by J. Muir
Veganic gardening is a system of gardening that is done with respect for the sentient beings who are affected by the growing of plants. It is done without chemicals and without animal products, which are typically used in both conventional and organic growing. The methods used allow us to minimize the harm to other animals that occurs in food production. No pesticides are unnecessarily applied, indiscriminately killing bumblebees, butterflies and other insects, then washed into streams and groundwater to cause further harm to fishes and other aquatic animals. Mice, rabbits and other small animals aren’t killed by plows, tractors and combine harvesters. No shotguns are used to kill crows or other birds who attempt to take their share of the crops. Explosives aren’t used against rodents in their burrows. Violence isn’t leveled against any other being who, naturally, might want to feed on or make use of the crops being produced on their habitat. This motivation forms the basis of the method of gardening and farming known as Vegan-Organic, or in North America as Veganic, agriculture. It is also referred to as stockfree organic in the U.K.
Veganic gardening is also beneficial to human health. A healthy vegan diet includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, herbs and spices. The very freshest and most vitamin-packed produce comes as locally as possible, ideally out our front door; produce loses taste and nutrient value when it is shipped long distance and stored on grocery shelves before being sold. And shipping produce – often from half-way around the world – contributes to pollution (which is offset by switching to a vegan diet, however, since ‘greenhouse gas’ production from transport is far less than that from animal agriculture). Further, when we produce our own food, we are assured of the methods used in producing it. We can know that no industrial chemicals were used to flush the soil with nutrients, burning the microorganisms which normally keep the soil in good health – capable of digesting organic matter and resisting erosion due to the organic chemical bonds made between soil molecules.
That’s not to say that there’s no place in vegan thinking for some international trade – that we can’t enjoy, for example, black pepper, avocados, bananas and coffee that may not grow in our climate, if they are fairly traded and produced in an environmentally responsible manner. Yet North American consumers, on average, are buying large amounts of cheap vegetables and fruits which are grown in far-off countries, in conditions which are famously unjust for the farm workers, in farms where questionable business practices and harsh pesticides abound. Not only are we losing out on nutrition and taste, but we are buying food produced by an abused work force and possibly exposed to pesticides which are banned in many countries. Inversely, people in the global South who are being exploited by the colonial system of export can take back some measure of independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency by returning to the production of organic produce for local consumption.
So local gardening provides healthy, life-sustaining food which minimizes the harm done to other animals, and it obviates a system of international trade which sells us cheap produce at the expense of workers, the environment, and our own health.
Vegan Organic, or Veganic Gardening
Vegan Organic growing involves taking a systematic approach, considering carefully the interests of other animals while designing a garden, and trying to mimic natural systems in order to build a sustainable, ecologically viable, productive and beneficial garden. Vegan Organic gardening and farming can rightly be described as “organic plus”: as well as following organic standards which require natural rather than chemical maintenance of the farming system, it involves taking respect for other beings and their habitat very seriously. Vegan Organic means refusing all products of slaughterhouses and animal confinement, such as blood and bone meal and manure. Veganic growers assert that animals are not needed to ‘process’ plant material, which can be applied directly or composted in order to increase soil fertility.
Vegan growing also means respecting and increasing animal habitat, rather than driving all animals away. Burrowing animals may be prevented from disturbing particular crops by fencing which is buried around particular areas, rather than their being repelled or killed by invasive and violent use of poisons, explosives, or noise deterrents. Predation from crows and pigeons may be prevented by completely enclosing certain crops (such as strawberries) in netting and wire fencing. And rather than taking the ‘easy road’ by arbitrarily killing ‘problem’ invertebrates such as slugs, aphids and flea beetles, vegan gardeners try to allow a natural balance in their garden. Plants can be made healthier by employing techniques such as intercropping, companion planting, succession planting and mulching where appropriate. Building the soil leads to plants which are higher in nutrients and much less likely to become diseased or attacked by insects.
Soil is chiefly ‘built’ by returning organic matter to be broken down by microorganisms; this can be achieved through mulching, composting, or through ‘green manures’, stands of plants such as rye, vetch, peas, buckwheat, or even corn which have been grown specifically for the purpose, which are cut down before full maturity and left to break down on the soil surface or dug into the soil. Growers can also make ‘compost tea’, a fermented solution of plants such as comfrey, dandelion or nettle (each with its own profile of nutrients and minerals), left to break down in water and then applied in diluted form to the soil to feed plant roots and encourage soil microorganisms. When using these options, the addition of manure is made redundant.
Don’t be Intimidated.
For many of those who have been raised in urban areas in the global North, gardening may be a mysterious and even intimidating topic. Much is made of those people with ‘green thumbs’, which reinforces the idea that one must be specially gifted or talented in order to work with plants. Yet many of the same people intimidated by the thought of growing their own vegetables will have poured hundreds of hours into learning how to operate a computer or drive a car. They may forget that the talent of gardening comes from transmitted knowledge and years of experience. In order to start gardening, they must start somewhere, and they must be willing to allow themselves plenty of room to make mistakes.
