by Julia Frisbie
posted May 13, 2021
True polyculture includes many types of animals in addition to plants. We’ve created forage and shelter for wild critters around our yard, and also introduced several species of small livestock. Since the pandemic is a great time to get more animals (where else you gonna go, what else you gonna do?!) I’m providing a comparison chart of animal co-workers in our garden that you might consider adding to yours. Different species are better at different jobs:
|Food scrap composting||STAR PERFORMERS (we feed them everything, including meat, bones, and eggshells)||Very little (they have trouble breaking big pieces into small ones)||Very little (they’re choosy vegans)|
|Fertilization||Yes, but their poop is “hot” and needs to age before planting||Yes, and their poop is dilute enough to apply directly (plants especially love being ‘fertigated’ by dirty duck water)||Yes, and their poop comes in convenient pellets that are “cool” and can be sprinkled directly in the garden|
|Slug and snail control||A little||STAR PERFORMERS, this is their #1 mission||No|
|Eggs||Yes||Yes (depending on breed)||No|
|Meat||Yes, but… old hens are tough, and roosters are illegal within city limits. We raised fast-growing meat birds in a movable pen last year and they were much better.||Yes, but… they’re so hard to pluck||STAR PERFORMERS, they’re by far the easiest to butcher, skin, and eviscerate|
|Self Perpetuation||Some broody hens can do a better job raising feed store chicks than you could in a brooder||Ducks go broody less often, but it’s legal to have both sexes within the city limits, so if you have an incubator…||STAR PERFORMERS|
|Fur||No||No||Theoretically, but it’s a pain to process|
|Down Feathers||No||Theoretically, but it’s a pain to process||No|
|Ability to rotate/move||Yes, but only with major effort to contain them||Yes, with little effort. You can herd them like sheep.||No|
You’ll notice that cuddliness is not on this list. It’s actually a SUPER important consideration for us, because two out of three humans in our family regularly hug the livestock. But we’ve found that cuddliness depends more on each individual’s early and ongoing experience with people (frequent handling makes a calmer critter) and breed (some are more curious and outgoing, while others are more anxious) than it does on the species. If cuddles matter to you, get a friendly breed and handle it a lot.
Your final consideration is housing. Of course they all make an easy meal for a predator and need secure nighttime housing… but what about letting them out in the day? How easy it is to keep them in one place, and how much damage do they cause if they escape?
Rabbits are nearly impossible to contain. They dig. The only way to prevent them from destroying the garden is to set aside a permanent warren and bury fencing several feet into the ground all the way around it (not feasible in our rotational system) or keep them in small wire cages. I don’t have the stomach for cages, so we gave our rabbits away. If meat is your priority and you either have space for a warren or determination to cage them, then rabbits might work better for you than they did for us.
Chickens are a bit easier to contain than rabbits, but they like to squirm under the bottom edge of fences, and if they get really excited they may fly over the top. They can be rotated in different areas as long as you’re willing to drag around and stake wire fencing that’s at least four feet tall… and even then, you may have escapees. When they get out, they scratch the soil up looking for bugs, leaving craters in the mulch and uprooting tender seedlings. These search-and-destroy missions can cost entire crops. We still keep hens, even though they’re naughty, because their ability to compost food scraps is unmatched.
Ducks like having their bills stroked in cold weather, and they’re the easiest to contain by far. A three-foot fence will do it, and they don’t push out under the bottom. If they do run amok, they tend to do less damage than either rabbits or chickens. The worst they’ll do is trample young plants or take a nibble here or there. They’re also easier to redirect– you can herd them around like sheep. I often release the ducks temporarily so that they can work alongside me in the garden. I pull weeds, and they forage for slugs and snails. The downside of ducks is that they’re the most hydro-intensive, needing a fresh wash tub basin of water daily for the purposes of drinking, frolicking, and making mud.
Any animal you share your life with will make you laugh. Just wait until you see rabbit binkies, chicken dust baths, or duck yoga. It makes all the fencing worth it.
What about bees, quail, geese, red wiggler worms, et cetera? We haven’t tried them, but please leave a comment with your experience! What about goats? They’re still illegal to keep within city limits, but it’s high time to change that code (this is actually part of Transition Fidalgo’s Vision 2030).
Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.