Vegan gardening has a lot of overlap with organic or no-dig gardening. However, the ways in which it differs are related to the principles of veganism itself. Veganism is a belief or philosophy that we shouldn’t be exploiting animals; it’s stricter than vegetarianism in that vegans would see the use of any product that contains animal byproducts - and thus encourages widespread farming of animals - as something to be avoided.
The Vegan Society defined veganism as follows:
Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
Vegans can be motivated by animal rights or ethics, environmental concerns or health benefits (or indeed all of the above), but whatever the reason veganism continues to grow in popularity. As we increasingly stare down the barrel of climate change and the collapse of capitalism, veganism or vegetarianism feel to many people like necessary changes, no matter how much mockery (or indeed hostility at times) they face.
Having said that, it can often be up to the individual in terms of how far they take their veganism, or in how flexible they are towards the needs of the garden VS the principles of veganism. For what it’s worth, yours truly has no interest in trying to argue one way or the other. I’m a firm believer in just doing your best to follow the principles of whatever you believe in, without being overly strict on yourself if you have to make occasional compromises. Instead this article aims to outline how vegan gardening (as well as the closely-related veganic gardening) might work, where you might face difficulties, and what kind of vegan-friendly alternatives are available to you to overcome these challenges.
‘Veganic’ is a combination of vegan and organic. Veganic gardening aims to avoid the use of chemical or artificial fertilisers, plant feed or sprays as well as avoiding any products with animal inputs as outlined above. The philosophy or practice encourages gardening and growing via sustainable methods that don’t stem from animal exploitation.
Compost and Soil
While you can check and double check ingredients of bags of store-bought compost, you can’t always be certain what’s snuck itself into the mix: some can include manure, others traces of blood, fish and bone. Beware of mushroom compost, which may sound like a suitable alternative but often has chicken or horse manure included in the mix. You can source composts that have been certified as vegan, just as you can with ones that are certified as organic.
An alternative for peace of mind is, of course, to produce your own ‘black gold’. Feed your compost pile or bin with kitchen waste, vegetable cuttings, leaves, garden waste etc, making sure to have a healthy balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials. When broken down the result will be a rich, crumbly organic material that will nourish your soil and plants, improve soil structure and enrich your garden health in the long-run.
Another way of improving or amending the soil organically is with ‘green manure’ or cover crops. These are grown primarily to improve the soil rather than to be harvested and eaten. They do this by fixing nitrogen, preventing soil erosion and suppressing the growth of weeds. They can then be cut and fed to the soil in other areas of the garden or used as a nutrient-rich surface mulch. Examples of cover crops include buckwheat, clover, rye, alfalfa, chickpeas or daikon radishes. Because many green manure crops can happily grow in winter, they’re commonly grown during ‘dormant’ periods in the garden, which should keep you occupied and keep the gardening buzz going even when the days have gotten shorter.
From the vegan perspective, ‘mulching’ organic matter is preferable to digging it into the soil, as it means you’re not disrupting or potentially killing worms or small insects that call the soil their home.
We’ve previously spoken at length on the blog about avoiding the use of plant fertilisers as much as possible. They have disadvantages as well as advantages; for example harmful fertiliser run-off can be an issue. Feeding your soil with well-balanced compost should lead to a healthy, nutritious and well-structured soil in the long-term, to the point where you won’t need to use fertilising products (aka ‘feed your soil, not your plants’). However, despite the best of intentions it can sometimes be necessary to give your crops a short-term boost.
Here is where the organic gardener can reach for more natural alternatives to chemical fertilisers, such as plant feeds containing fish, blood and bone meal. Because these feeds contain animal byproducts, the vegan gardener will need another alternative. Similarly, manure - an often-recommended addition to the organic garden - is very often sourced from farms where livestock are kept, which is something a vegan will want to avoid (as in a sense it could be seen as supporting or encouraging factory farming, even if the farmer has given it to them for free). Animal manure can also sometimes be contaminated by wool, feathers etc. On the flip-side, someone who is vegan for predominantly environmental reasons might decide that the manure is better off being used rather than disposed of and left to emit methane, or potentially contaminating rivers and waterways.
Vegan-friendly alternatives include:
Seaweed Extract: Seaweed contains naturally occurring growth stimulants as well as a broad range of essential elements. It has been used for centuries by farmers and gardeners as a plant feed or soil improver. While you can use fresh seaweed, there are sometimes restrictions about taking it from protected areas. Alternatively there are processed, concentrated products that you can purchase. We supply Seafeed Seaweed Meal here at Quickcrop, which is made from ground and dried North Atlantic seaweed and nothing else. Just don’t get it mixed up with the similar-looking container of our Seaweed & Manure variation, which contains vegan-unfriendly chicken manure pellets.
