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Grow a Vegetable Garden For Your Birds & Reptiles

ABOUT: I've kept all sorts of exotic pets throughout my life and have refined my methods of feeding and housing them over the years as I've learned more about their unique needs. This education has allowed me to continually enrich their environment & diet to provide the best possible care. Therefore, this article is an attempt to share my experiences in keeping and housing exotic pets, especially turtles and birds, but can certainly be adapted to any herbivores. In a previous article I discussed the design and build of my aviary used to house 3 colonies of birds and a pair of box turtles. In this article I'll share with the reader feeding and gardening strategies for these pets.

WHY: As owners of exotic pets we all struggle to keep our refrigerator stocked with fresh greens and veggies to provide daily "salads" to our friends. Because I share a love of both pets and gardening I decided to plant a vegetable garden specifically to feed my birds and turtles. An extra incentive was what seems to be the continuous recall of commercial vegetable due to bacterial and other contamination, and the high cost of organic produce. I've found that I can supply my pets with safe, organic, nutritious and cost effective vegetables by growing them myself.

STEP ONE / PLOT SIZE: The first step in planning the garden should be to determine how much room you have available to dedicate to your garden. This will vary for all yards and needs and no one formula is perfect. Your garden can range from one or two planted patio pots to a raised box garden or a large garden plot. I found it easiest to start with a small garden plot and have enlarged and expanded it over the years. As you experiment with the size of your garden you'll learn how much of each veggie to plant and how much food your pets will require.

For my garden I started with a small patch of dirt that I didn't have any other plants or flowers growing on. As an avid gardener this was unacceptable because of course all available space must be used. So the area I placed my garden in is irregular in shape and has grown to about 9 feet x 17 feet in size. I've found that this size works best for me and certainly allows me to growth enough veggies for my 2 box turtles and allows a large variety of extra vegetables to feed to the 3 colonies of birds. The 3 aviaries include 2 Rosellas, a colony of Bourkes and a colony of male 'fly-in' or rescue Cockatiels. It also supplies my 2 Goffin cockatoos with veggies.

STEP TWO / ENVIRONMENT: The next step in planning your garden is to consider the climatic environment in which you live and determine the best vegetables that will grow in your area and the best time for planting each type of vegetable. Also don't forget that you are growing these for your pets so plant only items that are of good nutritional value to them and of course veggies they like and will eat.

My garden in located in the desert Southwest of AZ and due to the inferno of our summers many of the more common veggies just don't do very well here or need to be planted in the winter to prevent frying under our summer sun. This too will take some experimenting to determine what will work best for your area. A good resource is your local University corporative extension for horticulture. I suggest goggling your city and cooperative extension horticulture to locate a web site for your area of the country.

For the desert southwest I've found that many vegetables do well if planted in a good location and at the correct time of year. I plant my garden in full sun but do create microclimates by placing more sensitive plants next to large or aggressive growing plants allowing for more shade. As an example I have a large Wisteria growing on a garden arch and I plant my green bean plants on the east side of this allowing for cooling in the afternoon shade. So consider your layout to provide for these microclimates.

STEP THREE / WHAT VEGETABLES? Currently, I grow carrots, variety of squash, beans, corn, eggplants (for us), tomatoes (for turtles), numerous types of peppers, leafy greens, zucchini, pumpkin, and of course flowers. I've found that the seeds for the leafy greens must be planted in the fall in my area for a good early spring or later winter growth. The other plants I grow by a mixture of seeds and sprouts and typically plant in the late winter to allow a good harvest over the summer. One tip is to collect seeds from your plants each harvest to allow for easy and inexpensive replanting the next year. Again experimentation is your best tool and you'll find over time what does the best and what your pets enjoy. I find that my ornate box turtles will eat just about anything but love the corn, squash, greens, tomatoes, and baby carrots - oh and they love zucchini. My birds enjoy all types of peppers, corn, some squash, carrot tops and sprouts of everything especially the leafy greens.

As a side note, I also grown a variety of herbs and I've found that my birds love these and that they are easy to grow even in the heat of our AZ summer. Some of the herbs I'll plant in my garden plot but most of them are planted in pots by the aviary. My aviary has misters on the outside that run during the summer and these seem to create a good microclimate for the herb pots. The pots allow for convenient plucking of leaves and stems during each visit to the aviary. The birds and turtles now expect a 'gift' with each visit and my herb pots make this an easy task. While I have a large selection of herbs I've found that mints do vary well, come in a large variety of flavors and scents and are well accepted by the birds.

STEP FOUR / ARRANGEMENT OF VEGETABLES & SOIL: Okay so being a flower gardener and not terribly organized my vegetable garden is full of flowers and definitely not organized. I couldn't bring my self to have a large plot of ground with only veggies and no color so did some research and found that marigolds do great in AZ (often will live all summer) and have some natural insect repellent factors aiding in organic insect control for your garden. I purchased some commercial marigold seeds and literally tossed them throughout the garden at first planting. These now re-grow every year from seeds they have dropped and seem to do a great job of keeping pests away.

For arrangement of your veggies, I do recommend considering your access to the individual vegetable plants for harvesting. My arrangement of a long and wide plot makes access sometimes challenging but I like the look so stay with it. The best set-up for growing is long and narrow rows allowing access to every plant and easy watering.

Also consider how the individual plants will grow. Veggies such as squash will be ground vines and will quickly overtake other plants and spread outside your plot. As they are growing you can manipulate them to the area you have laid aside, but this will take daily investigation and arrangement of your garden. Another option is to have two plots with one designated from vine and one for other plants such as carrots, peppers, and tomatoes.

Soil is perhaps the most important thing to consider when planting and it is important to amend your soil prior to any planting. In AZ we have very poor soil but I've still been able to grow beautiful gardens by amending prior to planting with organic mulch and then continuing to mulch throughout the growing season. So basically, I worked with what I had for soil with only a small amount of improving for the first garden and each successive garden, due to continued mulching, has resulted in a lovely plot with much improved soil for vegetables.

STEP FIVE / CARING FOR YOUR GROWING HARVEST: Many options are available for you to easily care for you garden, but I enjoy the old fashioned method of hand watering and organic fertilization. However, if you don't have this time a simple battery operated timer and watering system can be purchased at any of the large box stores. This method is inexpensive and I've used the faucet timers for my bird's mister system and find that they work well. Theses timers can also be connect to a drip or sprinkle system for daily watering of your garden at little expense.

In regards to organic, please always keep in mind that your pets and perhaps your family will be eating these vegetable so avoid all commercial pesticides. I've found the best method is companion planting with marigolds & herbs. Marigolds have worked form me to keep pests away and "smelly" herbs seem to also be good pest control agents for the garden.

One thing to remember in an organic garden is not to expect perfection. U.S. grocery stores and produce stands have accustomed us to expecting that perfect vegetable or fruit with absolute perfect size and shape that is free of any blemishes. I've learned to accept various sizes and shapes from my own garden and a certain degree of pests.

I do feel that companion planting is helpful but if additional control is needed I simple use a soap water spray and that also seems to curtail the pests and prevents an infestation.

STEP SIX / HARVESTING: The arrangement of my garden has allowed for continued harvesting throughout the spring and summer keeping all my pets well fed. I attempt to plant vegetables with various maturation rates and continue to plant throughout the season to keep the harvest as long as possible. As a result I'm able to walk my garden daily and pull a days worth of veggies for the birds and turtles. On a typical day I'll harvest several squash - zucchini, pumpkin, and others, many peppers, tomatoes, beans and greens. But of course the availability of vegetables to harvest will continually change throughout the season allowing me to provide my pets with a rich variety of nutritious meals daily.


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