All Creatures Great and Small

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

I doubt that when Cecil Francis Alexander penned the chorus to this popular children’s hymn, she was staring down at a rabbit-chewed stump that was once a rose – or a tree trunk stripped almost bare of bark, or ornamental grasses mown down in the first flush of spring growth.

It can be immensely disappointing when our favourite trees, shrubs and perennials are razed by the likes of Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin. Unfortunately, solutions to this nuisance are less than perfect but there are a few.

The Design Solution

Designing a garden that is rabbit resistant entails housing vulnerable selections i.e. ‘rabbit candy’, in raised beds, containers or enclosures of some kind. Obviously rabbits do jump, but a 2 foot raised bed can act as a deterrent, and while a rabbit can squeeze through small openings, a fenced yard or courtyard does offer some protection.  In my own experience, my front yard is fair game for the rabbits but I’ve never seen them, or any evidence of their presence in my fenced back yard.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the squirrels – they are ubiquitous.

The smooth shiny bark of Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ is a rabbit favourite. In this client’s raised planter it is somewhat protected. The underplanting of Berberis thunbergii ‘Cherry Bomb’ offers further protection since its thorny branches serve as a barrier. Photo: Sue Gaviller

And what about deer? Fences and raised beds aren’t going to keep Bambi out – unless they are 8 feet tall. A Shishi-odoshi (Japanese Deer Scarer) is one design solution that comes to mind. This can work for most nuisance wildlife but there are a couple of drawbacks. For one, the aesthetic is expressly Japanese so may not work thematically with all gardens. Second, it may discourage desirable wildlife from visiting. And third, the more brazen intruders like squirrels, could soon habituate to the sound.

Shishi odoshi 日本語: ししおどし

Shishi odoshi 日本語: ししおどし (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those living in the country, deer present a much bigger problem, due largely to habitat proximity – this may require a design approach calledDeeroscaping(awesome resource when deer pressure is extreme).

Underplanting susceptible trees with Lavandula or other aromatic, as I have with this client’s top-graft Syringa meyeri, may help deter pests. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Including some aromatic plants in your planting design can also be helpful. Salvia, Lavandula and Nepeta are all objectionable to deer and rabbits – they don’t like the smell. Happily these are pleasant smelling to us and very attractive additions to a garden. Keep in mind though that Nepeta will attract cats – in my neighbourhood we already have a cat problem (a topic for another post), so no Nepeta for me.


Salvia nemerosa ‘Maynight’ is a strongly aromatic ornamental sage which may discourage rabbits and deer. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Some gardeners will use wire baskets or chicken wire contraptions to cover anything that’s showing signs of pest activity. From a design perspective this is a poor solution – while it may indeed protect your plants, it is unsightly. I don’t think sacrificing the beauty of a garden for 6 months of the year is an acceptable price to pay, so unless these devices can be obscured from view, I personally don’t use them. The exception would be trees. Rabbits and deer love to nibble on the bark of certain trees; Malus, Populus, Salix and other trees with thin bark (also young trees). If the bark is damaged more than halfway around the trunk, the tree may not survive. Therefore I do recommend protecting trunks of susceptible trees, particularly in the winter – if you can do so inconspicuously, all the better. The trunk of my Malus ‘Pink Spires’ sustained extensive rabbit damage this past winter, until we wrapped it (loosely)with chicken wire. Because the tree is fronted by a bird bath and obscured from other vantage points by shrubbery, the chicken wire isn’t visible.

Most shrubs and perennials that have been chewed by rabbits will recover. Trees on the other hand may not – if more than half of the trunk circumference is damaged, the tree’s chances of survival are slim. The trunk of this Malus ‘Pink Spires’ is almost completely girdled in one spot, so it may well succumb to its injuries within the next year. I am keeping my fingers crossed though.

The Horticultural Solution

For most of us, by the time we discover we have a ‘critter’ problem, design solutions like raised beds or courtyards are no longer options, at least not without a costly and/or time-consuming redesign. So what can we do? Well we could remove altogether, anything that’s being eaten. However, what a particular animal finds tasty may not be consistent – in my own garden, the squirrels consistently bite the flower buds off one of my Scabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’, but leave the other two alone. Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ was sheared to the ground by rabbits every spring (and again as soon as it recovered from the first assault), until I moved it to the back yard. Spiraea bumalda ‘Goldmound’ is also ‘pruned’ to the ground every winter. It grows back though and stays quite compact thanks to the rabbits, so it’s not a problem. For many years these were the only plants bothered by nuisance wildlife.

