Last week—shades of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor—I spotted a cottontail in my garden. “Garden” may be too formal a name for three tomato plants, some persistent grass, a little clover, way too much creeping Jenny, and at least one thistle. I could certainly understand how such a model of flourishing horticulture might appeal to a cottontail. What I couldn’t understand was how the furry little invader got in there.
The garden is in a raised circular bed that’s about 18 inches high, with a woven wire fence on top of that and a wire screen over the whole thing. I couldn’t see any rabbit-sized gaps in the fence or any signs of digging underneath it. My best guess was that the rabbit must have hopped in the day before while I was watering the tomatoes and had left the gate open for a while. I opened the gate, shooed it out, and figured the incident was closed—at least as long as the gate was closed.
But two days later, there was the rabbit again, hiding behind a tomato plant, nose twitching, the perfect picture of long-eared innocence. This time I knew the gate had been shut. When I approached the fence, the bunny didn’t wait for me to open the gate, but headed in the opposite direction. It got to the fence, slowed down slightly, and hopped right through.
For anyone who cares to know, I have now established, through actual observation and measurement, that a cottontail can slip through an opening two inches wide by four inches high. When I bought the fence, I was thinking about deer, not rabbits. The solution, I decided, was to get some light woven wire with a smaller mesh and put a row of it around the bottom of the fence. Good idea. I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
Last evening, when I watered the tomato plants, I decided it was past time to do a little weeding. I put my gloves on and pulled the thistle. I took a hoe to the grass and the clover. I pulled some of the creeping Jenny, which is a futile endeavor, but at least I could say I was trying.
Underneath one side of the largest tomato plant was a pile of dried grass and weeds, left over from the last time I got ambitious enough to weed the garden. I picked up a handful of it and tossed it over the fence. The second handful contained some bits of soft gray fur.
When I picked up the third handful, there they were—five or six baby cottontails, snuggled together in the nest their mother had hollowed out and covered with the leavings from my weeding. I was startled to see them. I’m sure they were more than startled to see me. It must be terrifying to have the roof ripped off your house to reveal a giant, menacing creature crouched over your bed. Frightened as they must have been, though, they held true to their instincts and training and didn’t move. I just had a glimpse of bright eyes and twitching noses before I dropped the grass back over them.
Now I was faced with a moral dilemma. The immediate question was whether to go ahead and water the bunny-harboring tomato plant. Yes, I decided. The nest was under one side of the plant but not inside the basin I had dug around it to hold in water. If mama bunny had chosen to build her house on the edge of a lake, it wasn’t my problem if her basement occasionally flooded.
The bigger dilemma was what to do about the nest. Rabbits are pests. Rabbits, or so I presume, eat tomatoes. Peter notwithstanding, rabbits don’t belong in gardens. Mr. McGregor and I are quite in agreement about that.
Yet, in the instant I decided, without any thought, to cover up the baby cottontails again instead of getting rid of them, they somehow became my rabbits. Maybe because they were so cute. Maybe because they were so vulnerable, lying still in the nest with their hearts thumping and their ears flattened back. Maybe just because they were babies.
Or maybe because of my respect for their mother’s wisdom in choosing the site for her nest. She found the perfect spot, safe from foxes, dogs, cats, and hawks—from almost any predators, in fact, except me. Judging from the height and quantity of the weeds, she probably figured I didn’t spend enough time in the garden to pose much of a threat.
I have to admit she was right. For now, my garden consists of three tomato plants, some half-hoed grass, a little clover, still too much creeping Jenny, no thistles, five or six baby bunnies, and one quick and clever mother cottontail. I can always rabbit-proof the fence after the babies grow up and leave home. It’s a decision I may regret if I find bunny bite marks in half my tomatoes. On the other hand, if they promise to eat the creeping Jenny instead of the tomatoes, we might even negotiate a long-term lease.
Mr. McGregor would be ashamed of me, but I don’t care.