Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know About...
Growing and Feeding Vegetables, Herbs and Fruits for Rabbits
Why should I grow vegetables, herbs and fruits when the supermarkets are full of them?
Rabbits have an amazing sense of smell and taste and like their food to be as fresh as possible with no taste of chemical washes or plastic bags. If they can still be just a bit crunchy with added soil that’s even better! Markets can often provide locally grown vegetables and fruits but home-grown is even better. Growing at home can also be a shared interest for you and your rabbit and even result in a fresher and healthier diet for you!
But I thought rabbits should stick to grass, hay and wild forage?
The majority of a rabbit’s diet should be hay, grass and wild forages supplemented by a good pellet, but in the wild rabbits would have a very wide variety of foods and this variety is important as an enrichment for domestic rabbits. Many of the vegetables and fruits will also have leaves that can be dried to add to forage and hay mixes.
Dried raspberry and strawberry leaves make an excellent winter diet addition for example, as do mint leaves and other herbs. Because many vegetables and fruits are high in sugar and water content, we always advocate only small amounts are given as a treat.
Will I need a separate allotment or vegetable garden?
Traditionally people grew vegetables and fruits in a separate area away from their flower garden. This was mainly because they grew long rows of each vegetable or fruit. The plot was kept weed free by digging over areas of the plot between each crop. If you want to grow a lot of annual vegetables (ie ones that you sow and crop within a few months such as carrots, lettuce, courgettes, beetroot etc) then this is the best way to manage them, and the same is probably true if you want large areas of fruit bushes.
For small households and just a couple of rabbits then a series of raised 1mx1m or 1mx2m raised beds are perfect rather than a large allotment plot or separate garden. If you make the beds quite high, they will discourage rabbits from taking nibbles whilst they are out in the garden (under supervision).
Can I just plant vegetables and fruits in with my flowers?
You can! In fact many flower gardeners now use vegetables to add variation in foliage and colour to their borders. Beetroot and carrots especially have lovely leaves and rainbow chard is glorious! Strawberries have lovely leaves and white flowers as well as the red berries and will put out runners and spread themselves across the garden or dangle from hanging baskets or window boxes.
You can also use large pots for most crops and just scatter these around the garden although if it’s a root crop like carrots or parsnips remember to provide sufficient space for the root to grow! Mint is a great plant to have in the flower border and if you let it get carried away in summer you will have some to pull up over winter to feed along with flat leaf parsley which will survive even cold winters. Dill and fennel will also fit well into a flower garden with their decorative feathery leaves, although they will not last through the winter. Lavender can be made into a small hedge or flower bed edging and rabbits will take small nibbles.
Where else can a fit in a few vegetables and herbs?
Window boxes are excellent for a range of herbs, especially thyme, marjoram and oregano but can also be used for any shallow rooted plant. Home-grown lettuces will have far less water and more nutrients than shop bought and are a great plant for window boxes as long as you remember to water them daily. Runs of guttering can be fixed to sturdy fences for short stubby carrots such as the varieties ‘Chantenay’ or ‘Paris Market’.
Parsnips do need a deeper soil so pop them into pots, whilst cabbages and the rather trickier cauliflowers are best grown in the ground as they need firm soil to make them heart up. Basil kept in a pot or window box will need frequent watering as they go limp very quickly.
What about fruit bushes or even trees?
Depending on the size of your garden you may find it difficult to incorporate fruit trees in a vegetable or flower garden, and these are better located in a lawn with protection around the trunk. You can get ‘patio’ versions of apple and pear trees that can be grown in a pot but you will have to keep a very close eye on your rabbits who will regard these as a small snack!
If you can set aside a small plot year-round, then you could build a small fruit cage out of aviary panels and have some raspberry or blackberry bushes or blackcurrants. Aviary panels are preferable to the traditional ‘fruit netting’ that drapes over the bushes as birds can very easily get tangled in that, as could rabbits.
Aren’t some vegetables poisonous to rabbits?
Several plants are toxic to rabbits, and indeed to humans, if the wrong part of the plant is eaten. Most of these fall into the ‘Solanaceae’ or nightshade family. This includes all parts of potato and tomato plants other than the fruits of the tomato, and ‘bell’ peppers except for the pepper itself. Other plants that can cause a problem for rabbits are beans, including broad beans, haricot beans, flageolet beans and runner beans all of which contain toxins if eaten raw and often cause illness in gardeners who nibble them when working on the plot.
Onions, garlic, leeks and spring onions may also provoke an allergic reaction in rabbits. Although more common in guinea pigs who may experience anaphylactic shock from the onion family, it is best to keep them away from rabbits as well. Sweet corn is well known for causing gut obstruction if given as a dried ‘treat’ to rabbits and some owners have also reported issues with fresh sweet corn, so although the leaves and husk could be eaten it is probably best keeping the corns for human consumption. Over in the fruit patch rhubarb leaves are poisonous whilst the fruit, leaves and bark of plum and apricot trees are also harmful.
Although not usually toxic, marrows and courgettes in drought years they can develop a bitter taste and toxins from a chemical named cucurbitacin. This is often also present if you grow your own using seed you have kept from a plant you grew the previous year. Although easily identified by the bitter taste and smell it is probably best not to grow courgettes and marrows where rabbits can access in case they do not do a small test before eating!
If I just want to grow one or two vegetables and herbs for my rabbits which would you recommend?
Flat Leaf Parsley must be the top favourite for both gardeners and rabbits. It can be grown in pots, window boxes and even, as long as you keep weeds in check, amongst the borders. It won’t flower spectacularly or fruit, although it may run to seed if not frequently cut or if allowed to dry out, but it is easy to grow and will continue into early winter.
Snub-rooted carrots with their crunchy roots and ferny leaves are a close second along with beetroot for their coloured leaves and easy to handle large seeds making them perfect to pop into a pot or border or rows of tiny radishes in a window box make a perfect snack. Int will survive anywhere and all weathers and is a winter essential for tempting poorly rabbits to eat. Its invasive long runners can be ripped up when they stary into unwanted spaces and make a good rabbit snack chopped and served fresh. A raspberry bush and a pot of strawberries can complete your mini-garden.