Keeping rabbits in your garden can bring many benefits. Whether you are keeping a few predominantly as pets, or considering ways to raise them commercially, or as part of efforts to create more sustainable and self-reliant systems where you live, it can be a great idea.
They can be reared for meat, to sell on young, for fur, or simply for fun. But one key reason why they can be such a useful type of small livestock to rear is that they also provide a bountiful source of manure – free fertilizer for your garden. This means that keeping rabbits can make sense for many grow-your-own gardeners.
Which Rabbits Should You Choose?
The first thing to think about when you decide to start keeping rabbits in your garden is which breed of rabbit you should get. There are many different breeds to consider, which have somewhat different characteristics and needs. While all rabbits will, of course, provide manure to fertilize your garden, it is important to think about your other goals and needs.
How Many Rabbits Should You Get?
Once you have decided which rabbits to get, you also need to think carefully about how many you need. Remember that rabbits breed – well – like rabbits! So starting with a few and allowing your bunny population to grow over time is often the best policy.
When thinking about how many rabbits to get to begin with, you should consider:
- How much space you have available to house them.
- Your budget (both for set up and ongoing care).
- How much food they will eat. (We’ll get into this more below.)
- How much time you have for their care.
- How much manure you need (the size of your garden).
Housing Your Rabbits
Rabbits are typically housed in hutches or cages, though can also be housed in a dedicated building or shed – AKA a rabbit house, perhaps even with a well-secured outside run.
One interesting thing to consider is that you might keep a rabbit hutch or cage inside a polytunnel, and could consider integrating keeping rabbits with other polytunnel systems.
You can consider integrating your rabbit cages with a composting system – allowing droppings to fall into a vermicomposting (worm composting) system for example… You can also consider allowing rabbits to access fruit and vegetable growing areas at certain times of year.
How much food rabbits will need will depend on the breed, and their size and age. Typically, the larger they are, the more they will eat. But if you plan to raise rabbits predominantly for manure, it is also worthwhile remembering that the more they eat, the more manure they will produce.
Rabbits are herbivorous and will eat hay, certain grasses, and a wide range of fruits, vegetables and herbs from your garden. Feeding rabbits on food you grow in your garden is a way to recycle – and restore nutrients to the system.
You may need to buy in some feed for your rabbits, but will likely be able to at least supplement their diet with plants grown in your own garden.
Of course, you will also have to make sure your rabbits always have access to fresh, clean water.
The Properties of Rabbit Manure
Rabbit manure can be used directly in your garden. Which sets it apart from many other types of manure, which must be composted before use. This is a very beneficial resource for gardeners, and is one of the key reasons why keeping rabbits in your garden is such as good idea.
While chicken manure, cattle manure, horse manure, goat and sheep manure etc. should all be well-rotted before use, rabbit manure is suitable for direct use.This is largely because rabbit manure is not ‘hot’ like other manures, and so is therefore much less likely to burn plants. There are also fewer concerns when it comes to pathogens than there are with other types of manure.
Rabbit manure is also excellent in terms of the nutrients it provides. Rabbit manure is very nutrient-rich. The nutrient profile of manures can vary significantly depending on the animals and what they ate. But rabbit manure is generally said to have four times more nutrients than cow or horse manure and twice as many as chicken manure.
When gardeners talk about different fertilizers for their gardens, they often talk about the amounts of three main plant nutrients that they provide – the ‘big three’ of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Rabbit manure typically has 3 -4.8 % N, 1.5-2.8 P, and 1-1.3 % K.
It is important to note that these are rough guides, and the actual nutrient profile can vary considerably. But even if the rabbit manure does not have the core nutrients to these levels, it is still a high nutrient content manure, and excellent for the fertility in a garden. It not only contains these three core nutrients, but also other important nutrients and micro-nutrients essential for good plant growth and good soil health.
In addition to being an excellent source of plant nutrients, rabbit manure is also great for improving the soil in your growing areas. It is a type of ‘brown organic matter’ that can be used to:
- Improve the soil’s water retention.
- Or reduce compaction and help it drain more freely.
- Improve aeration in the soil.
- Encourage healthy soil life, with plenty of micro-organisms, earthworms etc.
How To Use Rabbit Manure in Your Garden
You can use rabbit manure in a range of ways in your garden. For example, you can consider:
Adding Rabbit Manure to Composting Systems
Though rabbit manure does not usually have to be composted before it is used in your garden, you may choose to do so. The rabbit manure can also be a useful material to add balance to the compost and can make sure that the compost you create has a good nutrient profile. It will add plenty of nitrogen, but also more phosphorus and potassium than many other materials that you might add.
Using Rabbit Manure to Make New Garden Beds
Another thing to consider is that composting does not need to take place in a separate heap or bin. You can also compost materials in place in your garden.
Composting in place is a no dig garden involves creating layers of ‘brown’ (carbon rich) and ‘green’ nitrogen rich materials on the surface, rather than digging new beds. Rabbit manure can be one of the materials used in the creation of these layers, as you build up a new garden bed. Sometimes, a garden made in this way is described as a ‘lasagna garden’.
There is another related idea called ‘hugelkultur’ which involves making mounds of rotting wood, heaped over with layers of compostable materials as described above. Rabbit manure could also be a good ingredient to add in one of these growing areas.
Using Rabbit Manure as Fertilizer Around Plants
Plenty of the plants in your garden will benefit if you simply sprinkle some rabbit manure around them as a fertilizer. So having a few rabbits around could be a good thing, even if you don’t have a huge garden to work with. You can also use rabbit manure in a homemade potting mix to ensure container plants get the nutrients they need.
Rabbit manure is excellent for many commonly grown edible crops, including, but definitely not limited to:
- Fruit trees
- Fruiting shrubs
- Annual fruits (including tomatoes, peppers, squash etc..)
However, take care when fertilizing fruiting or flowering crops with rabbit droppings. Don’t let them touch the plants themselves, just sprinkle a few on the soil around them before watering well. And don’t overdo it, since too much nitrogen can encourage leafy growth at the expense of flowering and fruits.
Rabbit manure can definitely benefit nitrogen hungry leafy plants. But it is best to compost the manure before using it directly around plants whose edible portions make contact with the soil, such a lettuces, brassicas, and root crops. It is always important to wash your hands well and to wash garden produce carefully before consumption.
Using Rabbit Manure as a Mulch
In certain settings, around trees, shrubs and perennials, it can also be beneficialo use rabbit manure more abundantly as a mulch. If you have a large quantity of rabbit manure, using it as a mulch can be a good way to return its nutrients to the garden system.
The small pellets of rabbit manure break down relatively quickly in moist conditions. But will also serve as a longer lasting mulch in drier conditions. As a mulch or top dressing, it can protect the soil from nutrient run off and erosion. It can suppress weeds and help retain soil moisture.
Making a Liquid Fertilizer From Rabbit Manure
Finally, if you raise rabbits for manure, note that you can use the rabbit manure to make a liquid fertilizer. Liquid fertilizers are much quicker release, and nutrients will be available to plants more quickly. You don’t have to wait for the manure to break down in the soil. You can consider adding the manure to water to make a liquid plant feed to give plants a boost.
Please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.