There is no single way to "do" veganic gardening. It is not a specific technique, but rather a set of ideals and guidelines that shape the way we garden. Veganic means that a gardening system is plant-based (free from animal products and chemical fertilizers). Beyond that, veganic also means that the gardening techniques are respectful of free-living animals, encourage natural biodiversity, and aim for ecological sustainability.
There are many different ways that these ideals can be applied in your backyard, or even on rooftops and balconies. This article presents some of the key approaches that work well for a home-scale veganic garden: container gardening, Ruth Stout technique, biointensive, lasagna gardening / sheet composting, forest gardening, permaculture, self-fertilizing gardens, Japanese natural agriculture, square foot gardening, as well as "standard" gardening as we typically know it. Many of these techniques aren’t inherently veganic, though they can easily be applied in a veganic way. Perhaps one approach will best suit your bioregion, personal situation or available resources, or perhaps you can combine more than one approach to meet your needs.
To learn more general tips about preparing the ground for planting, and the difference between till, no-till, and raised beds, click here.
Container gardening offers a versatile option for people living in city environments, and can be done veganically by using vegetable compost. Container gardens can be grown on balconies, rooftops, patios, concrete surfaces, contaminated lots, staircases, and suspended from fences, railings and ceilings. Fruit-bearing plants, like tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant, do especially well in container gardens with ample sunlight. Learn about making your own self-watering container garden from re-used food-grade buckets and styrofoam coolers, as well as tips for a successful season of container gardening.
Ruth Stout technique - Permanent mulch
Ruth Stout was a self-proclaimed “lazy gardener,” and she gardened well into her 90’s. She developed a gardening system that is based exclusively on mulching with a thick layer of vegetable matter (at least 8 inches thick). The soil is never tilled or dug, so the soil ecosystem is undisturbed. As the mulch decomposes over the course of the season, it feeds the soil food web and keeps the soil fertile. The mulch conserves moisture and really cuts down on weeds, so with the exception of perennial weeding there is very little maintenance needed. At the Veganic Agriculture Network, this is the technique we choose for our garden in the countryside, mulching twice a year with hay as the only source of fertility.
Gardener and researcher John Jeavons asked the question, “What is the optimum way to grow enough food for one person on the smallest amount of land possible in a way that is self-fertile and ecologically sustainable in the long term?” After decades of research and testing, he developed the biointensive approach. Biointensive is essentially veganic by default, as raising animals takes up too much space and resources. The garden soil is loosened with double-digging, so root systems can go deeper instead of competing for space near the surface. Plants are grown densely, and plants are chosen that will meet our year-round nutritional needs. Learn more about the biointensive approach from the non-profit organization Ecology Action (growbiointensive.org), from their free online self-teaching handbooks and videos, and from Jeavon’s instructive gardening books, including How to Grow More Vegetables than you Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than you Can Imagine.
Lasagna gardening / Sheet composting
In lasagna gardening, also know as sheet composting, layers of organic matter are piled on the surface of the ground. The soil isn’t dug or tilled, so it’s an especially good method to keep the soil in good health and avoid physical strain for the gardener. Several layers of cardboard are placed directly on the lawn. Layers of organic matter are added on top, alternating between layers of "browns" (leaves, small twigs, newspaper, cardboard), and layers of "greens" (fruit and veggie scraps, grass clippings, weeds that haven’t gone to seed). Initially stacked two feet high, the materials decompose in place, shrinking down and creating a fertile medium for gardening. If you have enough organic matter available, this is even an option for gardening on concrete surfaces. Learn more here.
Forest gardening, also known as food forests and three dimensional gardening, takes an ecosystem approach to gardening. It makes ample use of vertical space by growing multiple layers of plants in the same area: a canopy of fruit or nut trees can have understories of edible shrubs, herbs, vegetables, berries, roots and fungi, and as well as supporting fertility plants. Requiring an initial investment of time and energy, forest gardening is a long term, sustainable and low maintenance system that is well suited to those who have access to an area of land over a long period of time. Learn more here.
Permaculture is based on sustainability, and designing gardens, farms and settlements to meet the needs of the earth and humans in the long term. In permaculture, we imitate natural ecosystems by carefully observing the world around us and applying ecological principles to our garden designs. Neither permaculture nor veganic is a specific “technique”: both are based on ethics and principles, and veganic permaculture involves the merging of these two sets of ethics. Permaculture principles help us design veganic gardens from a deep ecological perspective. Learn more about veganic permaculture here.
Les jardins auto-fertiles (self-fertilizing gardens) is an approach to gardening based on permaculture principles. It was developed by Emilia Hazelip from France, and further developed by Rejean Roy of Quebec. It involves permanent raised-beds, permanent ground cover, surface composting, a diversity of plants in each bed, the presence of living roots at all times (i.e. perennial plants or successive crops), and using the vertical plane with climbing plants. Biomass from leaves and stalks are left directly on the surface to decompose, and roots are left to decompose naturally underground. The three principle elements of self-fertilizing gardens are raised beds, water points, and trees, and the interconnection between these elements is highly valued. The aim is to create a dynamic ecosystem that self-fertilizes.
Japanese natural agriculture
Japanese natural agriculture was developed in Japan independently from North America’s organic agriculture movement, and most practioners use entirely plant-based techniques. Spiritual leader Mokichi Okada came up with a "no-fertilizer" technique in the 1930’s, which he later named nature farming. It differs from typical organic agriculture in two main ways: the crops are not rotated, and it is considered part of a spiritual pursuit for beauty and peace (see Shumei). A separate branch of Japanese natural farming was developed by farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution, He was a proponent of no-till methods for growing grains and vegetables. With resemblances to permaculture philosophy, he encouraged careful observation of local ecosystems and collaborating with natural cycles. Learn more here and here.
Square foot gardening
Square-foot gardening involves an open-bottomed box, divided into a grid, that is filled with a mix of light soil and compost. Each section in the grid is one square foot. Each square foot contains the optimum number of plants, depending on the space that the plant takes up (i.e. one brocolli, or four lettuces, or sixteen carrots) and companion plants are often planted in the same square. Once planted, there is less weeding and watering than with typical gardens. This technique is especially well suited to people who prefer linear methodology and a scientific approach to gardening. It’s also well adapted to urban settings and areas with contaminated soils, since the dirt is bought in. Square foot gardening is also an option for people with reduced mobility, as it can be built on a tabletop. Learn more here and here.
You know what we’re talking about... the typical home garden where the soil is dug up and plants are grown in rows. Most books and websites about gardening will describe this technique. This is a perfectly fine way to grow a veganic garden: just make sure that your fertilizers and amendments are from plant or mineral sources, like compost, alfalfa meal and seaweed (learn more here). We hope, though, that this article has piqued your interest about the lesser-known approaches that can be taken to home gardening.