A person who has never put soil in trays and pushed seeds into it will not find the process evident. Mistakes will be made: the seeds will be over- or under-watered, mildew may form, the seedlings may be lost from damping off, or grow too lanky without a proper light source. And yet, much of the time, when good fresh seeds are put into soil, they manage despite the odds to develop into mature plants which will furnish some food to the grower. Inexperience is overcome by research, by asking advice, by learning from mistakes, and by the sheer life energy inherent in plants.
Compost Happens. But How to Guide the Process.
Composting is an essential component of the garden cycle. The organic matter that is removed from the garden when produce is harvested is returned through composting food waste from the kitchen. Ideally, in a true cycle of return, human wastes would also be carefully composted and used to add organic matter to the soil, and it is only prejudice which prevents this subject from being further explored in most discussions of sustainability.
Compost is not only for those who have yards or access to land. Compost bins may even be maintained on balconies (though vegans would generally want to avoid confining worms in bins for worm composting, another form of treating living beings as useful commodities).
Though decay is a natural process, composting can be controlled by choosing the mixture of organic materials and the amount of moisture and oxygen available to the microorganisms which do the work of decomposition. Generally, gardeners and farmers in the global North favour aerobic composting, which requires large amounts of oxygen, heats the compost pile, produces little odour, and has a reduced-volume end result. Many rice farmers in China, however, have long favoured anaerobic composting for its greater volume end result, lower maintenance needs, and ability to produce methane gas which may be captured and used for cooking, but this method produces considerable odor. In an age when innovation is necessary to cut global dependency on fossil fuels, and to raise the standard of living for rural peoples, the idea of producing usable biogas from compost is an intriguing one.
Whether in balcony containers or in outdoor bins or piles, aerobic compost can be a challenge. Frequent problems include odoriferous compost piles, excessive flies, little compost activity… though not rocket science, compost requires a few key ingredients in order to work properly. Compost must have the proper ingredients: kitchen waste along with plant matter must be added in proper ratio. Food scraps from the kitchen, grass clippings and fresh plant matter are high in nitrogen and they are also referred to as “green” matter, while materials like dry straw are high in carbon and referred to as “brown” matter. Technically, the ideal ratio is 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen; in practice, this means approximately two parts of “green” matter to one part of “brown”. Along with the right ratio of materials, a compost pile needs adequate aeration, which is usually achieved by turning or stirring the pile, or by running drainage pipes through the pile or layering branches beneath it. It also needs the right level of moisture – colloquially described as matching in feel to a “wrung-out sponge”. The pile must be covered in order to protect it from the rain, while the covering must not prevent air from circulating.
The Vegan Organic Network has put together an information sheet on veganic composting, including instructions for a compost bin constructed simply of hay bales and covered with a tarp.
Starting seed can be very advantageous for growers living in regions with seasonal weather which prevents year-round growing, as it can bring plants to maturity several months before they would be ready if sown directly in the garden at the start of the growing season. Some plants are extremely well-suited to transplanting, like tomatoes, while some take more finesse, like corn, and some plants are unsuited to transplanting, like carrots. Critical elements for starting seed indoors are not just soil and water, but proper warmth and lighting, too. Most seeds do best in a moist and warm environment, with a gentle heat source radiating directly underneath the seed trays (rather than ambient temperature, which doesn’t heat the soil adequately). Once they have sprouted, it is critical for them to receive enough light in order to grow sturdy, rather than too tall and lanky. Ideally the grower would make a small investment in a full-spectrum halogen lightbulb, since the results with direct lighting are much better than what can be achieved on a windowsill.
The greatest challenge for vegan growers is finding suitable growing medium – that is, the potting soil in which to grow the seeds. Many commercial mixes contain compost, which usually includes manure. Other problematic ingredients include peat and sphagnum moss, which are harvested from bogs in a manner damaging to their ecology. Veganic growers avoid moss in their growing mixes for this reason, and also because it can disrupt the garden’s pH balance in the long run, being highly acidic. Vegan growers will also try to avoid coir, which is often used as a substitute for peat or sphagnum moss, but which is exported from regions where it should stay to increase soil fertility locally.
So what are we left with? In some areas, organic, animal-free commercial growing mixes may be available; growers need to ask nurseries on a case-by-case basis to find out about ingredients. If not, home-made potting soil can be obtained by mixing sieved garden compost, sieved loam (rich garden soil), leafmould (well-decayed leaves, broken down in a pile separate from the compost), sharp sand and seaweed meal. Pelleted hop manure, or spent hops, are also a useful ingredient if available locally. This is an area where innovation and increased options are necessary, which will surely happen as veganic growing increases in popularity.
With plenty of light, and adequate warmth and watering, most seedlings should grow and prosper. If they need to grow for a long time before putting them into the ground, like tomatoes which may be grown indoors for up to 8 weeks before setting outside, they may need several applications of fertilizer. Homemade liquid fertilizer from grass clippings or human urine costs nothing and can provide a useful boost to seedlings. Seedlings can also benefit from applications of liquid seaweed supplement just before and just after being transplanted, as it can help them adapt more readily to their new environment.
