Note: This article was originally published in American Vegan, Fall 2015.
In 2005 my husband and I set out to create Ahimsa Village, a vegan community and sustainable living education center, in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. We purposely chose the word Ahimsa, the Sanskrit word for “nonviolence”, because we aspired to embody nonviolence in all aspects of our lives. The Village part of the name signified our vision of a group of people with a variety of different interests and skills coming together to establish a sustainable and relatively self-sufficient community. Although the community has not yet manifested, we have planted and nurtured several gardens, a fruit and nut orchard, and a blueberry patch, providing much of our food, especially in the warmer months. We have also conducted many educational programs over the years. It seems that we are evolving into being a resource for vegan homesteading. In this article I will share some of my thoughts about our veganic growing practices and veganic growing in general.
The word veganic merges “vegan” with “organic.” Like organic growing, veganic growing does not use any of the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically engineered materials, sewage sludge, or irradiated materials that are used by conventional growers; and it emphasizes maintaining the health of the soil in order to grow healthy plants. However, veganic growing goes beyond organic growing in that it endeavors to minimize and/or eliminate harm to animals. As a way of explaining the important elements of veganic growing, I will look at veganic growing from three different levels. In actuality, these levels are not clearly separate, but the separation aids in the explanation.
The first level involves the materials used in growing crops. Since veganic growers do not want to be part of any animal suffering, they do not use any materials that are derived from animals. Instead of using materials such as manure, blood meal, bonemeal, feathermeal, and fish emulsion, veganic growers use plant materials for fertilization. I use grass and hay mulch, plant-based compost, green manures (crops, such as buckwheat and clover, that are cultivated into the soil or left on the surface to provide nutrients for the food crops), crop residues, and comfrey tea (water from soaked comfrey plants) to nourish my crops. When I first began to grow veganically I called a local fertilizer manufacturer to inquire about the availability of fertilizer without any materials from animals that I could add to my potting mix. The salesperson actually seemed irate with me for even thinking about growing without manure and other materials from animals. So I blended my own potting soil using peat, perlite, vermiculite, and alfalfa meal. A few years later I found a local company that made potting soil out of coir (coconut husk), perlite, and other plant based materials. After using that potting mix for a couple years, the company added a fertilizer blend to their potting mixes that contained bloodmeal and bonemeal. Accordingly I went back to blending my own mix, using what I thought was plant-based compost from the local town. This year I found out that the town collects kitchen waste and composts it with the yard waste, and so there may be small amounts of animal foods in the compost. I use a large amount of this compost because I also apply it to my garden beds. I am questioning whether or not I should be a strict veganic grower and not use the compost or be more flexible since the compost is still mostly plant material. Ideally I would make enough compost myself and not have to import compost. Therefore one of my future goals involves developing a method for composting our copious weeds. I contemplate also transitioning to more of a permaculture system (creating gardens that follow the patterns of natural ecosystems) in which crops would eventually self-fertilize, thereby eliminating the need for applying compost.
The second level of veganic growing flows naturally from veganism and ahimsa: Veganic growers hold a clear intention to avoid or minimize harming animals in and around the garden. In my gardens and orchard I use fences, netting, hardware cloth, and floating row covers to exclude animals. I also grow a variety of flowers around the garden to attract beneficial insects. Additionally, I rotate crops and grow a diversity of crop species, helping to keep pest populations low enough that crop damage is generally minimal.
I disclose that I use diatomaceous earth (DE) to prevent slugs from decimating my young seedlings. The organic mulch creates the perfect environment for slugs and every year their population explodes. Before using DE I had an entire planting of lettuce totally eaten down to soil level overnight. Hence, in spite of my conflicted feelings about causing harm to slugs, I apply DE to most of my seedlings after transplanting or germination. I quit applying it when the plants are big enough to survive predation. I also take care to not harm nontarget species such as bees by never applying DE to plants when they are flowering and not applying it on a windy day.
Protecting the soil with its community of living creatures constitutes another important aspect of veganic gardening. Because any disturbance of the soil, such as tilling, will adversely affect the soil community, vegan growers minimize tillage. They also protect the soil from erosion and drying out by keeping the soil covered with plants and mulch. Since establishing my gardens I have not done any rototilling in my main garden. I try to keep mulch on the beds most of the time, transplanting directly into the mulch with minimal soil disturbance. For direct-seeded crops like carrots and beets I clear away the mulch, loosen the soil with a shovel, plant the seeds, and then replace the mulch when the plants are big enough to not be buried.
The third level of veganic growing has to do with the relationship the grower has with the animals and plants in the garden. I am aware of people that communicate with the spirits of animals and negotiate sharing of produce from the garden. Instead of waging war against the animals, the humans respect the animals and honor their need for food. Similarly, when people are in touch with the spirits of their plants, they find out specifically what the plants need for optimum growth and are then able provide what is needed. While I am open to the possibility of this type of communion with plants and animals and also recognize its value for creating an ethos of ahimsa, as of yet I have not experienced it myself.
In closing I will touch on an aspect of veganic gardening that is often forgotten: Ahimsa includes compassion toward ourselves as well as toward animals. I can be very hard on myself for not being the “perfect” veganic gardener.” This attitude leads to feelings of anxiety, deficiency, frustration, and a mental state that is not conducive to envisioning creative ways to enact ahimsa more fully in my growing practices. Therefore, in the spirit of ahimsa, I aim to accept my imperfections and remain open to discerning more compassionate ways of gardening veganically.