Animals are great in the garden

Animals and nutrient go hand in hand and there is no better way to fertilize your garden than integrating some small animals, writes Bena Denton.


I’m often surprised at people's initial hesitation to integrate small animals into their garden.  There are many ways that animals can benefit you and your backyard to help turn it into a super abundant garden bursting with an active soil life and fresh produce. Today we look at three small animals…


Above: Bena's european wild boar.



Chooks are my favourite working bird and its no wonder they are called the ‘gateway animal’.  Just look at the lifestyle mags to see how popular they are.  I’m going to focus on their nutrient contribution as opposed to care or breed.  Nutrient value?  No, I don’t mean eating them (although you can do that), rather I’m referring to their manure, rich in nitrogen and potassium, two essential ingredients for plant growth and often in short supply in the garden.  Mix chook manure with lots of carbon material, such as woodchip, straw or autumn leaves, to increase your garden's organic matter content. 


Homemade Fertilizer

My lazy method is to shovel out chook bedding directly onto the garden paths (don’t put fresh manure on your food gardens as pathogens could be present).  This layer suppresses weeds, acts as a passive water sink, and slowly rots down to bring in masses of worms.  When I’m low on mulch, I simply scoop directly from the path to the garden bed.  This little trick has saved me heaps of time, while boosting my garden's productivity. 


Breaking Pest Cycles

Chickens are also great at helping to break pest cycles, such as plum slug or codling moth.  Place chooks beneath your apple/pear/plum trees in winter and spring to scratch up and eat overwintering larvae.   Bored children?  Chicks are easy to raise and offer a wonderful little micro-business for industrious children. 


Above: Bena's daughter Olive, who raised and sold seven pullets this summer.



If you enjoy a good laugh then pigs might be for you.  Pigs are clever, reported to have the intelligence of a three year old and just as boisterous.  They need little space (about 15sqm each to roam) and although I have raised them in a smaller pen and moved the pen each day, this is not recommended and I only did so out of desperation as we had European Wild Boars. This heritage breed is great eating, however they will burst through all but bullet-proof fence barriers.


While pigs can provide you with bacon and crackling (they grow rapidly & require little space and management) and their manure is useful (though less nutrient rich than most animal manures), I have used them primarily as a biologcal control ie utilised their natural behaviour to root up and excavate ground.  If you have a problem with kikuyu or convolvulus, then pigs may be your salvation.  Place a run in the problem area and watch them snuffle it up, but be sure to follow after them and roll up the ‘weeds’ like a carpet.  The ground after them is amazingly fertile and even though I planted potatoes in the fallowed ground, I watched amazed, as every species of edible plant I had fed the pigs, sprung up and became my forage food garden for the next few months. 



Honey bees are good for so many reasons; honey, propolis, pollinating fruit trees and vegetables, and also manure!  Did you know each hive will provide 100-250kg of bio-active fertilizer to your site each year?  To retain that nutrient close to you its important to plant plenty of nectar-rich flower sources during the winter and spring months when bees are often short for food.  Some common native plants that are great for winter bee feed are manuka, makomako, rengarenga, akeake, hoheria, mahoe, and tarata.


Above: Franziska's teenage son with the bees.


Franziska von Hunerbein, who runs the wonderful Crop-Swap organisation, is a ‘beginner’ home bee keeper.  Below she shares her top tips for keeping bees in a suburban garden:

1. Join your local bee club, as an amazing place to learn from each other, with the experienced guys being super generous with their knowledge. Third Monday of each month 7pm at West Baptist Church, 144 South Road, New Plymouth.

2. One great thing about bees is that they don’t need to be yours.  Contact your local bee keeper and compare what they have to offer in placing hives on your land.  Alternatively you can put your name on a swarm list as a cost effective way to start your own hive.

3. Bees like a sheltered, sunny spot with close proximity to water.  Bee keepers like a place that is easily accessible, preferably with a wheel barrow, as the hives can get really heavy.

4. Autumn is an awesome time to start your bee journey.  If you are looking for a book try ‘The Practical Beekeeper in New Zealand’ as a great place to start.


Integrating small animals into your edible garden is a step toward a more regenerative system, as all natural ecosystems include animals as part of their nutrient cycling, The wonderful thing is they can be fitted into most suburban sections.  Other small animals to consider are: ducks, geese, guinea fowl, guinea pig, quail and rabbits.  I hope you are a small animal convert today!


Bena Denton is an Ecological Garden Designer and is part of the GreenBridge team.  She lives with her family in Omata and is enjoying regenerating their 10acre property.  Ask for GreenBridge at Big Jims, as part of their Landscaping Design Service.


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