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Vegan Organic Growing - The Basics

Growing with concern for people, animals and the environment
Organic growing involves treating the soil, the growing environment and the world environment as a resource to be preserved for future generations, rather than exploited in the short term. Veganorganics means doing this without any animal products at all, which is not difficult when you know how.


All soil fertility ultimately depends on plants and minerals - these do not have to be passed through an animal in order to work. Fertility can be maintained by plant-based composts, green manures, mulches, chipped branch wood, crop rotations and any other
method that is sustainable, ecologically benign and not dependent upon animal exploitation.

The guidelines below do not attempt to be fully comprehensive. The extent to which you adhere to any system really depends on you, your conscience and circumstances. We can only do our best with our available time and money. The Vegan-Organic Network has now published comprehensive Stockfree Organic Standards, which are available to commercial growers and can also be used as a reference for home growers. Of course, no one person or organisation knows everything about the subject, so constant co-operation and updating of ideas and information is needed.

Whilst conventional cultivation relies on synthetic chemicals and animal products, traditional organic production also generally relies on animal wastes and byproducts. Both involve the exploitation of living creatures, and the inefficient use of land, water and energy resources. Vegan-organic methods minimise these drawbacks. Many people who are not themselves vegan or vegetarian are coming
to appreciate that animal-free growing is the most sustainable system: it is the future of organics.

Vegan-organic information sheets are produced on various topics by the Vegan-Organic Network, and are aimed mainly at those with allotments, kitchen gardens, or other small growing areas, although many of the techniques will also apply to larger-scale situations. We welcome feedback on this information sheet and any other related topics.

In adopting these methods you will certainly not be alone! Various groups exist to help out and many are listed below. Whether or not you grow some of your own food, it is still possible to support the Vegan-Organic Network and other organisations that promote animal-free growing, and thereby lend a hand in the movement towards a cruelty-free and environmentally friendly world. The
option of buying animal/crueltyfree food is open to very few of us at the moment, unless we are fortunate enough to live near one of the small but increasing number of commercial vegan-organic producers.

There are one thousand million reasons for growing vegan-organically; this being a conservative estimate of the number of sentient creatures killed just in the UK every year to provide food and raw materials for the UK population.

Here is some advice about growing your own crops.

First of all, remember to use appropriate protective clothing; some materials such as limestone, can irritate the eyes and skin, as can some plants such as comfrey (not to mention nettles!)


Preparing the soil
Most bacterial activity and soil organisms live in the top few inches of the soil helping to create drainage and build up fertility. Constantly digging the soil and exposing it to erosion from the elements disturbs the natural balance resulting in the loss of availability of organic matter and the breakdown of soil structure.

When cropping you need to constantly replenish soil organic matter levels by the addition of plant-based composts, mulches and by using plants grown to improve fertility, i.e. green manures. With the exception of green manures, digging is not necessary for incorporating materials as organic matter spread on the surface will soon be drawn under by worm activity and plant nutrients will be available at root level and not be buried out of reach.

It is advisable to dig heavy clays as exposure to frost and rain can result in a more workable soil, especially over winter. Compaction, caused by standing or running the wheelbarrow over the soil when it is too wet, can be avoided by making permanent beds that are never stood on. These can be timber lined as raised beds, with soil from the paths being placed on the beds to raise them.
Where soil has been compacted it may be loosened by forking.

When clearing land for the first time it is important to remove all the perennial weeds such as bind weed, couch grass, ground elder and horsetail whose roots are deep and wide spreading. Dandelions, docks and thistles have a long taproot. You remove them through a process of digging a trench, at spade depths across an area. Work backwards by pushing the soil continually forward, almost like a sieving process so that you can inspect every part of the soil and remove all the weeds. Do not stand on your new soil tilth! Finally when all the weeds are removed rake the soil level with the back of the rake to reduce hillocks and mounds. All weeds will re-grow from a small piece left in the ground so it is important that you are thorough.

After digging, the soil will soon be covered by germinating weeds blown in or brought in by birds etc. therefore it is important to manage weeds so that they do not outcompete the crop. Weeding is a constant task for the vegan-organic grower but it is always easier to hoe small weeds when they are at the white stringy stage rather than having to uproot established weed clumps by hand, which is far more arduous.

Weeds are not all bad as they contain nutrients that have been brought to the surface level via the roots. Rather than waste this valuable resource, annual weeds (if not seeding!) can be composted and perennials can be chopped and added to water to make a liquid feed, as outlined below.


Mulching and no dig
Mulching is the method of applying organic matter to the soil surface, providing a constant supply of material to break down, suppressing weed growth, ensuring more even soil temperature and moisture. Mulch can be applied at any time except when the soil is frozen or dry.

