I’m all for encouraging the use of natives in the garden, but sometimes, exotics can have a place too. Shown above are my own favorite non-native garden residents: Lama pacos (Vicugna pacos) ‘RRA Granite’s Laser’ and ‘RRA Granite’s Limited Edition’, commonly known as Duncan and Daniel.
Ok, so my alpacas technically don’t live in my Pennsylvania garden, but it sure wouldn’t be the same without them. Partly, it’s because they affect my plant choices. A large section of their pasture space is bordered by plantings, so I have to make sure my selections are alpaca-safe, particularly along the stretches of picket fencing. (You’d be surprised how far those pointy noses can reach!) Even along the solid fencing, I end up with a distinct browse line on the bordering grasses, perennials, and shrubs. I also plant stuff specifically for “paca snacks,” including daylilies (they’re junkies for both the flowers and foliage), peas, carrots, and parsley. They also get the larger share of many of the strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries (two for them, one for me…). But I can hardly begrudge them these concessions, because they make an invaluable contribution of their own, in the form of an endless supply of alpaca manure—or as alpaca folks like to refer to it, alpaca beans or paca poo.
Paca poo has a number of advantages over many other types of livestock manure. It arrives already in tidy pellet form (about the size of bush bean seeds), and after an hour or so in the sun, it’s dry, lightweight, and relatively odorless. These critters also tend to do their business in one spot, so collection is a snap. (Well, it happens that way with my boys, anyway. I understand that female alpacas tend to create multiple piles, but hey, they spend a whole lot of their time being pregnant, so I guess allowances must be made.) Best of all, you can apply it directly to the garden without worrying about it burning the plants. You do, of course, want to follow the same safety rules as with other manures, including not applying it directly to edible crops unless it’s been composted first. But you can (and I do) add fresh paca poo to planting holes in flower gardens, use it as a topdressing for trees and shrubs, and mix it generously with potting soil to fill pots and planters. In fall and winter, I spread it onto vacant veggie beds; in spring, I scatter it over the soil in ornamental borders; and in summer, I stockpile it in compost bins for later use.
Another plus is that you really don’t need to skimp on using paca poo, because there’s always plenty around. According to this terrific article on Alpaca Manure Management, a single alpaca produces about 1,500 pounds of fresh manure a year. And since you have to keep at least two of them (they get stressed out if they don’t have the company of their own kind), you can see how quickly the poo can pile up! I keep my two gelded boys as pets, and their output is just enough to meet my needs for the gardens. But most folks keep both males and females for breeding, so they tend to have anywhere from half a dozen to hundreds of alpacas in one place; for these farms, finding a way to deal with this amount of manure is a serious challenge. That’s great news for gardeners who don’t want to keep alpacas themselves! (In fact, I don’t really recommend them as pets, unless you have some livestock experience, and unless you can accept the fact that most of them aren’t nearly as huggable as they appear to be.)
The number of alpaca farms in the U.S. is growing each year, and since these critters need a lot less space than horses, cows, and other livestock, you can often find them located relatively close to suburban areas. Some breeders are becoming savvy to the value of this by-product and are packaging it for sale, but many are grateful to anyone who’s willing to come and haul it away for free. (Believe it or not, I heard of one local farm that actually rented a dumpster and paid to have the manure hauled to a landfill just to get rid of it!)
If you’re interested in trying some of this black gold in your own garden, you can find contact information for alpaca farms in your area through the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association’s Farm and Ranch Locator. Better yet, visit participating farms yourself on National Alpaca Farm Day on September 29-30, 2007. Just don’t tell your gardening friends about this great source of soil-building bounty, or they just might beat you to the “beans!”