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Quick plants/ground cover for rabbits and chickens

 
Z Chapman
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Our new (to us) backyard is bare dirt. It's winter but we're in zone 9 (b I think) so a few nights of frost now and then is about all we get. (I have some new grass sprouting in other areas of the property.) Is there a ground cover and/or some plants that we can get going for our chickens and rabbit to munch on? Right now their run is on the bare dirt. I keep plenty of compost in there, give scraps, and they seem happy and healthy. But obviously I want something green for them ASAP. Their run is made so that I can move it; I can plant the area next to them. I want to have a big perennial food wonderland in the end, but I'm open to anything that makes the animals happy at this point. I just discovered permaculture and am loving all this new research. But this sad yard needs some ground cover yesterday.

We have four bantams (about 3 months old) and a dwarf rabbit (about a year old I was told). For now they are just compost machines so no special diet requirements. Their current area, where I'll start (after moving them), is nice and poopy/composty and it's about 50*F out right now. Any kind of plants they can eat but ground cover especially are what I'm looking for, the faster-growing the better. We have lots and LOTS of clover in the front yard, so should I just try transplanting some of that? I did one little spot elsewhere to test and it's clinging but I'm not familiar with it enough to be sure it will live.

Thanks for your help!
 
Su Ba
pollinator
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Location: Big Island, Hawaii (2300' elevation, 60" avg. annual rainfall, temp range 55-80 degrees F)
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Here's some thoughts.....

If the soil is bare, it may be too compacted. And it may be quite nutrient poor. If that's the case and the land were mine, I'd lay down 2 inches of compost or manure then use a shovel or fork to flip the top 5-6 inches of soil over. I'd use the tool to break up the soil clods and mix the compost/manure into it. Now if I didn't have compost or manure to use, I would still break up the top 6 inches of soil before I tried planting into it. I would start out by planting some quick growing annuals...radishes, beets, chard, lettuces, assorted greens......or I could plant oats or wheat. Id plant fairly thickly so that the plant foliage would cover the soil, preventing bare ground from showing. And because I didn't have compost or manure for a fertilizer source, I'd make green grass tea to use to water the plants. To make green grass tea I dump a grass catcher bag of grass clippings into a trashcan. Fill with water. Let it sit 24 hours. Remove most of the grass (use it for mulch, put it into a compost pile, or dig it into the ground). Use the water "tea" to water the plants. This is not as good as compost, but it surely helps for starters. The next day I'd go around gathering weeds, leaves, garbage, grass, etc and start a small compost pile in a cardboard box or plastic bag with the intent of digging this material into this soil plot in 6-8 weeks after the animals has eaten off the first "crop". The first crop may not be very productive, but it's a start.

As time and materials permitted, I'd make a more balanced compost with the intent of tilling it into the poor soil areas.

After the animals have eaten off this first crop, I would dig in the "compost" I had set aside in the cardboard box or plastic bag. If the animals needed more quick food, then I'd probably plant more quick style crops. I'd repeat this until the soil was looking good and proved to have better fertility. Then I'd switch to planting perennials such as clover and grasses.

At the same time I'd try establishing some clover, lambs quarters, plantains, and grass in a few areas and see how they do. Not knowing the condition of your soil, they may or may not grow well. You might still be able to collect seed in the wild for greens that they will like, if storms and wildlife haven't beaten you too them.

My rabbits eat primary fresh grasses with some fresh legume greens (a bit of vetch, clover, and alfalfa). They get some garden waste but not too much. They are grass eaters, by nature. And I keep a few hay cubes in their pens for them to chew on rather than using pellets. My chickens eat just about all garden waste plus grass clippings. In addition they get some food waste and roadkill too.
 
John Elliott
pollinator
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It's hard to get stuff going here in zone 9 in December. I seeded my crimson clover back around Labor Day, but due to a very, very dry fall, it's just coming up now. You could try putting down some pre-soaked crimson clover seed, but it will probably be mid-January before it will be able to withstand the critters. And chickens can scratch out a good stand of clover in a matter of hours.

Another possibility is chicory. It grows well in a zone 9 winter, along with radish and collards. You can cut the chicory and collards to feed to the critters and pull up an occasional radish to add to the mix. But this fall, being as dry as it was, my collards are way behind schedule and most of what I am feeding the chickens is chicory that is resprouting from last year's plants. If you would like some chicory seed, send me a PM with your address and I can send you some.
 
Jim Porter
Posts: 37
Location: USA, West central Florida
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For your location, current conditions, and minimal effort, I would say mulch would be a solid addition.

Bags of leaves from your neighborhood, wood chips from the local facility, yard waste, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, compost, whatever; just pile it on. If you want, mix some seeds into all that mulch, especially seeds of nitrogen-fixing support species, seeds of fast-carbon-pathway plants -- plants that produce a lot of mulch themselves, as well as seeds of plants that will grow to feed the animals.

The mulch will begin to create the micro-environments that will make germination possible, even if rain is sparse right now. It will protect the soil, it will create dew pockets, and the decomposition process will release water at the same time.

(I would even drop some logs throughout, to create more varied micro-environments and home for fungal diversity.)

You want the mulch deep and varied. Six inches to start with, and many different components should make up that mulch, not just one (i.e., not just wood chips, but, rather all of the above).

No digging necessary. Let nature's myriad critters do that for you. The mulch gives those creatures a home, gives them protection, invites them in, and they go to work. And the chickens will love it, because chickens eat a whole lot more than just grass.

With the mulch protection, the area will also begin to seed itself. There will be seeds in the mulch already. And the mulch will give seeds from the wind and seeds from the birds a place to get caught. So, even if you didn't add any seeds, you would start to see growth of all kinds of pioneering plants; lots of rabbit food.

Once the mulch begins to break down, add some more now and again, until the system can support itself (assuming you added sufficient support species; otherwise you'll fill that roll by adding mulch every couple of months). You get abundant diversity with minimal effort, and you lighten the local waste stream at the same time.
 
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