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Vegan Organics - The Basic Principles

Vegan organic horticulture is a method of growing plants without the use of chemical fertilizers, sprays etc and without using any animal products (except those obtained from humans). It is a system of caring for the soil in a sustainable way to ensure it retains its fertility for future generations. It is a method of growing plants that works in harmony with nature, encouraging a wide diversity of plant and animal life to share the land with us.

This leaflet is a brief guide to the basic principles of vegan organics. A list of suggested reading is given at the end should you want to find more specific information.

The Basic Principles:

1. Wherever possible, do not dig the soil.

There are many reasons for this:

  • There are many creatures and organisms living in the soil, helping to create drainage and build up fertility. Digging the soil will kill many of these creatures and break up the natural drainage they have created.
  • By digging the soil you will encourage much more rapid breakdown of organic matter. Thus, if you wish to maintain the soil fertility, you will become locked into a vicious circle of having to obtain more organic matter to feed the soil whilst putting in lots of effort through your digging in order to destroy that organic matter.
  • Digging the soil exposes it to erosion from rain and wind. It also increases the leaching of nitrogen and other water-soluble nutrients from the soil.
  • Digging soil will bring weed seeds to the surface where they will quickly germinate and grow. Thus digging actually increases the need to weed.
  • Rather than being healthy exercise, digging is actually a great strain in the back and often leads to damage.

So, what are the alternatives?

If your soil is fairly weed-free, it is possible to simply apply an annual mulch, preferably in late winter or early spring, of some organic matter such as compost. Apply this about 5cm deep all over the ground. If your soil is lacking in humus then you will find that this dressing of organic matter will rapidly be drawn into the soil in the course of the year. Apply another mulch each succeeding year, to make a total depth of about 5cm. As the fertility of the soil is built up, you will notice that less mulch material is required because more is left over from the previous dressing. This method of gardening does require large initial inputs of organic matter - see item 2 below for details of obtaining this.
Mulching weed-infested sites.
Most organic gardeners, when confronted by a heavily weed-infested site, will reach immediately for the fork or spade and spend many hours laboriously digging out as many weeds as they can. Not only is this exceedingly hard work, but it is often far less than successful. Many of the weeds, such as couch grass or thistles, will soon regrow with renewed vigour if even small parts of the roots are left in the ground. There will also usually be an explosion of germination from literally millions of seeds that have been given ideal germination conditions. The newly-dug ground will very soon be covered in weeds again. The alternative, once more, is to mulch. But this time there must be some barrier placed below the mulch to prevent all the weeds from growing through. We have found that cardboard boxes are an ideal barrier to use. They are usually freely available in quantity from local shops etc, will form an excellent barrier for a year or so, in which time most of the persistent weeds will have died, and then will rot down nicely to add their own organic matter to the fertility of the soil. Other materials that can also be used include newspapers (but try to avoid too many with colour printing and do not use colour supplements on land where you intend to grow food) and carpets (but only those made of natural materials such as hessian - avoid foam-backed carpets). It is very important to ensure that you apply a sufficient thickness of barrier mulch, otherwise the more vital weeds such as thistles and docks will push their way through it. A carpet that is not too worn is usually sufficient, cardboard boxes folded flat but not opened out are generally enough, and newspapers about 15 sheets thick are generally enough. Make sure that the edges of boxes, paper or whatever overlap by at least 8cm, otherwise the weeds will soon find their way to the surface. Late winter is the ideal time to mulch weed-infested beds, though it can be done at any time of the year so long as the soil is not dry (as well as helping to retain moisture in the soil, a mulch can also prevent moisture from reaching the soil, so a mulched dry soil will remain dry until there has been sufficient rain to soak the mulch and then penetrate into the soil). It is possible to plant into this mulched bed within three months of mulching. You simply use a trowel to make a hole into the cardboard and then plant into this hole. You may find that some weeds will start to grow out of this planting hole, but these are easily controlled by hand weeding. By using this method, it is actually possible to produce a semi-mature bed from weed-infested land by the middle of the first summer.
No-digging methods.
Once you have applied a good surface mulch to your ground, how do you go about planting and sowing seeds in it? Assuming that the organic matter you have used is fairly fine (such as well- rotted compost) then you just treat this as the surface of your soil, sowing and planting directly into it. If you used a coarser material such as shredded bark or leaf mould, then seed sowing will not be very successful unless using larger seeds such as peas and beans. It is possible to grow potatoes, however, and also to plant out pot- grown plants.

2. Add as much organic matter to the soil as you can.

It is essential, if you want to maintain or increase the natural fertility of the soil, to make sure that you apply sufficient organic matter. Obtaining sufficient organic matter is often the most difficult aspect of organic gardening. There are several potential sources.