Then last year I noticed elevated rabbit activity; all of my Heucheras were bitten off (silly rabbit didn’t eat the foliage, he just ate the tender juicy stems and left the beautifully coloured leaves scattered on the ground). Helictotrichon sempervirens – big bites out of it (weird because it has a very unpleasant tactile surface). Roses – gnawed to the ground (ouch, don’t they know roses have thorns). It seems a bunny is living somewhere very near my garden, though I’m not sure exactly where. I see him basking in the sun on my lawn or my neighbour’s lawn. And I do mean basking– splayed right out as if he was dead. And brash he is too. When I shoo him away he moves off slowly and nonchalantly – if he could speak I’m sure he’d be saying, ‘Yo, lady. What’s your problem?’

But I digress.

There are commercial rabbit, deer and squirrel repellents on the market, some of which are safe and environmentally friendly, others not. In addition, there are home remedies you can try – some target a specific pest, but since all are herbivores with similar fear responses, what works on one will often work on all.

  • In a comic strip a few years ago, one of the characters placed dog hair around plants to deter rabbits and squirrels. I tried this and it was actually working until the birds discovered the dog hair and decided it was excellent nesting material. My dog couldn’t shed fast enough to keep up with the demand for her hair so I gave up.
  • Blood meal is a strong disincentive for deer, rabbits and squirrels. A teaspoon or so sprinkled around the plant works very well, but it needs reapplication after it rains. Unfortunately blood meal can attract cats, though in my experience it doesn’t seem to draw them with any more frequency than usual. If you live in an area where bears and/or cougars are common, blood meal is not recommended as it may attract them. As well, because blood meal is a source of nitrogen, if frequent reapplication is required you run the risk of encouraging too much leafy growth. This can then create other issues; slugs and aphids to name a couple.
  • Crushed garlic in some water, steeped for a few days, then strained and sprayed on plants can be an effective repellent.
  • The presence of human urine, particularly male urine, is also purported to deter nuisance wildlife. Several years ago I advised an acreage client to, ahem, ‘mark his territory’, which he did and I believe it in fact reduced pest activity. Hard to say how it would have worked in the long-term though as I don’t think he was willing to continue this practice indefinitely. For city dwellers, you’ll have to be a little more creative in the method you ‘apply’ this if you don’t want to be noticed. And be sure to drink lots of water.
  • Other homemade concoctions may be also effective, but I urge you not to use any that have cayenne or Tabasco sauce as ingredients – I don’t think our aim should be to cause pain.

The Culprit – this fluffy fella camped out in my front yard all winter. I suspect it is the same rabbit who made my garden his favourite lunch spot last summer, as he has the same brazen attitude.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

So now that you have a few weapons in your arsenal let me offer…

Another Perspective

When we first embark on the journey that is gardening, it’s very much about ourselves – what we like, what we want. It’s not intentionally selfish, but we’re a bit like the youngster who is determined to ‘do it by myself ’. We’re content to putter and play in the dirt and we’re not much interested in what the experts, or the neighbors, have to say.

Once we’ve gardened for a few years, and after countless mistakes (sometimes expensive ones) we recognize that some advice from a garden designer or coach might be helpful. And we become all too interested in what the neighbors and passers-by have to say.

Eventually enlightenment comes, with the realization that our gardens are much more than just playgrounds for our green thumbs, or a source of affirmation for our needy egos. Our gardens are enormous ecosystems, home to millions of life forms, some we can’t see, some we can’t pronounce and some we’ve never even heard of. While not all of them can be deemed ‘beneficial’, they all have a role to play. Aphids for example are pests to be sure, but they are also a food source for an army of beneficial visitors – ladybugs, green lacewings, hoverflies, midges (and the larva of all), and many birds (especially the young). If there are no aphids these predator bugs lose a significant component of their diet. An enlightened gardener therefore, learns to leave well enough alone.

There is wisdom to be gained from Ms. Alexander’s refrain. When I find myself lamenting the loss or damage to a prized plant by some hungry critter, those words ‘all creatures great and small’ start playing in my head. Yes, all have a role to play.

I haven’t figured out yet what role that ‘Wascally Wabbit’ has to play (they do love to eat dandelions), nor the pesky squirrels (I guess they too are a food source, most notably for the magnificent birds of prey), but I can’t help feeling some compassion, even kinship, with these animals that make my yard and garden their home – in a way we’re all in this together. I have a particular soft spot for the young ones. A touching experience with a very young squirrel the other day underscored my feelings. I don’t know where he came from or where he disappeared to, but to me he appeared too young to be without his mama. He was quite enamoured of both me and my husband and stayed to ‘visit’ with us for a bit, then scampered off. He sure was a cute.

Some years ago my father and his wife sent me this lovely birthday card – don’t know if they chose it just for its garden theme or if they recognized the gem of wisdom it contained:

The garden is home to so many – kinda puts it all in perspective doesn’t it?

So fellow gardeners, take heart  –  ‘Lucky is the World……to have you in it.’

Happy Mother’s Day,


© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

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