Guest Post by Milo Martinovich
Gardening is synonymous with homesteading. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any homesteaders out there who don’t put a good amount of effort into gardening. Most of us are aiming for a healthy life as well, meaning our gardens are beyond organic. No sprays, chemical fertilizers, etc. But, this doesn’t make it easy or 100% successful!
Pigs are quite popular for homesteaders as well. They have a high feed conversion ratio, meaning they produce a lot of meat for the amount of food they eat. They also produce some of the most sought-after types of meat, like bacon and ham. But, hog management comes with even more problems than organic gardening for most.
What if organic gardening and pig-raising could work together to improve the functioning of both systems? It’s definitely possible!
First, however, we have to talk about the drawbacks of each system to understand how we can mitigate them.
Problems With Organic No-Till Gardening
Organic gardening is great for homesteaders. However, as you may have heard, many of the commercial organic practices put into place nowadays are quite destructive for the soil. As homesteaders, our land is quite precious since it provides the bulk of our food for the family.
So, what is the average homesteader to do? Adopt no-till gardening of course!
This is possibly the best way to build fertile soil and improve your land year after year. It can bury weeds deeper than they can survive, leaving you with a weed-free garden plot that is rich in nutrients, holds the perfect amount of moisture, and contains the soil life necessary to grow the best produce around!
Gardening is never that simple though, is it?
My Real-Life Experience
Let’s discuss a real-life example. On my homestead, I developed a no-till garden plot last year with eight 50-foot rows that were three feet wide. I placed almond shells in the walkways (almond shells are abundant in my area and typically free). I purchased bulk weed-free soil that was high-quality and knew the almond shells would also contribute nutrients over time.
The layers of cardboard and paper I put down were great to block out every single species of weed in my garden except two: Bermuda Grass and Johnson Grass. If you know about these weeds, then I’m truly sorry as I have experienced your pain!
In my fresh garden plot, the Bermuda and Johnson grasses spread their evil rhizomes and took over in one year. If you’ve ever tried to eradicate these species, again, I’m sorry. It’s a nearly impossible task.
All of this newfound weed pressure reduced light exposure, nutrients, water, and root space for my actual crops. It also provided more hiding places for pests.
So, could I simply go back to traditional organic practices and till? Not a chance. Because when you till rhizomes you cut them into small pieces, each piece becomes the start of a brand new plant, making the problem even worse. Awesome…
Problems With Raising Pigs
Pigs are great. If your family loves pork products, there is nothing like raising your own and tasting how much better pork can be than what is sold at the grocery stores. However, they aren’t graceful on the land like grazing animals.
Pigs love to root, and the last thing you should do is take away that natural tendency by penning them on concrete or wood. Pasturing them is one of the best management practices, but they still cause quite a bit of damage, although not nearly as much as when they are penned in one spot.
However, on my homestead, my cattle take up all the pasture and I don’t have additional room. I can’t risk the pasture being degraded by the pigs and removing food that the cattle need.
So, what do I do? Should I just create a pen and let them completely devastate a portion of my land?
The Permaculture Philosophy
In Permaculture, one major idea is to turn problems into solutions. We have identified problems with organic gardening and raising pigs, specifically on my homestead. The garden has weeds that can’t be tilled and don’t die back from no-till practices. I also have pigs that tear up the land over time, eating all plant matter and potentially damaging the soil long-term if they aren’t moved.
Why not have the two systems integrated so they can work together to solve each other’s problems?!
The garden will have plenty of plant life (crops and weeds) for the pigs to root around in and eat, and the pigs will leave a rhizome-free area ready for planting the next succession of crops!
The Benefits Of Combining Pigs and Gardening
Both the pigs and the garden can benefit hugely from this setup. Let’s discuss each in detail.
How The Pigs Benefit
Pigs do great on pasture, regardless of what preconceived ideas you have about raising pigs. They love to eat grass, legumes, and various weeds. They love to root around in the ground for rhizomes and root crops.
