More and more of us are ditching meat from our diets, seeking out cruelty-free cosmetics and opting for leather and fur-free fashion. The number of vegan Brits quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, according to The Vegan Society, but how many of us think about going vegan in the garden?
“In the past replacing animal manures and blood, fish and bone-based fertilisers had not crossed many gardeners minds. Most people I surveyed thought gardening was about plants so must be vegan anyway,” says Super Organic Gardener author and Horticulture Week editor Matthew Appleby.
On the face of it, gardening does seem like the most authentically plant-based activity out of everything stamped with the vegan seal of approval. However, if you tuned in to Gardeners World recently, you might have spotted Adam Frost apply a liberal sprinkling of chicken pellets and horse manure to the beds. It’s not exactly a secret that gardening has traditionally relied on byproducts from the agricultural industry. Manure and fish, blood and bone meal fertiliser are gardening go-tos when it comes to enriching the soil and ensuring a bountiful crop.
But look to the fringes of the horticultural industry and you'll find the green shoots of a vegan gardening movement. One where gardeners strive to cause the least suffering to the planet and its creatures, while still gardening as successfully as possible, writes Appleby.
In 2018, the UK’s first vegan gardening festival was held at a Hampshire nursery, while the hashtag #veganic has been used almost 50,000 times on Instagram. And the interest in ‘growing your own’ has no doubt helped this organic vegan veg growing kit smash the first round of its crowdfunding target. Why the sudden spike in interest? Animal rights activist and garden designer Cleve West says it's down to the “unseen consequences of our purchases” coming to light.
The "unseen" consequences of large-scale agriculture involve widespread deforestation, run-away climate change, ocean degradation and species extinction.
“Piling on horse manure, or boosting crops with pelleted poultry manure, bonemeal or hoof and horn, means you are complicit in the factory farmed animal production industry.” writes Appleby. Simply put “are your tastebuds worth more than all this environmental destruction?” asks Cleve West, the author of the forthcoming book The Garden of Vegan who discussed the topic in a Veganuary special Roots and All podcast.
Additionally, Appleby says the viral pandemic is forcing us to reevaluate our relationship with animals, something that we should have done when Foot and Mouth hit. “Coronavirus has taught us the dangers of cruelty to animals through its source in live animal markets. Foot and Mouth and many other zoonotic diseases should have taught us how easily diseases pass from animals to humans.”
The notion that our vegetables might not actually be vegan has been hard to stomach for some. Articles on vegan gardening have been dismissed as “virtue signalling” with its authors lambasted as “wrong-headed, self-righteous bores" by one commenter.
Vegan gardener and Roots and All podcast host Sarah Wilson has written about the backlash faced by those who avoid animal products in the garden and has been on the receiving end herself. She says the reaction is understandable as everybody wants to think they're doing their best.
Does Wilson think the industry could be doing more to promote the veganic way of doing things? "Yes," she says "but change will be slow if their track record on peat is anything to go by". And like most environmentally damaging things, money is a barrier to systemic change.
“If you are a nursery and you're getting a good deal on a bulk pallet of peat compost and you think you can make a better return on it then that’s what you’ll do – you've got to pay the bills at the end of the day. Sometimes it's difficult to stand by your morals when you've got a business to run and profit to make,” she adds.
However, she does think the horticultural establishment is missing a trick. “I don't think [the vegan label] would lead to fewer sales. If anything they would see an uptake in sales from vegans”. Appleby agrees, better labelling is key. “Plants don't come with very informative labels, whether that be [outlining] if they are grown in peat or with what pesticides etc. I'd like to see food-style labelling on plants and a vegan aisle or at least a vegan shelf in the garden centre like you get in the supermarket.”
The horticultural industry isn't unusual in distancing itself from the vegan label. Prominent plant-based chef Richard Buckley initially turned the menu at his Bath restaurant vegan without announcing it and has elsewhere called for an entirely new vocabulary to describe his meat-free dishes.
Perhaps it's not surprising then that no UK farms have yet been certified by The Biocyclic Vegan Farming Standard, a globally recognised certification for produce grown with plant fertilisers only. That's despite evidence suggesting it can produce 3-4 times the yield of conventional animal-based fertilisers and without some of the issues faced by farmers such as over fertilisation and agricultural run-off. Veganic products have been certifiable in the UK since 2005, thanks to the dedicated work of the Vegan Organic Network. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a veganically labelled product on your supermarket shop.
The video below shows how Biocyclic vegan farming is working in Greece.
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Axel Anders, the Berlin-based coordinator at Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture outlines the basic principles, which he says could be implemented by amateur gardeners too. “In order to meet the Biocyclic Vegan Standard, a farm basically needs to be organic and to refrain from all commercial animal husbandry and the use of all kind of inputs of animal origin for fertilising or other purposes. Additionally, special emphasis is placed on the promotion of biodiversity, healthy soil life, the closing of organic cycles and on systematic humus build-up.”
Perhaps our time is better spent tackling the escalating environmental crisis instead of quibbling over virtue signalling? Gardeners, after all, are well-positioned to take on these issues, writes West in his forward to The Super Organic Gardener. “Gardeners are a sensitive bunch and, in my experience, most already consider themselves environmentalists. They are well-placed, therefore, to become a driving force to educate others about the challenges this planet faces from the increasing threat of climate change and how to feed an ever-growing population.” Besides, we can't think of a more enjoyable place to kickstart a new habit than in the garden.
How to garden the veganic way
Ditch digging for hoeing and mulching
The sight of a freshly mutilated worm is one many gardeners will be familiar with, but the vegan gardener has retired the fork and shovel. Instead, hoe the ground before applying cover crops, vegetable waste and mulches. “All this avoids any possible connection to BSE, bird flu, CJD, salmonella and e-coli and other animal spread diseases (e.g. diphtheria) that may linger in what gardeners put in,” writes Appleby. Said to contribute to soil erosion, spread weeds and cause unnecessary destruction to our subterranean wildlife, many farmers are already switching from ploughing to this minimal tillage method with promising results.
Pass on pesticides and plant sacrificial crops
Instead of dousing your garden in pesticides, Appleby advises planting sacrificial crops to distract hungry critters. “Sacrificial decoy plants such as nasturtium planted with brassicas such as cabbages attract caterpillars away. Nasturtiums will protect tomatoes and cucumbers against whitefly. Basil will tempt whitefly well away from tomatoes.” The added bonus is companion crops will also improve flavour.
Switch up how you shop
Getting hold of organic seeds has become easier thanks to suppliers such as Suttons, Fothergills and Young plants. There is also an evergrowing number of sellers who stock Soil Association and Vegan Society approved fertilisers, including Fertile Fibre and Natural Grower. Cheaper alternatives include making your own from steeping comfrey, borage or weeds in water. And if you’re really dedicated to the cause, Appleby says your plants will appreciate humanure – though we’re not sure your neighbours will.