In veganic gardening, instead of using chemical fertilizers or animal products, plants are grown using plants and minerals.
Did you know... in natural ecosystems, plants keep the soil fertile. Plants take carbon from the air, and some types of plants are able to “fix” nitrogen from the air; certain plants have deep taproots that bring nutrients to the surface. When the leaves, branches and roots of these plants naturally decompose with the help of microorganisms in the soil food web, the nutrients are then available to other plants as a form of nourishment.
Did you know... producing chemical fertilizers is fossil-fuel intensive and they can cause environmental problems if there is run-off into our waterways. Chemical fertilizers ignore the soil food web, and the soils can become stagnant if they are not fed with organic matter.
Did you know... animal products are not needed for growing plants. Many people believe that animals are a “source” of nutrients, like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Yes, animal products contain nutrients, though these elements all come from the plants that the animals ate first! Instead of using blood, bone, and manure, we can simply use plants directly to grow other plants.
Keeping it fertile
The basis of veganic gardening is to feed the soil food web with organic plant matter, so in turn the plants will be fed. Each spoonful of healthy soil has millions of microorganisms that have the natural function of keeping the soil fertile. Our main job as gardeners is to protect the soil food web and nourish it with plant matter like compost and leaves.
Keep the soil covered at all times: Protecting the soil is of utmost importance. Bare soil can lead to topsoil loss and nutrients leaching from wind and rain. Always keep the soil covered with garden plants, mulch, or green manure in order to preserve the nutrients that are already in the soil.
Consider no-till: When the soil is turned, especially with machinery like rototillers, this disrupts the ecosystem within the soil. It exposes some organisms to the elements, buries other organisms, destroys air pockets made by earthworms, and wrecks the precious webs of fungal growth that aid in nutrient uptake. No-till and low-till techniques can keep the soil flourishing.
Grow a polyculture and rotate your crops: Polyculture (the opposite of monoculture) includes many varieties of plants in the same garden, often intermingled side by side. Also, from one year to the next, the position of the plants is changed in the garden (crop rotation). This has several advantages: each type of plant has different nutrient needs, so the soil isn’t exhausted of particular nutrients; it’s less likely that diseases or competing insects will cause significant losses or become established; and a variety of plants encourages beneficial insects and biodiversity.
Consider perennial plants: Often when gardening we choose annual plants (lettuce, cucumbers, peas, radishes, etc.), which have the advantage of providing a harvest the same year, though they need to be re-planted each year and generally require the addition of outside nutrients like compost. Perennial plants (raspberries, blueberries, fruit trees, nut trees, etc.) take longer to produce a harvest, though they live for many years and have advantages related to fertility. The roots of perennial plants go much deeper to search for water and nutrients, and they produce biomass from their leaves, meaning that perennial plants can often be self-watering and self-fertilizing in the long term. For gardeners who are established in one place, consider using more perennials. Natural ecosystems are based on perennial polycultures, and doing the same in our gardens will contribute to long-term soil health.
Local plant-based fertility
Compost: For home gardeners, compost can often act as your main (or only!) source of fertility. When we purchase food, if we send the waste to the landfill this is a terrible source of pollution. It produces methane and can contaminate the groundwater. By making compost from our own food scraps, and perhaps the food scraps of our neighbors, we revalue this essential element of the growing cycle. “Green” materials like food scraps are mixed with “brown” materials like fallen leaves, twigs, and straw. Garden waste can also be composted, preferably without any weeds that have gone to seed. Compost takes about a year to mature, though it’s well worth the wait. Compost provides a boost of nutrients and organic matter to plants, and is even called “black gold” by gardeners. No space to compost? Look for options like community composts or make your own balcony compost. Learn more about composting here.