Seedling starts need to be carefully timed in conjunction with the proper time to plant them outdoors, so that they are ready enough to plant when the time comes without becoming lanky or over-mature. Seed packets usually include instructions on how many weeks the seedlings should be grown before transplanting. The next critical information, in Northern hemispheres, is the “last frost” date, which generally marks the point at which most seedlings can be set out – though certain warm-weather crops may be transplanted several weeks after the “last frost” date in order to avoid the risk of losing the plants to a late frost. [Here is frost date information for the United States and for Canada]. Then the gardener combines these two pieces of information: working backward from the last frost date, the seeds should be started in advance according to the number of weeks indicated on the seed packet for transplants. Thus, with a last frost date of May 2, and a seed packet recommending 6-8 weeks for growing transplants, the gardener would start seeds of that particular plant between March 7 (for 8 weeks of growth) and March 21 (for 6 weeks of growth). Get used to this sort of calculation, as it is very useful!
Garden planning includes locating the garden, planning the layout of the beds, and hardscaping features such as fences and pathways, as well as planning the crops to be grown within each bed. Though it sounds like an overwhelming amount of factors to contemplate at once, garden planning comes with experience. To plan a new garden, observation is key. What area receives the most sunlight for the longest period of the day? One might start planting stakes in the ground to plot out particular areas which have the best sun exposure. What areas are elevated, and what areas are sunken? Sunken areas should be avoided in colder climates, as they may ‘pool’ air and create frost pockets, while they can be embraced in hot, dry climates for their tendency to hold moisture a little longer than elevated areas. Other factors include access – what’s a good spot to put a garden where a wheelbarrow can have access and a compost bin can be sited nearby? Will the garden be forgotten if it’s too far away, and can crops which need a lot of attention be sited in a more conspicuous area – near the front door, for example?
Planning where and how to site the beds within the garden can be an equally individualized affair. Generally, beds are oriented lengthwise from east to west, so that the entire bed is exposed equally to the sun’s path. But some garden beds are two feet wide and fifty feet long, while others may be four feet wide and five feet long, according to the general shape of the garden, the inclination of the gardener, and technical considerations like whether machinery (rototillers, tractors) is used to work or harvest the garden beds. Some garden beds can be elevated by mounding the soil from the pathways on to the rows; for those with limited mobility, beds may be raised significantly, framed in with wood, in order for the gardener to reach all parts of the bed comfortably from a sitting position (including from a wheelchair). Some gardens are purely functional, in neat rows; others may be highly landscaped, or filled with whimsical elements and flowers.
The next consideration involves how and where to grow the crops. Organic agriculture generally specifies a rotation of crops within the garden beds, so that soil diseases and pests are not allowed to build up from year to year. There are six main ‘classes’ of the most common food plants which benefit from crop rotation.
1. Solanaceae – the ‘nightshade’ family, includes tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, eggplants, paprika, peppers, petunias and tobacco
2. Umbelliferae – or ‘apiaceae’, includes carrots, celery, parsley, parsnip, dill, fennel, coriander, cumin and anise
3. Brassicaceae – or ‘crucifers’, includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnips, cress, radish and canola
4. Leguminosae – or ‘fabaceae’, includes beans, peas, soybeans, peanuts, carob, and lupen
5. Allium – includes onions, leeks, garlic, shallots, chives, and green onion
6. Curcubitaceae – includes melons, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, winter squash, and gourds
One rotation plan developed by Eliot Coleman calls for an eight-year rotation; starting with eight different beds, the gardener plants tomatoes, peas, cabbage, sweet corn, potatoes, squash, root crops and beans; the following year each crop is shifted one bed over, so that peas are planted where tomatoes grew the previous year, cabbage grows where the peas were planted, and so on. More commonly, organic farmers and gardeners follow a four-year crop rotation, simply ensuring that each class of plant is grown no more than once in four years in any particular bed.
Proponents of permaculture, however, argue against the necessity of crop rotation. While still following organic principles, permaculturists aim for the widest diversity possible in each garden bed, planting flowers, herbs, food crops and ground covers as closely as possible in a system which is believed to mirror ecological integrity and thereby minimize predation and disease; plants are often left to flower and re-seed themselves within the same garden bed year after year. A healthy debate has sprung up between these two positions, and hopefully each gardener can utilize rotation or permaculture, or elements of both, as experience and the situation dicatates.
‘Dig’ vs. ‘no-dig’ gardening
Unique Gardening Ideas for Urban Dwellers (yard sharing, allotment gardens, rooftop gardens, vertical gardens…)
Vegan Organic Network – Supporting stockfree organic growing
The Vegan Society – Vegan organic growing
Veganic Agriculture Network – Promoting plant-based farming and gardening throughout North America
Introduction to Permaculture – Veganic Agriculture Network