Below is an excerpt from Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, 5th Edition © Bob Bennett. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.
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Rabbits can help your garden grow, and your garden can do the same for your rabbits. The manure is great for growing most anything, and some garden produce can help you feed your rabbits. Rabbit manure contains higher proportions of nitrogen and phosphorus than many other manures and more potash than most. It won’t burn plants or lawns even when applied fresh. It comes in a convenient round, dry form. I can’t get enough of the stuff, and everybody keeps trying to talk me out of it. Every spring my gardening neighbors expect at least a feed sack full (along with the tomato plants I give them).
Make Manure Go a Long Way: Compost!
You can use rabbit manure just the way it is, forked up from under the hutches. But composting it with other materials will make it go farther and enhance its value as an all-around fertilizer and soil conditioner.
Twice a year, I push garden cartloads of manure to an area near my garden and build compost heaps. In November, when all the leaves fall from my large trees, I build piles of alternating layers of rabbit manure and leaves, along with plants from my fall garden cleanup, interspersed with sprinklings of superphosphate, lime, and sometimes chemical fertilizer. In spring, I build additional heaps, using more manure and leftover leaves plus those from the spring cleanup. Later I add grass clippings and weeds to the heaps, and thus I have a supply of late-summer compost to add to my spring output.
Follow any good composting scheme, add rabbit manure, and watch things grow. If the compost doesn’t rot fast enough for me, I get out my shredder and grind it all up. My favorite composting book, which has complete instructions, is Let It Rot! by my late friend Stu Campbell (Storey Publishing, 1998).
In 1978, I started vegetable and perennial flower gardens in the worst clay soil I could imagine. Some of it actually was not just brown but purple and green. I probably could have mined it and sold it to a hobby store for clay modeling. It was a terrible garden situation. All the vegetables had to be grown on raised beds. Most of the first perennials died from lack of drainage and from being forced out of the ground by frost heaves. When this stuff was dry, the garden was like a brickyard. When it was wet, you’d be afraid you would sink in and not come back up. But I have put rabbit manure on it every spring and every fall since then, and continue to do so, because in only a few years amazing improvement took place.
Now my vegetable garden soil is soft and crumbly, rich and black. The drainage has improved, and the yield is wonderful. It’s a cinch to till because of a texture that would remind you of chocolate cake, and it absorbs water like a sponge. If I had to move, the worst part would be leaving this soil. In fact, one rabbit raiser I know, who achieved garden soil like mine through years of application of rabbit manure, hired a backhoe and a dump truck and took his vegetable-garden soil with him when he moved to another part of town.
Where and How to Use Manure
Straight rabbit manure or manure compost can be dug and tilled into any garden soil with good results — not just clay soil like mine but also sandy or any other kind of soil. It improves the texture of the soil, making it more receptive to rain and generally improving the flowers or vegetables. I add lime to the leaf-manure compost for most uses, but around the azaleas and rhododendrons, which like an acid-soil environment, I leave it out. Usually one of my compost heaps is an acid one, while the other is sweetened with lime.
If you dig the compost into your flower beds before planting time, you’ll soon have a good stand of whatever flowers you want to grow. Mulch your plants with more compost. For my flower beds, I sift the compost to a fine consistency and mulch the beds quite neatly. The mulch conserves moisture, smothers weeds, and keeps the beds attractive and nearly maintenance free. The following spring I dig in this mulch with some additional compost and start all over. I don’t see how you can put in too much rabbit-manure compost.
Into the vegetable garden goes cartload after cartload of compost before rototilling in the spring. Into each planting row goes some sifted, shredded compost. Into each hill of vine crops, such as cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and melons, goes a bushel basket full of compost. Vine crops really thrive on the stuff. When everything is up and growing, I don’t have to hoe weeds. I smother them and conserve moisture by banking a compost mulch around every row and hill. The next spring, just as in the flower garden, this mulch is tilled under, and the whole process starts again.
Rabbit Manure Saves Energy, Too!
In days of yore, before the advent of heating cables, gardening hotbeds often were heated with manure. A few years ago I found an old gardening book with directions and substituted rabbit manure for the horse variety. Now I start my tomato and pepper plants and my impatiens in late March here in Vermont in a rabbit-manure hotbed made of old storm windows, into which goes about a 2-foot (0.6 m) depth of droppings. By Memorial Day, when the danger of frost is past, I have hundreds of vegetable and flower plants. Electricity bill: $0. The true test of the capability of rabbit manure to heat a hotbed when the temperature is way below freezing outside is the impatiens. This annual flower seed, which I save from year to year for plenty of color in the shade, takes about three weeks to germinate. The sustaining bottom heat of the rabbit manure does the job.
Help from the Worms
Fat, wriggly red worms inhabit the compost heap, partly because they are attracted to it and find it a comfortable and palatable environment, and partly because I put them there with the manure when I clean out my rabbit barn. These worms do a great job of converting the compost into good, rich, black potting soil. For starting seeds, I know nothing better. Down at the bottom of the compost heap you’ll find good potting soil just for the digging.
What about the Lawns?
Rabbit manure and rabbit compost can also go on the lawn as a top dressing at any time of the year, but use a little caution. If you feed pellets or recleaned grains, the manure will not contain weed seeds. But if you add hay and straw to your rabbit feed, you might not like the looks of your lawn if you use rabbit manure.
I get some weeds with the rabbit manure, but I don’t mind them much. Years ago, when I had a suburban lawn and used plenty of commercial fertilizers and weed killers, I still had some weeds. Now I have a much thicker, healthier turf and probably no more weeds than I had years ago. If I really wanted to knock them off, I could use a spray weed killer. One of these days, I might even do it.
For the lawn, I either run the compost through my shredder to make it fine enough for my fertilizer spreader to handle or I sift it through a frame of 2x4s and hardware cloth. You don’t want it so coarse that it will mat and smother the lawn. The compost for a lawn must be fine enough to let the blades of grass through. I often simply “broadcast” dry manure with a shovel from my cart. A friend of mine spreads dried rabbit manure straight on his yard all winter long. He’s the first one in town to crank up the lawn mower in the spring.
Love listening to podcasts? Check out episode #16 – Raising Rabbits for Meat on my Sustainability Book Chat podcast where I interviewed Eric and Callene Rapp who have raised tens of thousands of rabbits over the years.
Want a more old-school and practical approach to raising rabbits? Check out – How to Raise Meat Rabbits: 14 Tips for Success by Leah Lynch, a show-quality French Lop rabbit breeder.
Other articles you may like to read
- Compost: my only fertilizer
- Composting with Chicken Manure: A Beginner’s Guide
- Growing the Backyard Orchard