Animals are an exciting part of the gardening experience. We are blessed to have a garden large enough for many creatures, great and small. We also have a number of exciting wildlife around our place to enjoy. Here are a few of our backyard residents.
There are a lot of ways to incorporate animals into your gardens and your children’s lives, though, even without the luxury of having a lot of garden space.
Worms are fascinating to observe. They munch through food scraps and create fantastic fertiliser for your plants. Want to build a worm farm? Instructions are readily available online. Alternatively, you can buy a complete kit with worms and all requirements from hardware stores, gardening centres and sometimes your local farmers' market.
Worm Observation Experiment
Worm Farm from Recycled Materials
Bird feeders are a second option for those with limited space. A simple bird feeder can be created using a pot plant saucer and some string or wire, and hung from a tree or hook in a sheltered area. The type of seed used depends on which birds live in your area and which of those you wish to attract. Birdseed balls are another easy project. These are generally made with animal fat and seed. Alternatively, you can use egg whites and seed, and bake at a low temperature until firm. Don’t forget to insert a little wire to tie a string to later. Water is usually more scarce than food, so to attract birds you could also put a shallow container of clean, cool drinking water in a safe place.
Another way to attract birds, if you have a larger area, is to buy local ‘wild bird seed’, which is often sold in supermarkets. Dig up some ground or an existing empty garden bed, add some organic matter and sow the seed direct. You may need to protect the area with some mesh or shade cloth. Before too long your cheap bag of birdseed will have grown into a variety of grains, grasses and maybe sunflowers. When these mature, birds will come to enjoy the harvest! If you have a pet bird, you can plant their seed and feed it to them when the seed heads mature – they will love you for it.
More small-animal ideas include ant farms, bug catchers and simply keeping a caterpillar in a jar and feeding it the leaves of the plant where you found it. Watching the life cycles of these mini-beasts is an engaging activity for all ages. If desired, include notes and drawings in your journey of discovery. Insects, caterpillars, frogs and other small creatures also make excellent photography subjects.
You may have somewhere near your home like a lake, park, river or the beach, where you can observe various animals. Going to see them regularly, and then in different seasons, will explain a lot about the animal world to your little ones. You might observe insects, birds, farm animals, or even domestic pets – see them breed, make homes and nests, change coats or colours, or come and go as the weather changes.
A garden pond will attract a variety of insects, amphibians and perhaps be home to some fish. Ponds can be created quite simply using a container, rocks and suitable plants. Kits can also be purchased, or you could build an even larger version to fit in with your landscaping. Most plant nurseries will stock suitable plants, and some of these are edible for humans too. Ask which ones attract friendly insects and encourage frogs. Be aware of water safety with little ones, you may need to cover your pond with some sturdy mesh or take similar measures.
If you are able to keep animals at home, you can grow plants for them too. Cats often love catnip, catmint and catgrass (aka cocksfoot), wheat and oat grass, creeping Rosemary, Alyssum and Heather. Dogs often love to chew many things, and a lot of ornamental plants are toxic for dogs. Good plants for your dog include lucerne (alfalfa) and Pennyroyal. The lucerne grass is to nibble on and the Pennyroyal repels fleas. Guinea pigs (cavies) and rabbits would appreciate a patch of salad items just for them, or you can grow some for you and share the outer leaves and occasional carrot with your furry friends. Sitting on the lawn munching snow peas with a lap-sized creature is a magical part of our children’s lives.
Chickens are fantastic pets as well as laying eggs for the household. They can often be quite tame and don’t seem to mind a walk around tucked under someone’s arm. Many of ours are hand-raised and quite friendly. A little handful of grain often convinces them to come and say hello if required. Chickens can be kept in mobile cages in smaller backyards, or allowed to free-range if you have a large enough area. They do require adequate shelter, though.
Growing chicken food is similar to growing seed for wild and pet birds. In our Chicken Patches, however, we add all sorts of greens and grains, cherry tomatoes, apple cucumbers and other bird-sized snacks. To create these gardens we choose a sunny area and dig up a circle of lawn. We apply organic matter to the soil and sprinkle some of the chicken feed (mixed seed) as well as other seeds we’ve bought and saved which will produce edible plants. Sunflowers and corn are fantastic and allow the beans and other plants something to climb up. Around the circle we put several stakes and some wire mesh. It might be necessary to cover the top with mesh if your chickens can fly. During Spring and Summer this garden will grow wildly. The birds will often keep it trimmed from the outside of the mesh. When the plants mature, pull up the mesh and stakes and let them feast!
Connecting with nature through observance and/or care of plants and animals is often lacking in the lives of many children today. For more information about nature-deficit disorder and to find out about initiatives in your area to connect with nature, head over to the Children & Nature Network.