I am first and foremost a gardener. But who among us couldn’t use a little help now and then? I don’t mean the two-legged kind that can be reluctant or not share your enthusiasm. No, I mean animals. There are many permaculture models that have cows on pasture, followed by sheep, followed by chickens. I am not interested in raising animals for meat. I am a meat-eater and have come to terms with what is means to nourish myself with the flesh of other living things. I have killed a chicken to eat and it has taught me what a gift it is and never to waste any part of it. Still, I don’t have the desire to raise and kill my own animals. I have made connections in the community with those who enjoy the raising of animals and all that entails and I am happy to support them with my purchasing dollars. My animal partners help me with gardening and don’t need to give up their lives to do so.
I have an 8,000 square foot vegetable garden, two hundred-foot flower borders, herb gardens, fruit orchards, and a food forest. This seems like a lot and it has evolved over 20 years but it is not a pasture farm with large animals described above. In fact, you could probably squeeze all this to an acre or two of land. So who are my animal helpers and what do they do for me? I keep chickens and bees and my garden flourishes as a result.
Incorporating animals is following nature’s example. It is ridiculous to think the basic rules are not in play in our own gardens just because we have taken on the role of orchestrator on our given plot. The first and most important rule of gardening with nature is to do no harm. No chemicals of any kind. No artificial fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides. None. If this is not how you are used to garden you may be afraid to let go. Trust me, the partners who come to help will more than make up for what may be lost by the occasional nibbling insect or invading weed. Clean healthy soil will encourage worms that aerate the soil and nourish it with their droppings. Putting up a few bird houses will encourage them to stick around for lunch and eat unwanted insects. I once had been dismayed by squash beetles that had descended on tender transplants I had recently put out. They were covered and I feared were a total loss. Rather than have an empty patch I added a pretty trellis my sons had made for me. I went in and attempted to soothe myself with a cup of tea on the deck which overlooks the garden. While sitting there I saw a bird land on the perch, look down and seem to be delighted at the feast below. He dropped to the bed and gobbled up all the beetles. I had a bumper crop of squash after all! Now I always add perches for these helpers. I could also wax poetic on the value of the microorganisms and fungi in the soil and how they feed the plants. But the truth is, follow rule number one and you can reap the rewards of the soil microcosm without needing to know the details.
Now the the animals I “hire,” these animal partners and I work together for mutual success. First the chickens. I keep layers. So the first, obvious gift I receive is eggs. But too many folks overlook how helpful chickens in the garden can be. We (read: my dear husband) used to muck out the chicken coop regularly and compost this for a year or so until it was ready to add to the garden beds. We have found easier, faster ways to have the chickens help build our soil. If you haven’t yet heard of a “chicken tractor” look it up and find one that works for you. Basically, this is a moveable coop that is either bottomless or has a mesh bottom (use 1″ mesh) so manure falls through. No more mucking out the chicken coop!! Simply move the coop around your garden. The chickens will scratch to their hearts content eating insects and weed seeds and dropping their fertilizer and scratching it in to the soil. Often times not much else is necessary to prepare the bed. Simply rake it smooth, add an inch or so of compost mulch then your bed is ready to plant or seed. This is best done in the early spring and late fall, before or after planting. During the summer, I rotate the “girls” on my orchards, food forest, and lawns. In winter, I add a foot thick bed of wood chips to my greenhouse (plastic high-tunnel). I roll in their nest boxes and put in a few perches. They scratch and poop all winter into this mulch creating a lovely compost to add to my beds the next season. You only need 3 square feet per bird. I also throw all my kitchen scraps to them over the winter. Chickens are wonderful alchemists turning garbage to garden gold!
Not to be outdone, my other partners, the bees also serve me in two ways. They give me honey of course and pollinate my fruits, vegetables and flowers. In return I give them houses (hives) and protection from bears. The keeping of bees does take a bit of courage but once you have made friends it is a thrilling undertaking. Most of you know that bee populations have been declining over the past few decades. This has the potential to be devastating to worldwide food production which relies on these and other insects for pollination. Keeping your own can help restore the wild populations as well as pollinate not only your plants but those in the wild that birds and others wildlife need for survival. I plant many of their favorites in the garden like sweet alyssum, poppies, and herbs like lovage and parsley that I let go to seed. They return the favor with beautiful flowers and bountiful harvests. Then their golden honey keeps me sweet all winter!