The unabridged litany of gardening lamentations is Homeric in length. From the tilling of soil and placement of seeds to mulching, cultivation and harvest, so many things can go wrong that complaints are often knee-high by the Fourth of July.
Take rabbits. Every two or three years, the gardeners' chorus wails and gnashes its teeth in incredulity at what must surely be a record population of rabbits with unprecedented appetites for peas, beans, tulips and other rabbit delicacies.
This has felt like one of those years. "I've heard lots of grumbling," says UW professor Scott Craven, adding: "I think for most avid gardeners, every year is the worst year."
A specialist in wildlife ecology, Craven emphasizes that he's not sure there have, in fact, been more rabbits than usual this year. The usual number of rabbits is itself elusive, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has estimated the state's cottontail population at more than five million.
"All things considered," Craven observes, "it wasn't a particularly severe winter." Such conditions favor an early start to the breeding season. "They're prolific breeders," he confirms. "They start with litters as early as March." Gestation periods are three or four weeks. And they breed again soon after each litter. "They can really crank them out," Craven deadpans.
Any proliferation of rabbits might also be ascribed in part to "the kinds of things people have done with the landscape around Dane County," he adds. It's a good life for rabbits here, he explains, compared to pristine wild settings where cottontails would be more exposed as prey for coyotes, fox and raptors.
In an urban area, he notes, "cats are probably the major predator on young and nesting rabbits." Automobile traffic also contributes to rabbit casualties.
While you may see the occasional snowshoe hare, Craven says, the vast majority of the area's lagomorphs are cottontails. "There may still be white-tailed jackrabbits, but I think they've pretty much disappeared," he adds.
Lagomorphs are an order of gnawing mammals distinguished from rodents by two pairs of specialized upper incisors. "A lot of people look at those big buck teeth and think they're rodents," Craven says. They're not. Nor are they an invasive species, he adds. They're native.
Aside from their reputations for prolific breeding and for devouring gardens, what's so bad about bunnies? Well, since you asked....
Craven notes that some rabbits and hares host a bacterium that causes tularemia, a serious illness also known as rabbit fever. Symptoms include fever, chills, headaches, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough and progressive weakness.
But before you get all Elmer Fudd and start in on the operatic refrain for "Kill the Wabbit," Craven reassures that the incidence of tularemia is less prevalent than the more familiar Lyme disease.
Rabbits do have their upsides, Craven points out. "The main claim to fame for rabbits is they're prey animals," Craven says. "They're an important prey species for a wide variety of avian and mammalian species." Hunters take "hundreds of thousands" of Wisconsin rabbits as game animals, he adds.
Craven is nonetheless sympathetic to gardeners' lagomorphic lamentations. "I complain," he says. "They make it difficult to grow some things in my garden, like lettuce, spinach, beet tops, beans, peas and other greens."
But there are ways to protect your garden. Craven has compiled the options in Protecting Gardens and Landscape Plantings from Rabbits, a UW-Extension bulletin available at learningstore.uwex.edu/pdf%5CG1654.pdf.
"If you're going to have a garden plot," he says, "a good rabbit-proof fence is a savior."
Craven does not favor repellents. "They're not great for human consumption," he argues, "and they can be tedious to apply."
Nor does he recommend marigolds as an effective deterrent. Rabbits appear to find their fragrance "obnoxious," he concedes, "but I wouldn't bet my garden on marigolds."