Garden compost.
Do not waste a single scrap of organic matter in the garden or the house. Everything that once lived will rot down to provide nutrients for the soil and plants growing in the soil. There is almost never any reason to burn organic matter, the only exceptions to this being when plant matter is diseased and this disease will not or might not be destroyed in the composting process. Canker of apple trees is one example, wood infested with honey fungus is another. If you cannot obtain sufficient organic matter from your garden (and few of us can) then there are plenty of other sources to look for. Many other gardeners, for example, regularly throw out large quantities of garden waste and will be only too happy for you to collect it. Greengrocers will often let you have all the organic matter that they throw out. When activating your compost heap, consider using urine. This is an absolutely free commodity and a very valuable source of fertility that is all too often wasted. If urine does not appeal, then the heap will still rot down of its own accord, though it will take longer. You can speed it up by adding layers of nitrogen-rich material such as nettles, seaweed or young grass mowings, or you can use QR herbal activator, though this can contain honey.
Much of the natural fertility of the land is washed out to sea. Heavy rain, for example, will wash away soil and nutrients into the rivers and hence to the sea. Most of us regularly use flush toilets and send valuable consignments of fertility on their way to a watery grave. It therefore seems sensible to return some of this fertility to the land by using seaweed. If you live near the coast then you could collect it yourself, otherwise you can buy seaweed meal from most garden centres. Do not use calcified seaweed, see below for the reasons.
Spent hops.
If you live near a brewery then you might be lucky enough to pick up large quantities of this material free. It is an excellent soil conditioner, but if possible use it in conjunction with seaweed meal or compost to improve the mineral content.
Tree leaves.
Another excellent soil conditioner, it is often possible to obtain large quantities of leaves in the autumn from street trees. You might even get the work of collecting them done for you, if you have a sympathetic council or a local road-sweeper who is willing to drop off some sacks to you. Some caution is advised, however. If the leaves come from trees growing close to busy roads then they are likely to contain quite a lot of lead pollution from car exhausts.
Many organic gardeners grow a bed of comfrey. As well as providing a bulk of material for the compost heap, comfrey can be used as a mulch around plants, or can be placed in trenches before planting potatoes or sowing peas, beans etc. It is possible to harvest top growth several times a year, with the first harvest being available in April. Make sure you leave it in the sun for a few hours to wilt, just to make sure it does not root and become a nuisance. There are special forms of comfrey that do not set seed and so cannot become a problem in the garden. Try to obtain Bocking 14, which is available from many good organic garden suppliers.
Composted garden waste.
Many councils now have recycling centres where garden waste is shredded and then composted. It is then equal in quality to most home-made composts. This material is often then bagged up and sold as a soil conditioner under various commercial names. If you are very lucky, you might find that you will be able to collect the unbagged material free, or for a very small charge, direct from the recycling centre.
Green manures.
There are many plants that can be grown in order to increase the fertility of the soil. Basically you sow the seed and allow the plant to grow for some weeks before cutting it down. Many gardeners will then dig this into the soil, though it is also possible to either let it break down in situ or to remove it and compost it. A number of green manure crops, in particular the peas and beans, will enrich the soil with nitrogen as well as providing organic matter. Green manures have many benefits and can be grown as catch-crops in land that would otherwise be empty. Species to consider include buckwheat, rye, winter tares, clovers, sunflowers and alfalfa.

There are some sources of organic matter that we would not recommend:-

There has been a lot of publicity about peat bogs being destroyed in order to provide peat for composts, mulching etc. Please try to avoid this material if possible.
Calcified seaweed.
Although it is an excellent fertilizer and soil conditioner, especially for acid soils, it is obtained from the temperate ocean equivalent of coral reefs, and is being harvested in an unsustainable way.
Spent mushroom compost.
Just in case you were not aware of it, this material is usually made from animal manures, especially horse manure. It is also heavily polluted with all the chemicals they use in growing mushrooms.
This is being used in increasing quantities as a peat replacement. We feel that, although this is an excellent soil conditioner, it should be left in the countries where it grew in order to improve the fertility of their soils.

3. Liquid feeds

Most, if not all, plants benefit from being given concentrated feeds during the growing season. Annuals, especially, benefit because they do not have the established root system of perennials. It is possible to buy vegan liquid feeds or you can make your own. The process is simple. You fill a container, perhaps a dustbin, with plant material, pushing it in tightly to get as much in as possible. You then fill the container with water (and you will be surprised how much water will fit in) and leave it for a week or two. It will by then be very smelly, and you dilute it by perhaps 10 - 1 with water and then pour it on the soil around the plants. Alternatively, you can spray it over the leaves of plants, preferably in the evening or on cloudy days. Some possible materials to use include:-

You can either collect the seaweed from the beach, or buy liquid seaweed from garden centres. Very rich in a wide range of minerals, it is an excellent general feed.
A very good source of potassium, it is especially good for potatoes and tomatoes. Nettles. Rich in most minerals, and also providing some nitrogen, it is a good general feed. Weeds. Just using a mixture of garden weeds will provide a good general-purpose feed.

