Animals and nutrient go hand in hand and there is no better way to fertilise your garden, build soil and bring life to the garden, than integrating some or many small animals into your garden.…writes Bena Denton.

I’m often surprised at the hesitation of people to initially integrate small animals, especially chooks, into ones edible garden…smelly, noisy, a hassle perhaps?  It’s not long before most are keen converts and reaping the rewards of a super abundant garden bursting with active soil life.  There are many reasons why small animals will benefit you and your backyard and we will explore three such animals today…

Chooks

Chooks are my favourite small bird and its no wonder they are called the ‘gateway animal’, browsing the lifestyle mags, there is a veritable array of information to illustrate how popular chooks are.  I’m going to focus on their nutrient contribution and behaviour as a biological resource, as opposed to care or breed.  Nutrient value?  No I don’t mean eating them (though you could 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.  Chooks only use a small proportion of the energy from the grains they are fed, most is pooped out in their manure.  Mix the manure with lots of carbon material, such as wood-chip, straw or autumn leaves, to increase your gardens organic matter.  Place chook coops high in the landscape so that their nutrient run-off feeds your garden.

Lazy Homemade Fertilizer

My lazy approach, is to shovel out the chook’s deep litter 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, bringing in massess of worms.  When I’m low on mulch I scoop this layer directly from the path to the garden bed.  That little trick has saved me heaps of time and hugely boosted my gardens productivity.

Biological Resource

Additionally, employ chooks as ‘free labour’, by putting them inside a portable pen, made of poultry netting, over uniformly sized vegetable beds.  In just a few days the bed will be weed free, manured and chooks will have happily laid you a few omega rich eggs.

Break Pest Cycles

Chooks are also great at helping to break pest cycles, such as plum slug and coddling moth by being sited beneath your apple trees in the winter and spring months to scratch up and eat overwintering larve.  Bored children?  Chooks are easy to raise and offer a wonderful little micro business for industrious children.  The inset photo shows my daughter Olive who raised and sold chooks for sale this summer- she was very pleased to make her own pocket money.

Pigs

If you enjoy a good laugh then pigs are for you.  I have only raised them once, so far and will do again, but perhaps with a less energetic breed.  Pigs are cleaver, reported to have the intelligence of a three year old and just as boisterous.  Pigs need little space, about 15sqm each to roam.  I have raised them in a smaller pen and moved the pen each day, but this is not recommended and I only did this out of desperation as this breed burst through all fence barriers – hence a placid breed next time.

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 biological control ie utilised their natural behaviour to root up and excavate ground.  If kykuyu a or convolvulus is a problem then pigs maybe 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 was terrifically fertile and even though I planted potatoes in the fallowed ground I watched amazed as every species of edible plant I had fed them, spring up and become my forage food garden for the next few months.

Bees

Honey bees are good for so many reasons; honey, propolis, pollinating fruit trees and vegetables but also yes – manure.  Did you know each hive will provide 100-250kg of bio-active fertiliser 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 natives great for winter bee feed are; manuka, makomako, rengarenga, akeake, hoheria, mahoe, tarata and more.

Franziska Hunerbein, a ‘beginner’ home bee keeper in New Plymouth (and whom started the wonderful Crop-Swop organisation), shares her top tips for bees in the edible garden;

  1. Join your local bee club, as these are amazing places to learn from each other and the experienced guys are super generous with their knowledge. Third Monday of each month 7pm at West Baptist Church, 144 South Road.
  2. A great thing about bees is they don’t need to be yours. Contact your local bee keeper suppliers and compare what they have to offer. Alternatively you can put your name on a swarm list as a cost effective way to start your own hive.
  3. Bees like a nicely sheltered, sunny spot with proximity to water. Bee kepper’s like a place that is easily accessible, preferable with a wheel barrow, because these boxes can get really heavy.
  4. Autumn is an awesome time to start your bee journey. If you would like to buy a book try ‘The Practical Beekeeper in New Zealand’.

Integrating small animals into your edible garden is a great step toward a more regenerative system.  The wonderful thing is that small animals can be fitted snugly into most suburban sections.  Other small animals to try are; ducks, geese, guineafowl, genea 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 Bena at Big Jims, as part of their landscaping design service. www.greenbridge.co.nz

Olive with her chooks

Attending the recent Manuka conference last month in Hawera was a real eye opener for me.  The potential market manuka and manuka honeyhas for our future Taranaki economy and small to big family income generators is huge.  Some farmers are already beginning to plant or allow to regenerate manuka on marginal land and finding the returns are greater than pastoral farming.