A Cultivated Ecology

Small animals in the home system

There are four groups of small animals in our garden that are intentionally placed.

I ) Firstly, over a year ago now we were given two female guinea pigs. They required food and shelter and initially a bit of medication as they had a very bad case of mange. This has since cleared and they are different animals altogether. Since spring our up-keep of them has dropped considerably as they are now ‘free-range’ in the garden – given that they do not really roam anywhere beyond certain landmarks in the garden. So instead of changing the newspaper in the hutch and feeding and watering, they basically take care of themselves and from the garden and in return eat some of the larger food scraps for us such as melon rinds, vege off-cuts, old tomatoes etc. They have become even healthier since this change in lifestyle as they get many, many, many times more the exercise than they ever did living in a hutch. They look so healthy! Stray cats are not a problem with a decent enough shelter being either a sturdy cardboard box or a brick structure they are well educated as to what to do if there is danger around.

II ) The guinea pigs are kept at the back of the garden where they can source their food and can be easily caught and groomed from time to time. From the kitchen they can largely been seen unless they are hiding behind a pot-plant having a siesta.

I ) The second introduction to the system was compost worms brought in from our previous residence where we had a worm farm. I have dabbled in worm farming over the years and I much prefer to do it the easy way now and have the worms in the garden doing their bit where it is needed. I have found that newspaper and cardboard and grass clippings are relished. Particularly as cardboard and thick newspaper seems to be a very sought after spot for them to lay their cocoons. Just recently I found some cardboard at the bottom of a pot plant I had re-potted and it was dotted with egg cases where it appeared that the worms had almost inserted the cocoon into the cardboard. In any case I am happy to keep up the paper supply and as a result we keep just about every scrap of paper that comes into the house for the eventual garden burial. We also have in comparison to the average home, quite a small garden area, but I have been amazed at the sheer volume of paper and newspaper that I have put into the garden over the last year. Plus the truck loads of grass clippings.

II ) The worms are throughout the garden and are introduced intentionally into newly potted plants (although they are probably already in the potting mix with cocoons). After twelve months it is remarkable to see the volume of worms. Especially in and around the kitchen sink drain where regular water is filtered down and I feed in a good amount of newspaper and clippings. They are plentiful in the soil there and are virtually maintenance free, but we do like to treat them with a direct hit of kitchen scraps here and there from time to time. In time I have another project pegged to construct a worm farm under the deck using a table frame and bathtub. This will be so that I can collect the run-off so that I can use it selectively on various fruiting plants around the garden as a natural fertiliser and soil conditioner.

I ) The third introduction to the system was a goldfish pond. They largely feed on the plant life in the pond such as algae and absolutely relish any slugs that I find in the garden. In return they are now feeding a water garden of water spinach, water chestnuts, watercress and mint as the pond water filters through and spills back into the pond, aerating the water. They have also had offspring which will be used to set up the aquaponics project I am anticipating.

As a side we have also introduced tadpoles which have blessed us with a small colony of green frogs that seem more content inside the tomato and strawberry bushes than by the pond which is great as they keep the pest insects down in those areas of the garden that need it.

II ) The pond is situated in the lowest point of the garden for drainage and aesthetic reasons. It is easily viewed from the deck and has since had yabbies introduced which I am happy to say have been breeding and seem to be the main beneficiaries from any snails that I throw into the pond.

I ) The fourth element was finally the chickens. Isa browns which we received in early December after completing the coop and straw-yard to my satisfaction. The change in the garden was almost immediate. Within days the very LARGE compost heap in the straw-yard had been levelled and scratched out by three very active chooks. We had to change their diet very early on as we found one was egg bound and we helped her through a very uncomfortable night to find a clear, shell-less, yolk-less sac in the box the next morning. She went on to heal only to lose one of the others to what we suspect was egg-binding also. Another went on to roam further than anticipated has has not been seen since. The last remaining chook now has two companions brought in by my wife to stop our first chook fretting over her sudden aloneness!

We now have a white frizzle female and what we really, really, really hope will be a FEMALE, brown silkie/frizzle x. They really are too young at the moment to be 100% sure, but it is likely. They have such character and reports from their supplier said they lay quite well and for a couple of years so I hope it is the case. So one chook is supplying us with an egg a day and all chooks are eating what must be an enormous amount of insects as they range and scratch through the garden when permitted. The Isa brown has a keen eye for spiders but is not all that keen on earthworms and the bantams surprisingly will down slugs and even snails that they can manage. Even large ones if the shell is cracked or damaged.

II ) In our limited space garden there was really only one spot the chickens could go taking into consideration council requirements. They have been situated behind the shed and since the building of the house at the back have now been ‘sandwiched’ by the addition of a shed on the neighbouring property. They are visited daily which means that about 90% of the back garden is in sight and can be visually inspected each day to observe things. The food such as pellets, grit and wheat is stored in dry, sealable containers (recycled) under the deck and is easily on hand for feeding the chooks – as is the water tank for changing their water.

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