When using no dig methods, weed infested sites can be cleared by firstly covering with a barrier, e.g. cardboard boxes (flattened and wetted), newspapers (avoiding toxic-coloured inks), carpets or coconut matting (only those made from natural materials such as hessian and cotton, avoiding synthetic mixtures and foam backing). A sufficient quantity of organic material is then spread over the barrier. Plants can be planted into holes cut into the barrier. Any weeds growing out of the planting holes can be removed by hand. After two years of covering weed-infested land, most perennial weeds should have died off.

Organic material
Obtaining sufficient organic matter is often the most difficult aspect of veganorganic gardening. These are some potential sources.
• Grass cuttings: rich in nutrients, mix with compost or fork into the top of the soil, or use as a mulch.
• Old hay: ideal for mulching, containing a balance of nutrients. It must be at least a year or two old so that no seeds will germinate.
• Spent hops: an excellent soil conditioner, containing some nitrogen, available from many breweries.
• Tree leaves: obtainable from your own trees or from local councils. Be careful of street trees, which may contain litter, dog faeces or lead pollution.
• Comfrey: leaves can be cut when ready and added to water to make a liquid feed or applied when wilted; you can grow your own comfrey for this purpose.
• Composted garden waste: some councils now have recycling centres where garden waste is shredded, composted, bagged and sold as soil conditioner.
• Compost: all organic material from your own kitchen and garden or from local suppliers can be composted; using cooked food is not recommended.
• Seaweed: use washed-up seaweed, stack and allow rain to wash out salt, or buy seaweed meal.
• Chipped branch wood (ramial): the shredded growth of young branches and leaves


Green Manures
There are many plants that can be grown in order to increase the fertility and humus content of the soil. Basically you sow the seed and allow the plant to grow, then cut it down before it flowers. Many gardeners will then incorporate this into the soil, though it is also possible to either let it break down in situ or to remove it and compost it. A number of green manure crops, in particular peas, beans, clovers and winter tares will enrich the soil with nitrogen as well as providing organic matter. Green manures have many benefits and can be grown as catch crops in land that would otherwise be empty. Species to consider include buckwheat, cereal rye, winter tares, clovers, and alfalfa. Winter tares are good for heavy soil and lupins are good for light, sandy soil types.

Liquid Feeds
When properly carried out, organic systems should not need supplementary additions as the soil provides all the necessary nutrients. However, getting enough potash for your luscious fruiting crops - tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines (eggplant) and peppers (capsicums) - may prove difficult. It is possible to buy vegan liquid feeds or you can make your own much more cheaply.

The process is simple: you fill a container, e.g. water butt with a tap, with plant material such as comfrey, nettles or weeds. You then fill the container with water (and you will be surprised how much water will fit in) and leave it for a week or two. It will then be very smelly, and you dilute it perhaps 3:1 with water and then pour it on the soil around the plants. Alternatively you can increase the
dilution and spray it over the leaves of plants, preferably in the evening or on cloudy days.

Human Manure
Composting human manure properly requires great care and skill and should only be attempted if you really know what you are doing. While many consider humanure an essential part of a closed system, others would only use faeces from vegans free from chemical intakes, and some would reject this altogether. Your own urine is a strong and easily handled fertiliser, dilute it and use it to activate the compost heap; or add it to a small straw bale until the bale is saturated, (perhaps using it as an outdoor strawbale
urinal) then cover the bale and after 6 months or so you will have a heap of excellent compost.

There are some materials that we would not recommend:
• Peat: there has been a lot of publicity about peat bogs being destroyed in order to provide peat for composts, mulching, etc.
• Calcified seaweed: this material is obtained from the temperate ocean equivalent of coral reefs, and is being harvested in an unsustainable way; it is being phased out of organic practice.
• Spent mushroom compost: just in case you were not aware of it, this material is usually made from animal manures, especially horse manure. It is also heavily polluted with all the chemicals they use in growing mushrooms.
• Coir: this is being used in increasing quantities as a peat replacement. Although this is an excellent soil conditioner it is imported from countries that need the fertility of their own soils improving.
• Slaked lime: is a by-product of the chemical industry. Dolomite and ground limestone has to be quarried, so should be used in moderation.

Pests and Diseases
Crops grown in a soil containing high levels of organic matter and plant nutrients with a good soil structure and texture, will be healthy plants, and will therefore have a greater resistance to ‘pests’ and diseases which tend to attack weaker, sappy plants.
There are many organic sprays available for treating pests and diseases in plants.

These are not recommended because whilst they are not based on artificial chemicals, they can still be poisonous (e.g. copper sulphate) to non-target insect species, many of which are very beneficial in the garden. If you want to consider the alternatives to spraying, then it is important that you adopt a holistic approach, i.e. use all of the following growing suggestions to increase your likelihood of healthy crops. Think of ‘pests’ as ‘competing organisms’ and you will feel better towards them!


