Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Community Gardening and Rabbit Keeping FAQ

About a year ago, a friend told us about a new community garden forming a few blocks from our house, funded by the Lansing Land Bank and The Garden Project. We jumped on board, and haven't looked back.

We now help maintain two community gardens where everyone works together. Poppin' Fresh is one of those gardens - and it has exploded in size, in more ways than one!

Our footprint has doubled. Last month we got approval to annex the newly-cleared lot next door. We're slowly gaining new members, which are desperately needed to eat all of the tasty things we're harvesting, year-round.

We're happy for more space, but the most exciting thing to happen at Poppin' this month is the arrival of baby bunnies!

With the arrival of bunnies have come questions from alarmed relatives and curious friends. The best way to learn about what we're doing is to come and see for yourself. Until you make it over to the Garden, allow me to answer some of the questions we hear most often.

Why are you doing this?

We're doing this to learn, plain and simple.

My childhood in the suburbs did not offer much hands-on experience with farming and animal husbandry. Sean and I first got involved in the community garden because it sounded like a good opportunity to get our hands dirty and learn the basics of gardening from knowledgeable people, for free.

Our biggest expenditure has been time, and it is time well spent. We're still learning, but we're also teaching new gardeners what we know. We have fun at the Garden, and the time flies when we're there. It's a nice break from the daily grind. The good people and delicious free food are nice perks, too.

The long-term goal is to strike out on our own, get some land and have our own garden with its associated trappings. Until then, we're making the most of what we have and learning lots along the way.

Okay, so, why rabbits?

Rabbits are so cute! They're cuddly, quiet little buggers with twitchy noses and lucky feet. What's not to like? 

There are other benefits, of course...
  • Rabbits produce good fertilizer. And when I say good, I mean really good. Please don't be squeamish - it's just nature! Rabbit manure is one of the very best fertilizers available. Fresh manure from large animals (horses, sheep) is harsh stuff that can kill your plants if applied too soon. It needs to be composted for months before adding it to your soil. Rabbit pellets, which are considered "cold" compost, can be used immediately without killing your plants. It's not as smelly, either.
  •  Rabbit pellets fix our soil, and we need it! Before Poppin' Fresh came into existence our land was occupied by a few abandoned houses in a flood plain. We've found more than our fair share of rocks, old asphalt and broken glass while putting in garden beds.  The quality of the food you grow is directly determined by the quality of your soil. Building good soil takes time, but amending it regularly helps! Rabbit pellets are chock-full of good nutrients . They drastically improve the soil's structure and porosity, too. You can find out more about the wonders of rabbit pellets by reading Chris McLaughlin's blog post, Rabbit Manure in the Garden.
  • Rabbits eat our weeds! Dandelions and many other weeds are a delicacy in the rabbit world. In a matter of weeks our rabbits ate up every dandelion at Poppin' Fresh, which has left us with nicer grass and happier neighbors.
  • Rabbits really are cute!  Adding the rabbits to Poppin' Fresh has strengthened our garden community. Regular gardeners, off-and-on gardeners, newcomers and neighbors all think that the rabbits are pretty darn cool. They've become a nice attraction of the Garden.
  •  We're learning livestock maintenance. Rabbits are a cheap, relatively easy introduction to the care and keeping of farm animals. We want chickens, just like most of our gardening peers. Chickens required more than our fledgling garden was willing to provide at that point in time. Rabbits have been a great trial-run for us, and we now feel far more confident about our future ability to keep other kinds of rabbits, chickens, quail, bees, a herd of fainting pygmy goats... or whatever comes along.
So, how do you do it?

 Like many things at Poppin' Fresh, the rabbits just sort of... happened. They were premeditated, but we acquired them far earlier than we expected. It was a mad scramble to prepare for spring, but everything worked out wonderfully.

Our original breeding pair (a buck and a doe) of New Zealand rabbits came from a local breeder. New Zealand rabbits are bred as meat rabbits, not pets. Ours came with small cages, food and water dishes. Though they would have been alright in those little metal cages, Sean built two hutches out of re-purposed desks. They're much happier in their rabbit palaces, within the "Hoppin' Fresh" enclosure.

We cross each bridge when we come to it. As novice rabbit keepers, we didn't know exactly when our doe would give birth, but estimated her due date to be mid-June. We expected a litter of 3 or 4 bunnies. We were wrong. Our doe gave birth to 8 or 9 baby bunnies two weeks sooner than we expected! The Big Hutch Building Party is scheduled for this weekend. If you're available and want to play with power tools while building a better future for some cute rabbits, please join us!

Keeping rabbits as a part of your garden is not as outlandish as you might think. They're worth the work, as long as you don't let them "free range" and eat all of your veggies. That book I continuously mention, The Urban Homestead, was how Sean and I first learned about keeping rabbits as part of homesteading. It seemed bizarre at first. There are some urban gardeners who swear by it, and their results speak well!

The internet is full of helpful information about keeping and benefiting from rabbits, as is the library. We just acquired a copy of the eighth edition of Rabbit Production, by McNitt, Patton, Lukefahr and Cheeke. The MSU Extension is a helpful resource, too. EVERY Michigan county has an Extension office that provides free materials in the hopes of helping people improve their own lives, and their knowledge goes far beyond rabbits and gardening.

What will you do with all those bunnies?

Our main goal is to provide these rabbits with a safe, healthy living environment.

We shelter them, protect them from danger and provide a healthy diet of dry rabbit food and greens from the garden. Once weened, we'll keep the new bunnies in separate cages to control their population... and we'll go from there!

Though we make a lot of jokes about Rabbit Stew, I can't predict the future. All I know is that we'll continue to learn from these rabbits.

((Check back soon for video of baby rabbits!))

Find out more about raising meat rabbits on a small-scale urban farm (and SO MUCH MORE!) by watching this video, produced by Dan Shifrin. He's an urban homesteader in Florida.

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