January 19, 2012


Willie and Frankie in the Spring

Our two little piglets aren't so little any more. Over the past 6 months Willie and Frankie have grown into ~150 pound hogs. They are now bigger, stronger and more capable of doing the work we are asking of them: to turn over soil and prepare it for planting.

The area of land we call the courtyard, which is also a food forest in its infant stages, needs some help. The grasses and annual herbs that dominate this section of land are almost all non-native, invasive plants. They are plants that aren't particularly good fodder for the animals, do not build soil well, nor do they have much utility for us humans.

Willie and Frankie in early January eating non-native grasses
My goal is to transform this infant food forest into one where native perennial grasses and dry-land alfalfa become the dominant plants in the grass and herbaceous layer. The native grasses, as well as the alfalfa, have deep roots, making them well adapted to tap ground water during our dry summers. The alfalfa and native grasses also create high quality animal forage. Additionally, alfalfa is a nitrogen-fixer and so it increases soil fertility, aiding its neighboring native grasses, as well as the fruit bearing trees and bushes.

The seeds of most of the native grasses and the alfalfa germinate best if they have contact with bare mineral soil. Meaning, the existing grass and herbs need to be removed or turned over so that the seeds of the desired plants can have direct contact with the dirt. Turning over, by hand, all the soil in the courtyard--about an acre of space--is quite a bit of work. It's certainly do-able, but we are always looking for ways to make our work easier.

Enter Willie and Frankie. What for us may be work (such as loosening up soil, digging up ground and fertilizing the earth), for Willie and Frankie goes hand in hand with breathing and eating.

Part of the courtyard after Willie and Frankie did their job

In late November, the two pigs were moved into a small section of the courtyard. They slept there, ate there, pooped there, and most importantly rooted around. Its been a rather dry winter and so it wasn't until we got some rain in mid December, and the ground softened up, that their efforts made a noticeable difference. By early January, they had sufficiently exposed the mineral soil, and so we moved them to a new location within the courtyard so they could continue their work.

These two pigs are marvels. In The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It, John Seymour writes something along the lines of you either need pigs or a plow. I think he's right. More or less in the following order, Willie and Frankie ate the grass down to its roots, turned over the soil, worked manure into the ground and leveled the land (it was slightly sloping). In short, they prepared the site for planting.

Having accomplished what we wanted them to do, it was time to reconfigure their pen. The area they are now in had quite a lot of grass to start off, which they have now eaten. So, they have begun the rooting process. As I write, however, snow is heavily falling and so I'll be curious to see how the snow impacts their rooting efforts.

Willie's infamous nose
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