PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's peak season for giant home giant home and garden centers such as Home Depot and Lowe's, but you're really doing it right if your best outdoor ideas don't come from a big box.
Goats, bees, chickens, manure fuel and homemade garden-care products have been rural staples, but have become urban and suburban fixtures in recent years as homeowners cut back and reassess household priorities. Suddenly, "renewable" and "sustainable" weren't just pinko leftist commie buzzwords, but key portions of the frugal homeowner's vocabulary.
Those homeowners and the grounds they occupy took a big hit after the housing crisis and ensuing economic collapse. According to the Census Bureau, home and garden retailers took in $86.3 billion from March through May 2006, but saw their take fall as low as $67.7 billion at the height of the recession in 2009. While the $77.5 billion worth of shovels, rakes, soil and saplings bought last spring aren't a complete recovery, they're at least a bit sunnier than the slump the industry experienced for the past five years or so.
Instead of riding mowers and power trimmers, however, the occasional goat has been pressed into yard maintenance duty as cheap, effective workers. A good goat not only turns your kitchen scraps into easily degraded compost, but will go after kudzu, blackberry vines, dandelions, thistle and other pesky weeds and invasive species that can otherwise ravage a yard or field. Google has used them to keep the grass down at its Mountain View, Calif., campus and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the city of Seattle have all used goats to manage their property and keep grass, weeds and other plants at bay.
Goats are relatively inexpensive and require only a simple shelter and the greenery they eat as fuel. Companies such as Eco-Goats and Rent A Goat will lend you their goats for as much time as you need and can provide as many as 30 at a time on their own or through farm subcontractors. How many do you need? It depends on the size of the plot, but the folks at Gizmodo and Movoto have come up with an app for that. Just feed your property's measurements to their calculator and you'll get a pretty good idea of how many goats, cows, pigs or guinea pigs it'll take to tame your land in a day.
Even better, it'll tell you how many chickens it will take to keep your grass down, which isn't such a bad thing considering they pay you back in eggs. They're a bit more high maintenance than the goats and get really involved if you're raising them as chicks. Coops, fencing, heat lamps and other investments need to be made first, but it gets easier from there. Rural areas tend to have farm stores such as Rural King, Smith, Orscheln and Wilco that will not only give away chicks for free occasionally, but show new owners how to set up a coop, install heat lamps, feed chickens, fence them properly, scare off predators and get the most eggs for the money.
For urban dwellers, however, there's a growing number of "chicken consultants" available in cities such as Chicago, Portland and Dallas that will not only get you set up with a coop and chickens, but offer advice if they get sick and make house calls. In some cases, as CNN found in Los Angeles, consultants will also offer chicken sitting services while urban owners are out of town.
If you're willing to go as far as raising chickens, you may as well give your garden and those of your neighbors a hand by raising some bees. With the world's bee population not what it once was, beekeepers and apiarists who once only worked larger farms and orchards now help out anyone willing to hire them on.
Redwood City, Calif.-based Golden Harvest Beekeeping, Fairmount, Ill.-based Long Lane Honey Bee Farms and Eastern Tennessee's Arnold Honeybee Services will lend out bees to pollinate farms and gardens, teach gardeners and farmers how to keep their own hives of bees and/or sell bees to those who want to raise bees themselves.
The downside to owning bees is that you're suddenly running hives and surrounded by buzzing swarms with stingers, but they will help a farm, garden or orchard thrive and leave lots of honey and wax to work with. Their hives have become pretty swanky, too, with cedar hives such as those produced by Portland-based Bee Thinking making great lawn decor.
Of course, it's a bit tougher to use all of those weed-killing, insect-deterring chemicals on your lawn and garden if you have a fragile hive of bees around. If you still have weeds encroaching on every corner, the folks at PlanTea suggest boiled water, mulch, tarps and vinegar as your best lines of natural defense. It sounds dumb and kind of cruel, but pouring boiled water on dandelions will reduce them to dead, wilted husks of their former selves just a few weeks after a good dousing.
If you don't want to wait that long, smother them with some mulch or tarps to deprive them of oxygen. That will also likely kill whatever's around them, so don't commit to this unless you're willing to just do mulch and ornamental plants. A far more effective method is using a 5% concentration of vinegar -- that's household vinegar to you and me -- to spray weeds to death. The vinegar acts as natural herbicide, but doesn't linger around in the soil to kill the plants you'd prefer to keep alive. This works on not only dandelion, but foxtail, velvetleaf, smooth pigweed and thistle as well.
It's also effective on ants, as it covers up their trail and leaves them stranded, but even a good 50/50 mixture of sugar and borax will get the job done there.
That's a great start to a cheap, sustainable, renewable approach to lawn care, but even if you still feel the need to ride a mower around, there are better ways to fuel that ride as well. Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Ind., uses 5 million pounds of manure from its 30,000 cows to not only power its milking equipment, 10 barns, a cheese factory, a cafe, a gift shop, a dairy museum and a movie theater, but to provide natural gas for its 42 tractor trailers. That's taking 2 million gallons of diesel fuel off of American highways and has the potential to take a 10 million gallon bite out of America's 135-million-gallon-a-year gasoline habit.
The best part? If you're near one of the 15 locations in Texas and the Midwest where Fair Oaks Farms and Chicago-based AMP Americas are setting up natural gas filling stations, you and the converted engine of your choice can ride on the remnants of cow droppings for miles. If you've invested a whole bunch of money into a diesel mower, this is the best way to make it a cleaner machine.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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