Four frisky pigs wander through my garden's bean rows and into the potato patch. With snouts to the ground, they eagerly push away the rich soil in search of tasty morsels. One finds a thistle root, eats it, and goes on digging for more. A little red porker's nose moves through the earth and bumps into a partly frozen potato. There are pigs digging a garden . . . and I put them there!
The various animals kept on a farm have natural tendencies that can often be put to good use. One fine example is the distinctive habit of the hog: He roots up the ground-lifting and turning the soil with his strong nose-in a constant search for food. Most homesteaders spend precious time and energy trying to thwart this natural characteristic . . . but not me! I make good use of my porkers' desire to perform useful work.
Anyone who keeps a few pigs for meat can utilize the creatures' urge to dig by fencing them into a small area for a few days . . . where they're allowed to plow or till by digging a garden, work up a grassy plot for future planting, or clear a weedy, brushy piece of land for use as pasture. Hogs can also smooth out a rough section of earth, and some old-time husbandmen used to spare their plow horses by letting the farm's most tireless earth-movers pre-treat the worst parts of a field.
Who knows . . . maybe the Chinese — who are noted as gardeners and have kept domestic swine for many centuries — were the first to take advantage of Porky's rooting habit. To tell the truth, however, I don't really care which ancient farmer originally had the good sense to "turn the hogs loose" busting sod. I'm just content to let the idea work for me. And that's exactly what my rooters do: work. For me.
The garden, right after harvest time, is an excellent place for pigs: They make good use of cull produce, fertilize the area with their rich manure, and work up the ground so that minerals in the subsoil are well mingled with the topsoil's organic matter. New gardens planted over former hog lots are often very productive . . . and if you can't move the growing area, you can get the same effect by bringing in the pigs themselves for a visit at the end of the growing season.
Before you take such a step, of course, you must be sure the garden fence is hog-tight . . . and if there is no fence, you'll have to build one. Electrically charged wires are easy to set up and-properly installed-will turn any pig. If you have a charger, it's a good way to go. Otherwise, woven wire at least 32 or 36 inches high is satisfactory.
The smaller the plot's area, by the way, the higher the barrier around it must be... because pigs become steadily more determined to escape as their living space is restricted. You may also need to run a strand of barbed wire along the bottom of the fence, or nail boards next to the ground, to help keep the rascals from squirming under.
Remember, now: good fencing is a must. Swine aren't stupid, they seem to enjoy breaking out of enclosures, and they'll quickly find a weak spot if there is one. An occasional loose pig isn't so bad — it can be rather amusing to coax the runaway back where he belongs — but hogs that get out all the time are a different story. Bear in mind, also, that a tight fence around your garden has other values too: Besides keeping in the four-footed soil conditioners, firm woven wire will also shut out vegetable-eating varmints and serve as a useful support for climbing plants next season.
You should think about housing for your "hired hands" too. The pigs should have a temporary shelter during their stay in the garden . . . especially if the weather is on the nasty side. This can be a portable wooden structure, a quickly made hut of straw bales, or anything else that does the job of keeping the animals warm and dry.
As a final preparation, make sure you've harvested all the vegetables you want for yourself before you turn over the remainder to the hogs. Once I left a few parsnips in one corner, covered with leaves, to be dug later. Sure enough, one little rooter discovered them right away and I had to work fast to save my store.
How many pigs should you sign up for your gardening crew? Well, one or two, if that's all you own . . . but if you keep a larger herd and have a choice, a couple of large hogs or perhaps four or five younger animals will handily plow a medium-sized garden. The more concentrated the creatures are, the sooner the job will be done.
A pigpen that is located fairly near the garden makes for convenience at moving time. The animals can be transported in a hog crate if you're not very well acquainted, but I generally prefer to just lure mine into the vegetable patch with a pan of feed or milk. I simply hold the snack under their noses and they follow me straight to their new home. Once there, they run around the enclosure for a while and look it over. Then they begin to chomp on vegetables and weeds . . . and soon they're tilling the soil and improving the patch with their valuable manure. It goes without saying, of course, that the porkers can be moved out as soon .as the earth has been thoroughly worked over (how long this takes depends on the number of animals and the size of the plod.
If plenty of waste vegetables are available, the hogs won't need much additional feed during their visit. . . but they will need their usual amount of fresh water.
Hogs — fenced in and sheltered as I've described — can also be used to dig up sodded land for a new garden or small pasture. You'll need good-sized animals for this project, though, because it takes muscle to turn over thickly rooted grass.
Last summer I put a couple of 35O-pound sows on a small tract which I wanted to use for pasture. . . provided I could get rid of the poison ivy, young sumac, and other undesirable plants with which it was overgrown. The two hogs went to work immediately and turned over a great amount of sod each day. And, once they'd rooted up a good stretch, I began sowing clover and other forage. The patch now provides 'valuable grazing — with little time, labor, or expense on my part — thanks to the pigs.
Matter of fact, the practice of letting hogs prepare land is almost as good for the gardener as it is for the garden. The porkers help stretch your time and labor by doing the work. . . and they save you gasoline, too, since — once they've been over a piece of land — you probably won't need to plow it with a tractor or tiller.
Meanwhile, of course, you're economizing on whatever you normally feed the animals. And if you were going to give them the waste vegetables anyhow, letting the pigs help themselves spares you the labor of picking and hauling. Finally, you'll find few bothersome weeds in the patch come spring . . . because the swine have either buried them or turned them into meat.
But what about the hogs? Well, they win too . . . what with plenty of vegetables and fresh roots to eat, valuable trace minerals to absorb from the soil, a clean living space, fresh air, and plenty of exercise (plus the fun of rooting to their hearts' content).
If you have hogs and a vegetable patch that needs digging, put the two together and watch the work get done. The soil will benefit . . . you'll save time, trouble, and money . . . and the pigs will be happier, healthier, and heavier from their stay in the garden.
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