4. Pests and diseases

There are many organic sprays available for treating pests and diseases in plants. In general, we feel that these should be weapons of last resort since they will also kill other creatures, many of which are very beneficial in the garden. If you feel it is essential to use such materials, then you will need to read up on which material is best to use. A read of a good catalogue from an organic supplier will often be sufficient guide. There are also various sprays that can be made from plants growing in the garden. In general, you have to be very knowledgeable before using these, since they are often more harmful to wildlife than the sprays you can buy. If you want to consider alternatives to spraying, then the following are some options:-

Camomile and garlic.
Add a crushed garlic clove and a small handful of camomile flowers to half a litre of water that has just been boiled. Cover and leave to soak for 12 hours. This will make an excellent tonic for plants that will help them to fight pests and diseases.
Mixed and companion planting.
Pests and diseases spread much more easily when lots of plants of the same species are growing together. Try to mix your plants more - you will find that this will also help to produce higher overall yields from your ground. By planting aromatic plants amongst your other plants you will find that the incidence of pests and diseases will fall. Camomile, garlic and many of the Mediterranean herbs are very useful here.
Encourage the wildlife.
There are many creatures who would love to be able to share your garden with you, and who would repay you by eating many of the pests in your garden. Put n a pond, for example, and any frogs who live in it will eat up lots of slugs. Hedgehogs and slow worms will also eat their fair share of slugs and snails. Thrushes are also useful here, though they will also want to share your fruit with you.
Biological control.
There are now many companies who supply parasitic creatures that you can introduce into your garden or greenhouse to control pests. I do have some reluctance to use these, especially if they are not native species. However, these parasites are very specific to the pest they are intended to control, and are therefore much safer in the environment than organic sprays.
Gardening techniques.
There are many little tricks you can use in order to reduce the incidence of pests and diseases. Leaving the main carrot sowing until early June, for example, will reduce the risk of rootfly. Laying rhubarb leaves on the ground will attract slugs to shelter there - it is then a simple matter to collect the slugs up and move them on to wherever you want to move them. Any good book on organic gardening will include many of these techniques. It is very important to try and be as tidy as possible in the garden. Leaving things lying around, for example, will give slugs a place to shelter. Great if you are prepared to check all these places each day - but not if you have just been lazy and are not prepared to check. If you do get a disease in the garden, then try to treat it as soon as possible. Remove the diseased material, burning it if absolutely necessary.

5. Encourage the wildlife

We have already mentioned the value of wildlife in the garden for helping to control pests and diseases. It is also important that we all try and provide suitable conditions for native creatures in order to counteract to some extent all the habitat destruction that is or has taken place in this country. There is a very large area of land taken up by gardens and allotments and these can provide a wonderful habitat for a wide range of creatures. Encouraging wildlife is not about putting out scraps of food each day for the birds, or putting out a bag of peanuts on a bird table. Whilst it might be lovely to watch the tits feeding, what you are actually doing is making the creatures dependant on you for their food. If you should stop feeding, perhaps because you move house, then these creatures will have lost their food source and might die.

It is better to provide a more permanent and natural source of food by planting appropriate plants. There are many fruit-producing trees and shrubs, for example, that will supply food for the birds and various other creatures. Many other plants will provide nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies. A pond will attract a very wide range of insects, amphibians and other creatures. Grow a wildflower meadow and you will be surprised at just how many butterflies and moths will come along to say thank you - and you will also probably be treated to the sight of swallows swooping low over the grass to catch some of the insects that will abound there. Wherever possible, choose native species for wild-life plantings, though there are many non-natives such as buddleia and cotoneasters that would also be very useful.

6. Grow perennial species where possible

The gardening world, especially when it comes to growing food, has become besotted with annual crops. These are much harder work to grow simply because you have to be preparing seed beds, sowing seeds, weeding etc every year if you want your crops. There are plenty of alternative perennial food crops available. These are much easier to grow - once established they will come back of their own accord year after year. They can also be much more productive - especially if grown in mixed plantings of complimentary plants.

This article was originally published on the Plants For A Future website - HERE

Plants_For_a_Future_logoPlants For A Future (PFAF) is a charitable company, originally set up to support the work of Ken and Addy Fern on their experimental site in Cornwall, where they carried out research and provided information on edible and otherwise useful plants suitable for growing outdoors in a temperate climate.

This leaflet was produced in conjunction with the Vegan Organic Trust the premire group in the UK promoting the vegan organic method.

Further Reading:

There are many good books on organic gardening - here are just a few to choose from.

L. Hills. Grow your own Fruit and Vegetables
Excellent basic guide.
M. E. Bruce. Commonsense Compost Making. Faber. 0-571-09990-4
Excellent little booklet dealing with how to make good compost by using herbs.
J. Larkcom. Salads all the Year Round. Hamlyns
Comprehensive guide to temperate salad plants.
L. Woodward. Green manures. Elm Farm
Green manure crops for temperate areas.
P. Allardice A - Z of Companion Planting Cassell, 0-304-34324-2
Well produced and very readable.

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