Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know about...
Rabbit Friendly Gardens
Why should I garden with rabbits in mind?
Rabbits naturally enjoy exploring the outside world and love to nibble a wide variety of plants whilst lazing in sheltered spots. If you can provide them with a safe and supervised space it will enrich their lives and they will entertain you with their garden antics.
Read on to get started, but you can find out much more from our book which you can order here.
Will They be Safe?
Always supervise your rabbits whilst they are in the garden. Predators such as foxes are very common especially in urban and suburban gardens and will even come out in daytime. Ensure that your fences are secure and tall enough, and never place a seat or animal housing or bin etc against the fence as it will act as a ‘step up’. A five-foot fence with a two-foot high seat placed against it is actually only three foot tall!
Check there are no holes under the fence and check the bottom of gates. These often have gaps to allow easy opening across uneven paths. A thick rubber mat affixed to the base of the gate, combined with a removable plank at base for large gaps, will allow the gate to open but stop escapes. If your neighbours have dogs or cats that might be a danger, then consider investing in ‘runaround’ systems which will keep your rabbits safe whilst exploring.
How Do I get Started?
The key to sharing your garden with your rabbits is to establish boundaries. Decide whether you want to share all the garden with your rabbits or just part of it and ‘design’ the different parts accordingly. In the areas that rabbits can access think about creating a lawn with some less instantly edible (but not toxic) plants, perhaps adding larger shrubs in raised beds or tubs. Fruit trees such as apple or quince can be planted in grass and surrounded by tree protectors to stop the bark being nibbled. Some simple wooden seats to hide under (or for humans to sit on) are a perfect addition.
If you want to share the whole garden you might want to use ‘runaround’ tunnels and pipes threaded through the garden, especially in spring and winter when plants are vulnerable to nibbling. Moving them around ensures rabbits do not get bored but still get exercise and enrichment whilst you can grow all your favourite plants around them. Later in the year when plants are flourishing you can let the rabbits explore more.
Any Other Tips for Protecting Plants?
Always place the most edible plants as far away from where the rabbits enter the garden as possible, preferably the other side of a lawn. That way they will have ‘filled up’ on grass before they get to those, although there is always space for a nibble of something tasty. Use raised beds and pots scattered around the garden to create variety and move them round to fill any suddenly empty spaces. If you have a very athletic rabbit you may need to add some protective mesh on raised beds but make sure the rabbits cannot get tangled up in it.
Use hanging baskets and window boxes fixed to fences and walls to keep colourful annuals and herbs out of rabbit reach. In spring the upturned wire frames from the hanging baskets can be used to protect emerging plants in the border. Vegetables such as lettuce can be grown in U shaped ‘gutters’ fixed in rows to a wall or very sturdy fence.
Which Are the Best Plants for Rabbity Gardens?
Any plant that is non-toxic and prolific enough to survive being constantly nibbled will be an ideal plant for a rabbity garden and of course attractive flowers are a bonus. Favourites include hardy geraniums (the cranesbills) which come in varieties of pinks, whites (‘Kashmir White’) and blue (‘Johnson’s Blue’). These will ‘cut and come again’ (known by rabbits as ‘eat and come again’) from late spring to autumn.
Roses are another favourite and can be protected at the base or grown in large pots. Always buy more vigorous plants rather than ones advertised as ‘small patio rose’ which will mean ‘snack sized’. Choose pinks and dark crimsons if you want to dry the rose petals to add to dried forage later in the year. You can also dry fuchsia flowers and blue cornflower.
Lavender works well in a rabbity garden along with the larger nepetas (‘Six Hills Giant’ is a good variety) and herbs such as thyme and oregano can be mixed in with strawberry plants in the borders. Achillea (yarrow) and echinacea provide late summer colour along with buddleia (the Butterfly Bush). Sunflowers and hollyhocks make a fabulous impact at the back of a sunny border.
What About the Lawn?
Grass is the perfect rabbit dinner and plan to create as large a lawn as possible. If you already have a weedy overgrown grass patch that is a perfect start. Regular mowing will soon transform it to something with a denser root structure and slightly more ‘lawn-like’. Don’t forget to leave generous overgrown areas for wildlife and shady snoozing places, although rabbits do prefer some open areas and shorter grass for grazing.
If you are looking at bare earth then buying turf rolls is the quickest way to get an established lawn, as seed will need months of preparation, rolling, firming etc and the seeds can make their way into paws and ears. Many grass seed mixes also contain chemical fertilisers and even weed killers which are not suited to a rabbit garden. If ordering turf always ask when (or if) it was last treated in with any chemicals and water it very well for several days before letting rabbits on it. Never use chemicals on your own lawn if rabbits or wildlife have access to it.
Are there any Plants I should Avoid?
Many garden plants are toxic and although relatively few will cause instant death some contain chemicals that may because chronic issues of eaten over the long term. Books such as our RWAF’s Gardening with Rabbits (by Twigs Way) provide a list of toxic plants and others to be avoided.
So many garden plants are now available that it is impossible to list all of them here but those you are most likely to encounter and are most toxic are: Aconitum (Monkshood), Azalea, Bluebells, Daffodil (bulbs), Daphne, Datura, Foxglove, Hemerocallis, Hellebore, Euonymous, Laburnum, Lily of the Valley, Oleander, and Winter Aconites.
However before allowing your rabbits in a garden of mixed plants do check for further advice.
What About Hedges and Trees?
If you have space native hedging plants and trees provide cover and shade and are also fantastic for wildlife. Hawthorn or hazel are ideal for a rabbit garden and the leaves can be collected and dried for feeding in winter.
Avoid evergreen hedging such as privet, conifers or laurels that are all toxic. The perfect tree for a rabbity garden is a weeping willow but if the garden is too small for this an alternative would be a crab apple with its delightful blossom in spring and rabbit-sized apples in autumn. Apple and pear leaves can also be collected and dried. If you might move house in the next few years, then grow your trees in large pots and take them with you when you move!