LOTS OF CRITTERS live in my back yard and I truly love to watch them all and know that I’m providing a habitat that’s suitable for them since I live in a tightly-packed neighborhood in a small town where most of the former farmland and greenspace around is being developed and taking away more habitat every day.
Through the seasons, the critters and I get to know each other and we tend to adapt our habits to each other. It’s always been a challenge keeping a garden without a fence around it and a few years the critters have gotten more out of it than me. Last year my back yard bunny kind of stepped out of bounds and I used one of my non-violent and non-chemical means, along with a stern lecture (I’m only human), to convince her to leave my beans to me!
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I’ve been enjoying the visits of this year’s backyard bunny. We’ve been watching her grow up in the back yard, and also observing her bold mom out in the street. I’ve always named the backyard bunny Hester because, well, read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and you’ll see the connection between the story and the bunny’s later activity.
But just as I was about to introduce Hester, she unintentionally did a very cruel thing…to me. She ate nearly all the leaves from my nine rows of beans.
I visit my garden each morning, even when nothing is growing in it. Simply visiting my back yard is my second favorite way to start the day—first is drinking coffee while my cats eat breakfast. But especially after I’ve planted seeds I hurry outside even when there’s no possible chance it’s sprouted yet, and walk around and look at this and that and take photos. I even do some work now and then—actually, this is when I do most of my gardening.
On the morning of July 4, as I was preparing my flag for the flagpole, I sensed from the corner of my eye that my garden looked…different. It wasn’t as green as it should be. I walked to the railing on the deck and looked down, and sure enough my bean plants had been reduced to sticks. Nothing else had been touched, just the beans.
That darned groundhog! was my first thought. But I hadn’t seen the groundhog for weeks, nor his telltale trails around the yard since his belly dragged everywhere and he was easy to track through my taller grass. I had followed his trails and put something, well, smelly, at the two openings I had found. Groundhogs may look like waddling fat blobs, but they are actually very clean and fastidious animals and don’t like their homes defiled. I knew this one was too young to be a mother, and I’d seen no babies, so I had no qualms at convincing her to leave. I put a plastic container of cat-pee-soaked litter where it couldn’t be missed and where I could easily retrieve it after a day without it contaminating the soil or anything around. It’s worked before, it worked again, groundhog disappeared, at least from my yard.
Just as I was standing there, Hester came around the corner of the deck and looked up at me without fear since she sees and smells me all the time, headed nibbling across the yard in her bunny way, and went right for my garden, right for what was left of my beans. Busted! I headed for my steps and saw that even my parsley had been nibbled!
I hurried down to my garden, beginning my lecture before I left my deck.
“Hester,” I began, “I respect your need to eat and to eventually feed your babies, but by now you know the rules.”
Hester nibbled a bean leaf. You have to know how much I love each plant that grows in my garden, but I have a special relationship with the ones I’ve planted, especially those that will eventually provide me sustenance—I pour my love on them so they have a happy life and are pleased to know their progeny will be loved and appreciated. I also know Hester sees tender young bean leaves in a totally different light from me.
“Hester, get away from my beans!” I said in as commanding a voice as I can manage, and continued walking directly toward her.
She stopped eating and looked at me, puzzled, but she put it together as I advanced. Three quick leaps put her well out of my distance in another part of the garden, among the tomato plants, which she does not like.
“Hester, I’m not going to do anything to you, but I’m going to take steps to convince you that you don’t want to eat my bean plants.”
She swiveled her ears, but kept her eyes on me. But I eat everything in the yard.
“I let all the things that bunnies like to eat grow all over my yard and even in my garden so that you will always have food, and I don’t use any chemicals so that you don’t have to worry about anything you eat,” I continued. “But it hurts me very much to see my precious plants chewed on, and some near death, just as much as it would hurt me to see you similarly wounded.”
She turned her head and scoped the yard. This human is as crazy as my mom told me she was.
And then I said something nasty that I hoped would put an edge on my lecture, even though I would never act on it.
“And I’ll just let you know that my cats love their raw food made of rabbit, especially when it’s fed on organic vegetables and greens, and you know they’ve been watching you.”
Trust me, I have this talk with bunnies in my back yard each year, and no bunnies have ever been harmed by me or my cats. And I really do let all the grasses and wild strawberries and violets and plantain and whatnot else grow in my garden and all over the yard so bunnies have good food to eat and always feel welcome. I think it’s a mistake to have only the plants you want in your garden, because your garden belongs to everything that lives there. I sing a different tune when the groundhog has come through, leaving it as if someone has weed-whacked the whole thing, and there are no white-tailed deer in my neighborhood. But somehow this whole lecture seems to work, and even though the resident Hester and other bunnies do nibble on the things meant for me to eat now and then, they pretty much stay with the plants that are their traditional favorites. I don’t mind if they have a special snack on special occasions.
But I also use a few chemical-free and barrier-free measures that help to reinforce the idea. I’ve used homemade hot-pepper spray and powder on plants, but young leaves often burn easily, and it’s difficult to wash off of greens. I know that bunnies, especially grazing at night, tend to follow their noses to find the best noms. So I found something that will mask the scent of the things I don’t want them to eat. For years, I’ve used baby powder, which is just non-toxic talc with perfume, lightly sprinkling it on the leaves and letting it fall on the ground around the plants. It has a characteristically strong scent that is nothing any bunny would want to eat, so they steer clear. If I need to, if I’ve used it on my lettuce, for instance, I can wash it off and it leaves no residue. I have to reapply it after a rain since it washes off. I followed Hester’s lecture with a baby powder dusting.
I also use cat fur bags, simply the cat fur I’ve collected from brushing and sweeping, and tucked it into a lightweight paper bag or a mesh onion bag. To a bunny at ground level, this smells and even may look as if a cat is sitting, right there, in the green bean bed, just waiting…I’ve seen bunnies freeze at coming upon a cat fur bag. The bunnies eventually figure it out, and they lose their scent after a while and are a mess in the rain, but with a multiple cat household I can easily make up another and place it in a different spot.
And I hope Hester’s mother doesn’t tell her that last year I gave up on her eating things and went to the farmer’s market. Her mother was a bold one, and still is, in fact, hopping down the middle of the street…
So most years I end up with enough and all are happy. I’m hoping for the best this year.
So far, so good! And of course the morning visit to the back yard and garden now includes Mimi, and in the past has included Cookie, Namir, Kelly and many other of my feline family.
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Read other topics about managing your backyard wildlife habitat.
Read the four-part series on developing your backyard wildlife habitat.
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