The best time to observe farm animals’ dining preferences is in the fall, just before frost destroys the last blooms. Perhaps the animals know that soon they’ll have to return to the barn and eat the boring hay and grains we offer them.
This morning when I opened the kitchen door, I spotted Victor, a young Jersey calf, enjoying a quiet stroll around the front garden and leaning in to sample the shimmering, deliciously crisp pink trumpets of the ‘Zebrina’ mallow. He apparently had slipped his tether stake around dawn to go in search of real food. His breakfast was hearty, his diet varied. Like the turkeys, he sought soothing, flavorful, nutritious plants.
In an effort to understand Victor’s needs, I retraced his hoofprints through and around the gardens. Passing up phlox and a late-blooming unscented rose, he nipped at hollyhock flowers, chewed down ribbon grass, tasted the nasturtiums, and at last came into his own among the pansies. Pansies, as you probably know, not only have heart-stimulating properties but also a nice sweet, floral flavor.
Until this morning, the old wheelbarrow planter just beyond the house was packed with beautiful pansy blooms. Victor must have admired them too—the dark yellows, the burgundy velvets, the delicate ivories—because he ate every flower, pulling so gently that he didn’t uproot a single plant. Moving on to a barrel planted with ‘Jolly Joker’ pansies, all dark purple with orange faces, Victor again ate every single flower, bud, and seedpod. I hope he enjoyed them.
When planting for animals, consider flowering shrubs and vines. Horses especially like lilac buds in early summer and rose hips in the fall, both of which they nibble as we work with them around the farm. The best vine is scarlet honeysuckle (Lonicera ¥brownii ‘Dropmore Scarlet’), which is most delicious when about to release its colorful, scented flowers. I advise never planting for bulls, since they tend to mash herbs and flowers rather than eat them.
The following varieties of annuals and perennials should please the most discerning palates among your animals as they did ours: ‘Swiss Giant’ and the aforementioned ‘Jolly Joker’ pansies; ‘Bodegold’ chamomile; ‘Dwarf Jewel’, ‘Double Gleam’, and ‘Empress of India’ nasturtiums, all beautifully colored and peppery in flavor; annual mallows, especially ‘Zebrina’ and the improved tree mallow ‘Bibor Felho’, which has tasty, roselike flowers; and any daylilies. Also include ribbon grass, all young hostas, and fall-planted cowslips (Primula veris). Animals enjoy veronica for both its buds and its foliage, so it’s economical feed.
And don’t overlook sweet alyssum, especially the improved white
‘Snow Crystal’, which survives rough treatment. Even if it is
tossed out of the garden in early summer by roaming livestock, if
it is quickly replanted and nursed along, it will form new, sweet
buds by late summer.
—Jo Ann Gardner
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