Q: The other day, I stopped by my neighbor Rhonda’s to return her deep fryer (don’t ask) and she invited me out back into her garden for a glass of ice tea. As soon as we sat down, I noticed what I thought were two large schnauzers milling about in a far corner of her yard. Before I could comment on her new pets, Rhonda announced: “That would be Franz and Petra, the goats. I’ve hired them to take care of some of those pesky weeds.” A bit shocked — but relieved Rhonda hadn’t lost the plot and decided to start a petting zoo in her backyard — I agreed and the conversation quickly verged into neighborhood gossip while Franz and Petra went about their business. I’d never seen — or heard of — goats replacing a string trimmer or lawn mower in a residential setting. Is this normal? What are the benefits of “goatscaping?” Should I follow Rhonda’s lead?
A: While I wouldn’t expect the cloven-hoofed masses to put human-powered landscaping services out of business anytime soon, your pal Rhonda is indeed on to something. It’s certainly not the norm but over the past several years, the landscape-clearing prowess of the humble, happily grazing goat has moved from the farm into more residential settings as homeowners become attracted not only to the novelty of a goat-for-hire but by the eco-friendly benefits of retiring (at least temporarily) their arsenal of gas-powered, pollution-spewing lawn machines.
Sure, a John Deere may not leave a giant pile of poop next to your garden gnome, but a grass-munching goat won’t spew 87 pounds of CO2 and 54 pounds of other pollutants into the atmosphere each year (in total, gas lawn mowers account for 5 percent of air pollution in the U.S. according to the EPA). Plus, an emissions-free, surefooted ruminant-on-a-mission can clear unwanted plant life in nooks, crannies and rough terrain that even the most souped-up weed whacker can’t reach.
As mentioned, most suburbanites opt to rent herds and from Seattle to Chapel Hill and most everywhere in between, there are established companies that specialize in goatscaping. Along with the hardworking, bearded laborers with four-chambered stomachs, most reputable operations provide a goatherd — and often a canine wrangler in the form of a border collie — to supervise, helping keep the hired mouths in line (no epic cud-chewing breaks) and prevent them from munching on your prized azaleas, which, by the way, are poisonous to goats. Additionally, portable electric fence is usually set up to ensure that the goats don’t stray or are disturbed by predators.
And while goats do indeed have hearty appetites, they won’t eat everything … and that includes tin cans. Due to their curious nature, they may take an exploratory nibble on whatever you put in front of them but when it comes down to it, goats prefer to nosh on things like grasses, nettle, blackberries, thistle and other invasive plants. Unlike borrowing a couple of goats for the day from your cousin Ralph’s coworker’s second cousin to clear out some pesky brush, a professional goat rental company will make sure the goats graze only on target plants while keeping them properly hydrated and provide them with nutritional supplements.
That said, some folks do opt to purchase instead of rent goats as lawn mower replacements/family pets. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone but those with large and unruly backyards do often go this route to varying degrees of success. On the not-so-successful side, a family friend of mine experimented with goatscaping back in the early 1990s and things went swimmingly at first but after a while the ruminants in question, Bart and Lisa, became so reliant on the food that they were provided with (hay and grain pellets) for their proper meals that they eventually stopped grazing altogether. Now, with an overgrown yard and two complacent goats that weren’t doing their intended job, the family friend decided to find a new home for Bart and Lisa.
If you think you might want to give goatscaping a spin, I’d certainly ask Rhonda (need to borrow that deep fryer again?) how her experience with this increasingly popular, economical, eco-friendly and not to mention adorable form of brush and weed removal went. Perhaps Franz and Petra would enjoy stopping by your backyard for supper …