Sugar Mountain has great soil for growing maple trees but terrible for gardening. Our soil is shallow, acidic, stoney and the top soil is a very thin (1/8″) organic layer over glacial gravel, sand and granite ledge in most places. It is like gardening on bare sub-soil – not terribly productive.
Years ago I got soil tests done. To follow the UVM extension service’s recommendations for adding fertilizers would have been horrendously expensive. I also didn’t want to go the chemical fertilizer route. Manure is very hard to come by in any quantity – I’m not interested in buying it by the bag at the garden store. There are fewer and fewer dairy farms or any other farms that generate any excess manure. The farmers use most of their animals’ manure on their own fields. Any extra goes to family gardens. Occasionally I’ll see a little for sale in the classifieds. Horse manure is readily available but carries tetanus.
The solution was to get our own animals who would generate manure to turn our glacial till soil into rich garden beds. That’s the theory and it works. It might seem like a very long and convoluted way to grow a tomato. The side benefit is you get a lot of tomatoes, corn, pumpkins and other veggies as well as some great pork, eggs, chicken, lamb, wool, etc along the way. And if you do it right the animals will provide free labor in your gardens.
The standard way of modern farming is you put the animal in a box, shovel the food in one end, shovel the manure out the other end, spread the manure on the field, grow crops, shovel the crops back in the other end of the box, shovel the manure out, take the animal out and sell it. That is a lot of back breaking shoveling.
A simpler method is you put the animals out to pasture, they harvest their own food, spread the manure around and then you harvest the animals. Some people refer to this pastured method as grass farming. The animals do most of the work and it is a lot easier on the back. This method is real traditional farming and not compatible with the USDA’s proposed NAIS or their other scary ideas about modern farming. The more I learn about the USDA the less I like them. But that is another topic. We’re here to talk shit.
We use this pastured model of traditional agriculture with our animals with some fine tuning for our climate and location. The animals over winter in areas that I want to turn into gardens in a year or two. This fertilizes the area. Any waste hay gets mixed into the ground. In the spring the pigs till up the garden space, mixing the hay into the soil. When pigs are mobbed into a small area, such as four to ten pigs in a 2,000 sq-ft garden, they dig in deeply and till the soil. They enjoy their work and I enjoy not having to own or run a tiller. Of course, bigger pigs till deeper and faster. More pig power.
A big trick is not to have the pigs in an area for too long. You do not want the soil to become compacted. This is easy, watch it. It is better to move them between small sections that take them a week to till up than to leave them on a big section that takes them months to work over.
After they are done fertilizing, working in the winter’s hay and turning over the soil we move the pigs out and move in the chickens for a few weeks. The chickens get any insects and plants that sprout up, smooth the soil down and leave the garden devoid of plant life. I like that because I am not overly fond of weeding. We then move the chickens out and plant immediately. Again, don’t leave the birds on the area too long or they will pack the soil.
The trick with getting the animals to do a good job is to limit the space they are in and limit the time they are there. This mobbing causes pigs to change their behavior to either root or graze. Out on the pasture with plenty of space they don’t tend to dig very much or deeply. Instead they graze. But when they are mobbed into a smaller area they dig down deep into the heart of the soil, working in organic material and digging up rocks. This all results in fertilized, tilled, leveled, virtually weed free gardens with very little effort on our part. As a side benefit you get to eat the tillers.
The other thing we do is move the pigs and then the chickens through gardens in the fall after we have finished harvesting. The animals clean up any crop residues, till the remains into the soil, fertilize the gardens and break up insect overwintering cycles. This means better gardens with fewer insects in the spring.
58째F/54째F 4″ Rain