Mulch: Mulches are materials that cover the soil and bring many advantages to home gardeners. They protect the soil from wind and erosion, help retain moisture, moderate the temperature of the soil, and impede the growth of competing plants. This adds up to less watering and less weeding. It’s possible to use mulches like cardboard and plastic, though nutrient-rich organic mulches like hay and leaves will also feed the soil food web as they decompose. Mulch can even be used as the sole source of fertility! In the Ruth Stout technique, a thick layer of hay mulch provides all the nutrients that plants need, while also minimizing weeding and watering. Learn more about mulch here.
Green manures / cover cropping: For gardeners who are low on compost or who have large-scale gardens, green manures provide a good option for adding nitrogen, nutrients and biomass. Green manures like dwarf white clover are also useful to plant directly underfoot in garden pathways, to bring nitrogen and suppress weeds. Green manures are plants that are grown and then cut down before they go to seed. The plants are then mixed in with the soil, or could be left on the surface as a mulch. Any plant can be used as a green manure, though often certain types are chosen for specific reasons. Legumes (like clover and alfalfa) are popular because they fix nitrogen; other green manures are selected because they mine deeply for nutrients or produce significant biomass. Learn more about green manures here, as well as a similar technique called living mulch.
Chipped Branch Wood (small tree branches): We’re not talking about the wood chips that are often used in landscaping: those have too much carbon and can deprive your plants of nitrogen for years. “Chipped Branch Wood” is specifically made from deciduous tree branches that are less than 7cm in diameter, which have a carbon/nitrogen ratio and nutrient content that are good for gardening. It may be difficult to track down real Chipped Branch Wood in most regions, though you can make it. If you have access to small tree branches (from pruning or city landscaping) and access to a woodchipper, this is an excellent option for improving the quality and fertility of your soil, either when used as a mulch or mixed with the top layer of the soil. After adding Chipped Branch Wood, you should ideally grow nitrogen-fixing plants for the first year (such as beans, peas, or certain green manures like clover), as the initial decomposition of Chipped Branch Wood can deprive your plants of nitrogen. Learn more about Chipped Branch Wood here.
Additional local plant-based fertility
- Leaf mold: Leaves that decompose for a year can then be used in potting soil and seedling mixtures or as a soil amendment. Find out how to make leaf mold in this quick video by Learn Veganic.
- Dynamic accumulators: Dynamic accumulators mine deeply in the earth for nutrients, and include plants such as stinging nettle, comfrey, clover, strawberries and even dandelions. They can act as companion plants, or can be used for compost, mulch or liquid feeds. Be aware that some dynamic accumulators, like comfrey, are very difficult to get rid of once established, so be careful where you plant it!
- Local biomass: Look for local sources of biomass in your region, such as seaweed, spent hops from breweries, or waste from the food industry that could be composted or potentially used as mulch.
- Plant meal: Alfalfa meal, peanut meal, soybean meal, etc., can often be sourced locally to add a boost of nutrients when mixed with the soil. Ideally look for organically-grown sources.
- Liquid feeds: Favour local liquid feeds, such as homemade comfrey tea, nettle tea or compost tea.
- Mycorrhizal fungi inoculants: Inoculating the soil with mycorrhizal fungi can increase nutrient uptake (especially phosphorus and potassium), which is especially advantageous for container gardening where mycorrhizal fungi are unlikely to establish on their own. For in-ground gardens, you can add an inoculant, or simply favour the presence and proliferation of naturally present mycorrhizal fungi by practicing good soil stewardship.
- Though not plant-based, gardeners may also wish to use their humanure or urine to ensure that the nutrients they consume are given back to the soil. While humanure is only really a possibility in the countryside, urine can be used in the city when mixed with ten parts of water.
Buying in fertility
Purchasing products for gardening is often the only way that new gardeners and city gardeners can get started this season. It’s important to be aware of the environmental impacts of purchasing gardening products, as there is transport and packaging to consider, and we are essentially “mining” the fertility from other areas. Nevertheless, because of the overall benefits of gardening—food security, re-skilling, locavorism, greening our cities, cleaning the air, reducing the urban heat island effect, reconnecting with the food supply—we’re certainly in favour of increasing the number of active new gardeners! And, over the years, each gardener can move closer to the ideal of a self-sufficient system based on local and re-valued materials like compost, garden waste and leaves.
