by Dustin Rhodes
I spent the entire year before taking the job at Friends of Animals a decade ago lobbying my neighborhood for a community vegetable garden; there was a halfacre plot of empty, flat, sunny land sitting right in the middle of our neighborhood. I prepared and made presentations, talked endlessly to neighbors and begged the powers that be, even though to be quite honest I knew next-to-nothing about gardening—despite the fact that I grew up in a family with an annual vegetable garden. Of course, everyone in the neighborhood was excited about the idea (at least to my face), but those in positions of authority were skeptical. As it does, poetic justice prevailed, and the garden was eventually approved. However, as fate would have it, I moved 400 miles away for my dream job about three weeks later, and the garden never happened.
A decade later, and now as homeowners, my partner and I are interested in growing our own food, making our landscape feature native trees and plants and filling our yard with plantings that attract bees, butterflies and birds. We’re already voracious composters, intent on creating rich soil. Which is to say, we’re big hippies with a big dream but only a modicum of know-how. I still don’t know that much about gardening— yet it’s always beckoning. So I turned to my friend Caitlin Campbell—a community garden activist, the community outreach manager for Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in Asheville, N.C., and a mom to two amazing vegan kids (among many other things). Campbell has spent the last 10 years teaching small-scale veganic gardening in the community. Here’s her advice:
CAN YOU EXPLAIN A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE TERM VEGANIC GARDENING?
“Veganic gardening” is a term used for the method of growing edible food plants without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or animal inputs such as manure, blood or bone. This type of gardening employs methods and techniques that ensure fertility is created onsite. The veganic gardener aims to reduce reliance on outside sources as much as possible. The term was coined more than 50 years ago, and its origins are largely unknown. It is clear, however, that the word is a merging of the words “vegan” and “organic,” as both characteristics are integral to the practice.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WITH VEGANIC GARDENING?
I am a “hobby veganic gardener,” and I started in 2008. In all of the places I’ve lived since then, I’ve cultivated fruits, vegetables, flowers and green manures using veganic methods. Green manure is created by leaving growing plants, often cover crops such as clover and other nitrogen-fixing plants, to wither and then plowing them under to enrich the soil. I’ve learned that successful veganic gardening requires some planning, prep work and the engineering of simple garden systems to build soil fertility. Crop rotation, green manure, composting and mulching are the most important systems to implement to build fertility and have a healthy, fruitful garden. I’ve enjoyed growing potatoes, kale, beans, Brussels sprouts, apples, zucchini, squash, chilies, lettuce, root veggies, a plethora of beneficial flowers and green manure.
WHAT ARE SOME REASONS YOU RECOMMEND STARTING A BACKYARD GARDEN, REGARDLESS OF HOW MUCH SPACE OR TIME ONE MIGHT HAVE?
Growing food is empowering. Eating freshly harvested food is one of the tastiest experiences you’ll ever have, not to mention it’s environmentally friendly, and it can even be political! When you choose to grow your own food, you’re in control of the production methods, and you’re opting out of corporate-run food monopolies that often rely on the use of animal inputs, unjust employment practices and harmful pesticides to grow crops. As vegans, growing food without animal inputs is educational, both within the vegan community and the larger communities we navigate. Veganic gardens take many forms, so regardless of the space or time you may have to commit to growing your own veganic food, you can make it work—even if your “garden” is a window ledge full of potted herbs! You may have to rely on outside fertility if you’re growing a small, indoor garden, but you can certainly do so using plant-based, organic materials.
IF YOU HAVE ZERO GARDENING EXPERIENCE, WHERE SHOULD YOU BEGIN?
If you’re creating a veganic garden outside, you’ll want to use the first year to prepare your soil and the compost heap. You may want to start in the late autumn or winter. Designate and dig your beds by removing and composting turf, churning up topsoil, breaking down lumps, and removing sticks and stones from your growing areas. If you don’t want to dig, you can also lay cardboard on the designated plots. In this case, you’ll smother the grass beneath the cardboard. After a few months, regardless of whether you opt for digging or “no-dig” techniques, the soil will break down into friable material.
It’s recommended to spend the first season growing green manures, so that you’ll enrich the soil. Green manures are typically chopped before flowering, and then reincorporated into the beds where they’ve grown. As this bulky organic material breaks down, the soil is further enriched. Homemade compost is a beneficial addition, and can be easily made. My favorite resource for starting your own veganic compost heap can be found at Veganic Agriculture Network. After a season of preparing the land, you should be ready to plant your first edible plants! If you’re growing indoors, you will need to purchase compost that doesn’t contain animal inputs.
This can be tricky, but there are a few brands out there, depending on where you live. You may also consider creating an indoor composting system using a bacterium called bokashi. Learn more about indoor bokashi composting at Ecokarma.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE “FRINGE BENEFITS” OF PLANTING A GARDEN?
Creating a veganic garden is a great way to show people that we can consume healthy food and thrive without using animals’ bodies—even in the growing process. It yields incredibly tasty food, too. Personally, I find fulfillment and peace in tending my veganic garden. It’s a great form of exercise and feels meditative. Paying such close attention to the majesty of the plant world fills me with wonderment year after year!
WHY AVOID COMMON PESTICIDES…AND HOW YOU DETER PESTS WITHOUT THEM?
Pesticides are toxic and potentially fatal chemicals. They negatively impact our ecosystems, wildlife and domesticated animals, including humans. They’re best avoided, though truthfully, they have infiltrated most natural groundwater systems, and are impossible to avoid entirely.