Seaweed meal increases microbial activity in your garden soil, resulting in larger, healthier plants. It contains growth hormones and biochemical compounds which strengthen plants’ immune systems, making them better able to stave off pests and disease. It’s also a great soil conditioner, improving aeration and soil structure.
Comfrey: Comfrey is highly regarded as an excellent plant feed; in the UK the herb can often be seen growing wild along river banks and similar areas. It’s high in potassium which makes it particularly beneficial for crops like tomatoes, strawberries and squash.
Comfrey can be bought as a liquid plant feed or as pellets, but you can also make your own fertiliser mix by steeping the herb (along with nettles) in a hessian sack for a few weeks. This ‘tea’ can then be diluted and used as a plant feed! Comfrey leaves can also be used as a mulch or added to the compost bin, and if you need any more convincing the plant is great for the bees too.
Volcanic Rock Dust: Don’t worry, you don’t have to mine this yourself from the nearest volcano. In fact it can be mined from quarries and is sold by many garden supply stores (including ours). It’s a highly-rated soil improver and plant feed. While Volcanic (or basalt) rock dust doesn’t have the NPK levels to qualify as a fertiliser, it does contain essential minerals and adds beneficial trace elements like iron and silica to the soil. It can improve plant yields, vigour and pest resistance as well as general soil fertility. Because this is silica dust you’re dealing with, you should probably mask up when spreading the dust just to be on the safe side. You can add it as a surface dressing all year round, or even use it as a compost enricher. Rock dust has also recently been in the news as a potential method for combating climate change, such are its carbon-capturing abilities.
Alfalfa Meal: Alfalfa itself is a great option as a cover crop or a mulch, as it contains NPK and micronutrients as well as suppressing weeds. Alfalfa meal is a processed version that can come in the form of pellets or powder. It breaks down quickly when added to soil, providing a boost of nutrients and nitrogen.
The issue of vegan pest control poses all kinds of questions. Even with some more natural methods of pest control (such as attracting beneficial predators), you are kind of interfering with the natural world to benefit your garden goals - and the way some of these ‘friendly’ garden insects work can be pretty gruesome if you’re the unfortunate ‘pest’ on the receiving end. And that’s another thing: who decided that they’re to be called ‘pests’? We did of course, because humans are top of the food chain. (On a side-note the RHS recently decided to no longer classify slugs and snails as pests, pointing out that only 9 of the 44 recognised species of slug in the UK actually eat garden plants.)
If you’re against any harm to all creatures great and small, perhaps the best method of pest control or ‘mitigation’ is to have some sacrificial crops: plant more than you need of one variety or plant ornamentals that they can munch on to their heart’s content, and if possible plant them closer to areas of the garden where these insects might be hanging out. One way of thinking about it is that you are sharing your garden with animals and insects, and you shouldn’t treat them like you would that annoying housemate who keeps drinking the last of your milk.
Other options include covering your crops with mesh netting, cutting a plastic bottle in two and placing it over young plants as a makeshift cloche, or setting up a fruit cage to keep birds away from berries etc. ‘Relocation’ away from your garden may not be a perfect vegan solution but it is preferable to doing them harm: just place them somewhere green and not near a roadside.
Leaving aside the earlier mini-philosophical debate, creating a wildlife-friendly garden with a diverse range of crops will of course encourage a healthy, balanced ecosystem. A balanced ecosystem means that there’s less chance of one particular pest variety causing havoc in the garden.
A healthy garden will have plenty of worms in its soil as nature intended, but the use of composting worms (or red wigglers) is what brings up a slightly thorny question. It’s seen as a natural and organic practice, but from the vegan point of view it can be seen as encouraging the exploitation of animals for human interests. Taking worms from elsewhere in the garden and placing them in a wormery or compost heap may be less objectionable than purchasing worms from a supplier. However, some vegans may balk at either solution and insist on leaving the worms to their own devices.
Vegan Gardening is not without its challenges, but committed vegans will be well used to meeting these kinds of challenges and seeking out alternatives to the traditional way of doing things. Many of the principles and practices of vegan or veganic gardening go hand-in-hand with other popular disciplines like ‘no dig’ or organic gardening. Staying true to your principles may present you with the odd dilemma or head-scratcher, but it can also lead to great and sometimes unexpected results in the garden.