Starting out: When first starting out, it may be easiest to buy a pre-made seedling mix if you’d like to grow seedlings at home. There are a few options on the market that are veganic, including Good Dirt, Dr. Earth, and Biocanna. You can also find seedling mixes available at local gardening centers: read the ingredients to see if they look veganic, and contact the companies if in doubt (often "compost" listed on seedling mixes is animal-based). Perlite and dolomite are mineral products commonly used in seed mixtures, and rice hulls can also be used as an eco-friendly alternative. Peat moss is plant-based, though it has significant environmental consequences, so choose peat-free options if available. You may find options with coir (coconut husk), especially when purchasing on the internet. While this isn’t ideal because it displaces fertility from tropical regions, because it’s a renewable resource it’s arguably a better choice than common alternatives.
Going further: Consider making your own seedling mix. While this may still involve purchasing some ingredients, many of the ingredients can come from your own backyard or from local sources. A simple recipe based mostly on commercial products involves mixing 2 parts peat or coir, 1 part vermiculite or perlite or rice hulls, and 1 part homemade veggie compost (or a commercial veganic compost like Peaceful Valley Organic Compost). You can also make your own mix from entirely local and eco-friendly ingredients, like 1 part of your garden soil, 1 part homemade leaf mold, and 1 part homemade veggie compost.
Potting soil for container gardening
Starting out: People who are growing in city environments on balconies, rooftops, and concrete surfaces will need potting soil for container gardens. Ask around in your area to see if there are local sources. Otherwise, buy bagged soil from a gardening center, avoiding soils that have added chemical fertilizers or manure (phone the companies if in doubt). It may be simplest to order veganic soil online from companies like Good Dirt, Dr. Earth, and Biocanna, as well as compost from Peaceful Valley Organic Compost.
Going further: Save your potting soil from year to year! There is no need to change the soil—it just needs a boost of nutrients from compost (either homemade compost or a veganic brand like Peaceful Valley Organic Compost). Each spring, empty the dirt from last year’s containers into a pile. For 3 parts dirt, add 1 part compost, mix it together, and re-fill your containers. This means that each year your total amount of “dirt” will grow because of the added compost: 3 containers becomes 4!
Fertilizers and soil amendments
Starting out: Whether gardening in a container or a backyard, your plants will need nutrients. If you don’t have vegetable compost available when first starting out, there are options for purchasing plant and mineral amendments that don’t contain animal products or chemicals. Hay is a fantastic option if you can source it locally, and it can provide your main source of fertility for a home garden, though perhaps not for a container garden! Otherwise, look for commercially-available vegetable compost (be wary of animal-based “compost” on package labels... call companies if in doubt), as well as seaweed meal, seaweed emulsion, alfalfa meal, soybean meal, and mineral supplements like dolomite or rock phosphate. Learn more about mineral supplements from Gentle World. You can also order online several types of ready-made fertilizer blends especially for plant-based gardening. All products from Good Dirt and from Soil Science are veganic. And other companies carry special veganic blends, including Vegan Mix from Down to Earth Fertilizers, VeganO 3-3-3 from West Coast Seeds, Walt’s Organic Garden Blend, compost from Peaceful Valley, and Yum Yum Mix from Soil Mender.
Going further: There is a principle in permaculture, “The problem is the solution.” For new veganic gardeners, the problem is frequently a lack of mature compost. The solution? Start composting! Whether at home or in a community compost, this is really the main solution to becoming self-sufficient in home-scale veganic gardening, especially in city environments. You can even learn how to compost on your balcony in our DIY guide! Other long-term options include making leaf mold, making Chipped Branch Wood, and including green manures in your garden. Or consider making your own fertilizer blend, like this veganic gardener did on the blog Veganic Way.