Pests and diseases spread in monoculture. It is important that you adopt at least a four-course rotation. A typical example is to split your garden into four plots:

  1. Potatoes and curcubits (courgette, marrow, squash),
  2. Legumes (peas and beans) and alliums (onions and leeks),
  3. Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprout, turnip, radish, swede, oriental salad leaves),
  4. Salads, roots and miscellaneous (lettuce, chicory, beetroot, carrot, parsnip, sweetcorn).

Each year the crops are rotated into different parts. So in year one potatoes are growing and they will be followed the next year by peas etc. VON can provide information about incorporating green manure leys into rotations.

Providing a habitat for predators
Providing permanent predator belts, including incorporating undisturbed perennial plants, shrubs and trees for insects and beetles to overwinter are all good ideas. Hedges are the best example of this. It is also possible to provide annual predator belts by leaving uncultivated strips between beds. Beneficial insects, birds and mammals will not inhabit your garden unless they have a water
body in which to drink and places to shelter. Think about hedgehog shelters, log piles, bark piles (favoured by ladybirds) compost heaps, lacewing hotels and bird boxes.

Planting attractant species for beneficial insects
By planting aromatic species amongst your other plants you will find that the incidence of pests and diseases will fall. Camomile, garlic and many of the Mediterranean herbs are very useful here. Plants such as borage, limanthes (poached egg plant) echium and members members of the umbellifer family (let several parsnips run to seed) attract predatory insects such as hover flies, parasitic wasps and other insects. Phacelia will attract bees and hoverflies and growing marigolds on the bed perimeters will help reduce greenfly. Companion planting and mixed cropping increases the biodiversity of plants and the insects it attracts.


Physical barriers and tempting the slugs!
The dreaded slugs (and snails) are bound to get any vegan-organic grower down. It is very important to try to be as tidy as possible in the immediate growing area. Leaving things lying around, for example, will give slugs a place to shelter. You can take advantage of this by laying rhubarb leaves on the ground to attract slugs to shelter there; it is then a simple matter of collecting the slugs and moving them, especially after dark with a torch. Bear in mind that slugs and snails have a homing instinct and will return if you do not move them far enough away! Other things you can do are to place a circle of bran around tender plants; copper tape around plants or guttering around beds filled with sharp stone can be effective. For flying pests use physical barriers like netting, fleeces, pop bottles as cloches and collars around brassicas to prevent the cabbage root fly laying its eggs.

Grow perennial species where possible
The gardening world, especially when it comes to growing food, is becoming aware of the advantages of perennial crops. Thanks to the pioneering work of amongst others, Ken Fern Plants for a Future, and Robert Hart’s Forest Gardening Techniques.

There are plenty of perennial food crops available. These are much easier to grow - once established they will come back of their own accord year after year. Very little research has been carried out on perennial food crops, but if you would like more information on this then we recommend you contact Plants For A Future. This organisation is vegan-organic; they have carried out extensive research into alternative food crops and other useful species.


How do we know that horticultural products are animal-free?
It can be very difficult to ensure that purchased material such as compost is truly free from animal by-products; the word ‘organic’ often means that poultry manure, fish emulsion or slaughterhouse by-products are included. Question the manufacturers carefully; consult the Animal-Free Shopper or Vegan-Organic Network.

One common problem is obtainingvegan-organic compost for potting plants, raising seedlings etc. This can be obtained by post from the Organic Gardening Catalogue but is costly to obtain this way. A good easily available product is B&Q multipurpose organic compost: this is peat-free, GM-free and free from animal ingredients (it says so on the bag! But it’s also been checked out by the Vegan-Organic Network). To use this for raising small seeds first sieve out any larger bits of material and try mixing a little sharp sand with the compost before sowing. See Suppliers here.

And what about worm composters?
Indoor or outdoor ‘wormeries’ are promoted as a means of using up small  amounts of household waste. For vegans these are not such a good idea because unlike ordinary compost heaps, the worms cannot move to the soil and worm populations are often killed by neglect.

And it’s not just fruit and veg...
Indoor plants, flowers, shrubs and in fact every growing thing can be cultivated using the above methods. Roses shrubsand trees can be mulched and fed using vegan-organic composts and liquid feeds.

It is possible to make a smell-free liquid feed for indoor plants using seaweed meal. Put three flat tablespoons of seaweed meal into two litres of water, preferablyin a glass bottle; leave to marinate for two to three weeks or more. Every month in the growing season feed plants with one mugful of this brew in two litres of water; shake the bottle well before use.This brew may not be very high in available nitrogen and/or potash, of which pot plants do not usually need too much. 

This article was originally published on the Green Earth Group website.

Download this Fact Sheet (PDF) along with more info on Seed Suppliers, Organisations, Books etc.

Vegan_Organic_NetworkVegan-Organic Network (VON) is an international educational charity with a wide supporter network providing information and research on vegan-organic methods. In cooperation with the Soil Association VON have produced the Stockfree Organic Standards, which enable farmers to consider stockfree certification using the SA and VON symbol.

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