two feet from them! They just looked at me as if to say, "You're interrupting our breakfast."
One of the more infuriating experiences for me and probably lots of other gardeners has to be watching young plants bud with new life in the spring, or watch new flower buds form, only to look one morning to find that some creature has eaten it down to the ground. At some point I started feeling like whatever ate my shrub or perennial must have known it was my favorite, or the most expensive one in the flower bed. How does a gardener know which member of the local wildlife is to blame? With a little careful observation, the culprit is usually pretty obvious.
As the line between urban and rural settings continues to blur and new housing developments dot the landscape with increasing frequency, humans will undoubtedly encounter the wildlife they are displacing. In the case of rabbits and white-tailed deer, they have adapted very well to their human neighbors and may remain in close proximity to new subdivisions.
At the turn of the 20th century, it looked like the white-tailed deer's days were numbered in the U.S. Hunting and deforestation had decreased their population numbers drastically. Fortunately for the deer, hunting was eventually limited to certain parts of the year, and people found increasing value in maintaining forests rather than eliminating them. Deer populations flourished in the U.S. and they are now extremely common in many areas.
Fragmented forested areas, like parks and forest preserves may have contributed to the population explosion seen in deer populations in many areas. White-tailed deer prefer to inhabit the edges of the forest, where enough light penetrates to allow smaller herbaceous plants, trees and shrubs to grow which the deer feed on.
Parks and forest preserves by nature create an enormous amount of this edge habitat, and deer populations rise to fill this habitat. Housing developments are often adjacent to forested areas, making it all too easy for deer to wander over to a landscaped yard and discover the delicious plants there.
The common, or eastern cottontail rabbit is another animal that has adapted well to human development. These herbivores will quickly populate any environment that can offer food and shelter. The average backyard usually provides both. A pair of rabbits taking up residence there will potentially produce up to four litters of young per year, with as many as six young per litter.
But how do you know who's been eating your garden plants? There are a couple of clues that give away the identity of the culprit.
Take a good look at the damage on a given plant. Rabbit damage looks like someone went crazy with pruners, each branch or shoot cut cleanly at a forty-five degree angle by their powerful incisors. I actually accused my husband of overpruning some shrubs recently, when in fact it was rabbit damage!
Deer on the other hand, lack upper front incisors and so grab and pull at vegetation they want to eat. The ends of remaining branches and shoots are jagged and if they are small enough, plants may be totally pulled out of the ground. Deer also only eat what they can reach, which is only about eight feet high. They also damage young trees over the winter by rubbing their antlers on the bark.
Other clues which may be helpful are tracks—deer have hooves cloven into two halves, rabbits have distinct pairs of tracks for the front and hind feet respectively. Rabbits will often construct grass lined areas called "forms" to offer some protection on the ground.
Deer and rabbit damage is most noticeable in the spring and early summer before much plant growth begins. Usually deer and rabbit damage to landscape plants is worse in years with colder winters and more snow cover as other nearby food sources run out.
In managing deer and rabbit damage, homeowners need to do their homework. There are plants that both deer and rabbit absolutely love, and there are plants that they will only eat if it is the last green plant available. Generally speaking, both deer and rabbits will avoid any plant that has a lot of sap or a lot of scent. There are many plant lists available in books and online listing plants resistant to feeding by deer or rabbits or both. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes even a plant touted as something deer would never eat will sometimes get eaten in the right circumstances. Nature is seldom absolute.
Using scent or taste repellents for deer and rabbits is usually a viable option for homeowners. Realize though that they may need to be reapplied after rain or extended periods of time. Also, it is a good idea to rotate among several different repellents to minimize the chance that the animals will get used to a particular scent or taste. I can attest to the fact that these repellents smell absolutely horrible, and one shouldn't stand downwind while applying said products.
In many cases excluding deer and rabbit with fencing is another good option. Electric fencing to deter deer is recommended in extreme cases, but is not an option for most people in suburban areas. Though deer can jump twelve feet high, eight foot high fences are generally enough. If the area being fenced off is less than about fifteen feet wide, six foot high fences are adequate. This is because deer have poor depth perception, and are hesitant to jump into places that they perceive might be too narrow.
Another way to take advantage of this is to place two shorter fences a few feet apart. Unable to judge the distance over both fences, often deer will avoid the area. A simpler option is to use fishing line strung between stakes approximately two and four feet off the ground. The deer feel the fishing line hit them, but can't see it, so they go elsewhere.
Rabbit fencing only needs to be about two feet high, and have a few inches buried under the soil to prevent rabbits from digging under the fence. Remember the openings in the fence materials should not be big enough for the rabbits to fit through!
In a lot of cases it can be difficult if not impossible to prevent all damage from deer and rabbits. Some damage is inevitable in many locations. In these cases it may be helpful for homeowners to work on tolerating at least some damage to their landscape.