Veganic Gardening

By Nathaniel Corn

Living a vegan lifestyle means eliminating all animal products. Sometimes, amidst their best efforts to reduce animal exploitation, vegans still support animal agriculture through common gardening and farming products. The goal of this article is to create awareness of these practices and assist the home gardener in transitioning away from animal products, while compassionately growing more productive vegetables and plans.

It is an unfortunate reality that buying vegetables can indirectly support animal agriculture, but it shows how ingrained in society the use of animals is. An incredible amount of animal byproducts ends up in soil to grow plants. In addition to eliminating animals from your plate, make efforts to eliminate animals from the vegetables on your plate. The most common garden products are animal blood, animal bone, and human and animal feces. It is estimated that 11.4% of gross income of the beef industry is from by-products such as bone and blood meal. Lesser known, but still widely-used, fertilizers include feathers, egg shells, and fish byproducts. Each provides specific nutrients to soil, which become depleted as plants grow and extract them. Switching to plant-based alternatives is better for your garden and is part of the path to a world without animal exploitation.

Veganic gardening is the process of growing plants without the use of animal products/byproducts. Some farms, like the ones in the Veganic Agriculture Network or One Degree Organic Foods network, have developed plant-based farming practices which results in food being grown without animal products and subsequently leads to consumer products labeled "veganic," such as One Degree grains, breads and cereals. The trend towards veganic farming is in its infancy, though. Purchasing these products whenever possible is the best way to expand the market. If local grocers don't have veganic labels on anything, the best thing to do is ask. The most powerful tool you have to support veganic farming is your shopping money. Another option would be to ask farmers directly via local farmers markets. This puts the consumer in a unique position to ask for specifically what they want directly from the person growing their food. Small local farmers can respond much quicker to customer requests than large commercial or monocrop operations. At the very least, asking about veganic farming will increase awareness and affect change over time.

Growing your own food, if possible in your living situation, is a guaranteed way to remove animal byproducts from your vegetables. Multiple forms of plant-based fertilizer are on the market and can provide a ready replacement for bone meal, blood meal, and manure. Each animal product has a variety of benefits but highlights a particular mineral. Bone meal and manure are used mainly to add phosphorous to soil, which plants use to develop their root system and for producing fruit. Replace with rock phosphate or soft rock phosphate. These take much longer to break down than bone meal, but one application will last for years. Add these as soon as possible to your garden. Blood meal is added for nitrogen, which promotes the growth of the plant. Replace with alfalfa meal, a plant-based slow-release form of nitrogen. Potassium supports overall plant growth, synthesis of plant proteins, and helps regulate the flow of water though the plant. Typically, potassium comes from non-animal sources such as wood ash, potash, or citrus peels.

Manure is a common fertilizer and a component of commercially-bought compost, as seen on bag labels. In a most ironic fashion, people grow plants for animals to eat, poop out, and then spread on other plants. Why not cut out the middle cow and just put the nitrogen-rich plants right on the garden? When looking to replace manure, seek products high in nitrogen, like alfalfa.

For higher garden yields with more nutrient-dense food, trace minerals are an important addition. In my experience, seaweedbased fertilizers contain trace minerals in much higher concentrations than any land-based plants and are a good option for veganic gardeners. Soil is a living thing. Healthy soil is rich in nutrients, organic matter, microorganisms, insects and bacteria. Having living soil is important for the health of the plants. Too much fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide can kill the living organisms that make up healthy soil. Obtaining a balance of nutrients along with a healthy population of microorganisms helps plants be more productive, disease- and pest-resistant, and leads to higher yields. An imbalance of any one mineral can cause soil acidity to change, and lead to lack of absorption of all minerals by plants. Soil test kits are a great way to determine what deficiencies exist in home gardens. Certain plant afflictions can be identified without soil tests and remedied by properly balancing soil minerals. For instance, adding too much compost can increase nitrogen, leading to excessive foliage growth at the expense of fruit production, such as when a tomato plant has lots of leaves, but no tomatoes!