When pigs are eating pasture and things in the root zone, they aren’t eating grain-based feed. This is beneficial for two reasons:
- The cost of feeding the pigs goes down the more they can feed on the “free” plant matter. They can get all the nutrients they need if the plant matter is varied enough.
- The quality of the pork increases, specifically the fatty acid ratio. Pastured pigs are higher in omega 3 fatty acids and lower in omega 6 fatty acids. If you keep up with the news, omega 3s are healthy and omega 6s are inflammatory and can be unhealthy in high amounts (which is typical in the standard American diet).
How The Garden Benefits
The garden plot will now have less weed pressure, especially if you have rhizomatic species in your garden area. Where a tiller would simply cut them up and allow them to spread more rapidly next season, the pigs will root them up and eat them all, given enough time.
The garden will also have added fertility in the form of pig manure and urine and, in my specific case, the almond shells added to the area.
If the system is implemented optimally, you can go a whole growing season without weeds and without needing fertilizer.
Drawbacks Of This System
Garden Furrowing Versus Pasturing
While this system mimics a pastured pig operation, it will not provide the same amount of food for the pigs that a pasture can.
In the pasture, pigs are rotated before they exhaust the land, meaning the food is essentially endless. In this system, the goal is for the pigs to exhaust the area of all plant life, meaning they will rely solely on feed towards the end of the season.
You can mitigate this food limitation by growing crops in the garden specifically for the pigs. Squash and pumpkins are especially good choices for this purpose. Doing this provides the pigs more food in two ways: through a bigger garden area that they have to plow and through the extra food produced from the garden growing in the alternate plot.
This system also doesn’t provide the exceptional soil-building benefits of a no-till system. However, it doesn’t reduce soil life as much as regular tilling with a machine. The almond shells I’ve used, along with the pig manure, do make worms flock to the area. Where there are worms, there is soil life!
There will also be some soil compaction caused by the pigs, but this can be mitigated when it’s time to plant.
Best Used For Annual Crops
Lastly, I want to point out that this system is best for annual crops, not perennials. A perennial food plot should be no-till if possible. Pigs would ruin the system if that were the case. Perennials need better soil structure, soil life, and nutrients than annual crops, so this system is perfectly sustainable for annual food plots.
Turning Problems Into Solutions With Pigs In The Garden
You can implement this system with two equal-size plots, one for the garden and one for the pigs. Every 3, 4, or 6 months, the pigs and garden rotate.
The Pig Area
In the pig area, have a portable shelter that can be moved through the whole garden area and cover all manure and urine spots with almond shells (or whatever mulch product you have in your area).
Moving the shelter, waterer, feeder, and covering the manure regularly will more evenly spread nutrients throughout the future garden plot.
The Garden Area
In the garden area, dig out your planting holes and mix the soil with compost in a ratio that creates a good soil texture. This reduces the compaction that the pigs will cause.
After your initial digging when planting, treat the plot like a no-till garden. Top dress with compost if you need added fertility. After a few seasons of this, you’ll find you need less and less added fertility.
When it’s time to rotate, remove the last of your harvest, irrigation lines, and any plant species toxic to the pigs. Then, let the pigs take over!
The length of time between rotations depends on how long your crops take to grow and how long the pigs need to eradicate all plant life in the garden plot. Ideally, these timeframes equal each other, but this isn’t a requirement for success.
Could This Be Your Solution?
The point of this article wasn’t to give you the end-all answer to the problems you can face when gardening and raising pigs. It’s simply what I did to solve problems on my homestead. I hope it inspires you to think about how problems can become solutions to further improve your homestead in the long run.
Guest Author Milo Martinovich is a holistic lifestyle writer focused on living intentionally. He created My Own Evolution as a place for sharing his ideas about homesteading, health, fitness, and sustainable living and how they all intertwine into a holistic existence. Self-sufficient homesteading is only part of the plan!