By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
June 3, 2021
Welcome loyal readers and new ones too. I am happy to find a new home for my stories here at the Fernandina Observer. I will continue to post my column “Pat’s Wildways” here thanks to the Observer’s invitation.
Many of you have followed Bucko and my gardening trials and challenges over the years. But right now, fingers crossed, we seem to be on top of things. For one thing, we have decided to enjoy the wild rabbits that visit our yard since it is nearly impossible to control them. We first tried raised beds with good soil to plant our veggies, but no, the rabbits are at ground level and eat it all up. You think you like beans and peas, well let me tell you, wild rabbits love bean and pea sprouts even more. They gobble up rows of them just as the little leaves poke through the soil surface.
So we tried “rabbit fences” around the garden, but our little Florida bunnies hop right through the mesh. As a zoologist I should have been aware of “Bergmann’s Rule”, the fact that within a taxonomic group of animals, the closer you get to the equator the smaller they become, a factor related to heat loss. So, our rabbits here in Florida are smaller than those up north. And the rabbit fences were not designed for our smaller rabbits, apparently.
We tried rabbit repellents (no good), human hair (still no good) and other possible deterrents too, but nothing worked. We tried trap and release methods, but rabbits always showed up again. We even installed a solid fence, with the bottom buried in the ground, but between the armadillos and rabbits, this supposed barrier was constantly under-mined. Eventually, we had to install elevated beds, with the crops at waist level. Not only is this easier to work in, it also is above rabbit chewing height. Finally, we are all set with the rabbit problem.
This early spring I had a fine crop of sweet pea flowers—enough to fill our home with fragrant blooms and more plenty more to make bouquets for any friend who was lucky enough to have a birthday or other special event during my “sweet pea season”. Now one elevated bed is full of wax and green bean plants that will be soon loaded with legumes for many dinners to come. The other elevated bed is green with young zinnia plants and some pineapple sages. Soon enough these flowers will fill my home and be gifted to friends during my “zinnia season.” And the black-berry laden vines along the fence are well above rabbit eating distance and as of yet have not been noticed by the squirrels.
So, with these herbivore problems under control, temporarily at least, I can enjoy the rabbits. Most evenings I relax in my lawn chair in the early evening and watch our backyard wildlife show. It’s a regular farm out there. First the two resident ducks waddle in to glean any birdseed that has fallen from our feeders. They have never caused any problems that we know of in our yard and we welcome them unlike the more destructive and messy geese and their large goslings that we do our best to chase away when they show up.
After the ducks show up, the rabbits seem to know the coast is clear and two of them sneak out from the bushes and start munching on our lawn and dollar weed—not very much harm they can do here. Soon enough the doves fly in to compete with the ducks for the fallen grain. Above them on the feeders a pair of cardinals has now started to bring in their offspring to teach them the joys of backyard foraging. Chickadees and titmice are also regulars here and occasionally a raucous blue jay shows up to stir things up.
Soon, though, I’m expected to be disturbed by the rabbits again. Against my better judgment, I have now planted sweet potato vines to form a ground cover beneath the large pots that hold my butterfly and caterpillar attracting flowers. I’ve seen this done elsewhere, and, if successful, I will be able to harvest a crop of sweet potatoes in the months to come. But I’m not counting my potatoes yet! Right now the little plants are protected by upturned hanging baskets, but soon enough the vines will spread further, into the rabbit zone. Do rabbits like sweet potato vines? Only time will tell.
And the gardening adventures continue.
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations at firstname.lastname@example.org