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The Plant Medic

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Cover up plants to end rabbit feedings

Q. Rabbits are having a feast on the burning bush in my back yard. What can I do to stop them from killing it?

A. We have received many calls about rabbit browsing this winter. The most common type of rabbit in our area is the eastern Cottontail. The eastern cottontail female has up to three to four litters of five to six bunnies a litter in one year. At two weeks of age, the young rabbits begin to eat vegetation; at four to five weeks old they are feeding alongside their mother. That is a lot of hungry mouths to feed for a rabbit mom. A rabbit’s life is sweet but short (12-15 months on average). In the winter, rabbits either find dry sheltered places to hide, or maintain burrows in tall grass or sheltered areas.

During the winter, rabbits love to browse on young seedlings, the bark of fruit trees and the bark of ornamental trees and shrubs. Burning bush and young fruit trees are favorite foods. This year, the heavy snow has made browsing for food more difficult for rabbits. Often twigs and bark will be eaten all the way down to the inner bark at wherever the snow line was on the plant. The cambial layer just underneath the outer bark is the tastiest and most nutritious for a rabbit. This tissue contains the pipes that take water and nutrients upward, and also contains the pipes that take sugar from the upper portions of the plant down to the roots. The feeding damage on twigs from rabbits is different from other critters. Angled cuts on small twigs and notched areas are hallmarks of where the rabbits have eaten the inner bark.

Exclusion is the best way to deal with winter rabbit issues. In this case, the shrub is small enough to place a cage made of 1/4 -inch mesh hardware cloth over it. The hardware cloth usually comes in rolls and must be cut and held together with wire. The cloth is available at most hardware stores and outlets. There is no conclusive evidence that human hair, mothballs, “sound” devices or predator urine work to control rabbits. Other options include live trapping and reducing potential hiding spots (like under the deck or outbuilding) near the property. Taste repellents such as hot pepper wax, garlic, and bitter compounds such as Ropel and Hinder may be effective for the short term.

A motion-sensor device called the Scarecrow can also be effective to deter critters such as rabbits from an area in spring and summer. This product is available by mail order or online from companies such as AM Leonard and Charley’s Greenhouse and some local garden centers.

Your burning bush actually is a tough customer and, even when severely damaged, will usually re-grow from its base. Other plants are not so vigorous, so make sure to place cages around young trees and shrubs; especially fruit trees. This could take some time, so it’s better to avoid the damage from hungry rabbits in the first place.

The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Sunday. Kemery is the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service.