Whether you have a small yard, container garden on the balcony, or huge plot of plowed land, anyone can become a veganic gardener. The majority of the veganic garden processes will take place in spring and early summer, although they can be utilized throughout the entire growing season. In the spring, most gardeners apply blood and bone meal to refresh soil. Going forward, seek out plant-based fertilizers. Just as in the food supply, any animal product has a vegan counterpart for gardening. Often these can be found at small, independent garden centers, online, and some big box stores have a limited supply. If you can't find any, ask a store manager. Once again, just asking will make a difference. Most brands are not exclusively veganic, but offer a variety of veganic options such as Dr. Earth, Down to Earth, General Hydroponics, and Growers Trust. Down to Earth vegan mix, alfalfa mix, and kelp meal are the three I most commonly use.

Common plant-based fertilizers include compost, seaweed, hay, green manure, and compost tea. According to Mother Earth News, green manure can be made from a multitude of different cover crops that are planted specifically to put nutrients back into your soil. And again, check the ingredients to assure your compost does not contain animal products such as manure or eggshells. Some compost bins have reservoirs built in to the bottom to collect the liquid that drains from compost. This becomes a concentrated nutrient rich fertilizer called compost tea of which a little bit goes a long way.

Some plants take more of certain minerals out of the soil, needing higher concentrations of that specific nutrient in your fertilizer. For example, corn uses a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous. Before worrying about specific nutrient levels for each individual plant, it is important to know what they are used for and when to apply them. Nutrient levels vary dramatically throughout the country so there is no secret formula that works everywhere. Although they will not be versed in veganic gardening, your local university agricultural extension can provide a lot of the basic information for farming and getting started growing your own food tailored to the specific region you live in.

As stated before, the most common elements in fertilizer are nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K), each with a number corresponding to the ratio included in a particular mix. These elements will be noted on the fertilizer packaging, as they are crucial for plants and depleted from soil that has been used for gardens before. Most fertilizers have all three in different concentrations.

Looking at the numbers, it is best to have higher concentrations of each of these minerals at different times in the growing season. First comes phosphorus, which helps develop root systems. Strong roots lead to larger, more productive plants. Spring planting should include mixing fertilizer high in phosphorus into the soil of the garden or container soil. After young plants are hardened off and begin to grow, fertilizer high in nitrogen will help the plants mature. Finally, a higher concentration of potassium will aid in production of vegetables. While a generic even combination of N/P/K can work just fine for most gardens, tailoring specific concentrations can be effective, especially if trying to achieve balance after having a soil test or seeing specific issues attributed to deficiencies or abundances.

Once you get a handle on specific soil needs, how and when to fertilize, and what concentrations of fertilizers to use, the veganic method will grow any crop from cucumbers, tomatoes, and green beans to ground cherries, blueberries, or herbs. Home gardeners can enact these changes quite easily; a commercial farmer might take a bit more time. It is much easier for a home gardener to switch fertilizer because you are talking about one or two boxes as opposed to a commercial farmer who may have large stockpiles to use up before switching. Veganic gardening benefits the soil, the plants, the farmers, and the consumers, and last but not least, the animals! No matter what USDA planting zone you live in, whether they know your name at your local ag-extension or you just bought your first container for your patio — go vegan with veganic gardening!

Gardener's hand Scrub

  • 6 cups organic sugar
  • ½ cup dried lavender flowers
  • 1 cup Dr. Bronner's liquid soap (we use unscented)
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 12 drops lavender essential oil
  • 12 drops orange essential oil
  • 6 drops tea tree essential oil

In a large bowl, combine sugar and lavender flowers. Add Dr. Bronner's liquid soap, olive oil, and all essential oils. Stir well. The resulting soap will be thick, like cake batter. If you want more fragrant, feel free to add more lavender or orange essential oil. You can even add a little orange zest, if you like!

Fill three pint-size Ball jars and store with tight lids.

Nathaniel Corn is a Baltimore-based photographer, co-organizer of Baltimore Vegan Drinks, and avid home gardener.