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GARDENING: SO YOU WANT ORGANIC MANURE?

February 18, 2018

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Cute Guinea pigs | Photo by the writer
Cute Guinea pigs | Photo by the writer

As guaranteed organic man­ure is so difficult — often impossible — to track down these days, it is well worth-while looking into the viability of ensuring your own supply right at home in the garden where the manure is needed.

No ... we are not talking about keeping a buffalo, a cow or even a goat or two in the garden but much smaller, far more manageable animals, e.g. Guinea pigs or rabbits to which your neighbours — and local authorities — should not have an objection providing that a regime of strict hygiene is closely adhered to and the number of animals is kept well within reason.

Guinea pigs are actually more trouble-free to look after than rabbits as, with correct care and attention of course, health issues are minimal and they have no need of expensive annual vaccinations, plus — and this is especially important if children are around — it is extremely rare for a Guinea pig to nip, let alone bite, its handler whilst rabbits, particularly male rabbits, quite often do.

Pets can help make organic manure for your garden

Guinea pigs, small as they are, may, at first sight, be considered far too small to produce enough manure for small — medium-sized garden use but, having personal experience of these cheerful little animals, I can say that they are the most efficient, small scale, manure ‘machines’ around: they spend approximately 23 hours out of 24 hours munching and — or so it seems — the same amount of time producing conveniently-pelleted manure.

Social animals, Guinea pigs suffer badly if kept alone: it is always best to keep at least two so that they have a companion to chatter away with — and they do — and to play amusing games with as well. Guinea pigs breed rapidly so it is best to keep two or more females and one male as two males sharing territory are prone to fighting (unless neutered).

A female Guinea pig can have two to six babies every six weeks and each of these babies reaches breeding stage at around six months of age and, before you know it and as I learnt to my cost, the original pair is transformed into well over 20 cute bundles of fur which all need feeding, cleaning up after and endless cage expansions.

The ideal Guinea pig cage usually needs to be purpose-built as those available readymade are far too small, impossible to keep clean and often have floors made out of metal mesh which damages their tender feet.

An acceptable cage should allow at least 10 square feet per two Guinea pigs, have a snug sleeping box separate to the general playing/feeding area, be shaded from direct summer sunshine, be rainproof, be protected from wind and have floors of scrubable, very strong, wooden board or cement with sides somewhere between 18 to 30 inch in height, made from strong metal mesh which neither cats/dogs nor rats/mice can get through.

It is an excellent idea to also have a second, easily movable cage without a floor (unlike rabbits, Guinea pigs do not dig) which can be used as extra exercise space/as a safe enclosure in which the Guinea pigs can graze on the lawn, being moved around to graze a different area of grass each day — manuring as they go. They can be put in these whilst their main cage, the very secure one in which they spend nights, is cleaned out and then scrubbed with disinfectant before they are put back in.

Guinea pigs need feeding three times per day: a small amount of special dry food, formulated for Guinea pigs and containing essential vitamins and minerals for their health and well-being (available in pet food stores/departments), each morning and evening, plus a nice handful of fresh greens/fruit/vegetable peelings morning, noon and night. They also need a permanent supply of dried grass/hay (not straw/bhoosa) or alfalfa and their water bowl must be kept full all the time.

For bedding, hay is perfect as, along with endlessly nibbling on it, they also love to burrow in it. Shredded newspaper is an acceptable alternative for bedding.

Their main cage and sleeping area should be thoroughly cleaned at least twice a week to keep hygiene at maximum levels and odour to a minimum; regular cleaning and disinfecting the cages also reduces chances of vermin, ticks and fleas, although having them checked over by a qualified veterinary surgeon every six months or so is recommended.

All manure, plant residues, etc. cleaned out of the cage/cages can either be added to an existing compost heap/bin or composted on its own — composting it in a closable bin is ideal. Good quality, organic compost/manure is formed (as long as all Guinea pig food is organic of course) within three to six months depending on the time of year.

Guinea pigs, if handled with care and with adult supervision, are excellent pets for children (and for grown-ups) and quickly develop the habit of whistling at you in welcome or simply to get attention and, as already mentioned, when it comes to a reliable source of organic manure, they are a gardener’s best friend.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened. Commercial enquiries will be ignored.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 18th, 2018