Viva!'s Dr. Justine Butler reveals the secrets to being animal-friendly in the garden.
As a vegan, you avoid using animal products or exploiting animals in all areas of life – food, clothes, cosmetics, household goods, entertainment. So what should be different about the garden?
Vegan or ‘stockfree’ gardening avoids animal manure, fertilisers made with blood and bone meal, slaughterhouse waste and fish remains. It’s a safer, healthier and more sustainable way to grow food. You don’t need animal manure to grow fruit, vegetables and crops and a number of organisations have been proving it for years.
The Vegan Organic Network is one of them and encourages gardeners and commercial growers to go stockfree. They say: “Veganorganics is any system of cultivation that avoids artificial chemicals and sprays, livestock manures and animal remains from slaughterhouses.
“Fertility is maintained by vegetable compost, green manures, crop rotation, mulches and any other method that is sustainable, ecologically viable and not dependent upon animal exploitation. This will ensure long term fertility, and wholesome food for this and future generations”.
Improving soil quality
There are several ways to improve the soil in your garden or allotment that avoid using animal products. You can make your own compost by collecting uncooked food waste (fruit and vegetable peel etc) in a compost bin in the garden. Over time, depending on the weather and temperature, you will have lovely, crumbly, nutrient-rich soil. A bonus is that you may get some self-seeding surprises – I had five squashes this year!
You can improve the soil quality by growing green manure plants. They absorb nutrients that would otherwise be lost through leaching, then return them to the soil when they are dug in. It takes just a few weeks and plants such as clover can add nitrogen. It’s easy, you sow fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing plants, let them grow, then dig them back into the soil to enrich it. This improves soil fertility, adds nitrogen, improves soil structure, gives better drainage or water retention, suppresses weeds and attracts beneficial insects.
Liquid feed for seedlings can be made from comfrey and nettle leaves. Fill a container with cuttings of comfrey and/or nettles, cover with water and leave for 2-4 weeks. The resulting rich dark liquid is packed with nutrients and serves as an excellent liquid feed. You can use spirulina or kelp meal to increase the iodine content of their veggies – an important mineral often found lacking in UK diets.
Comfrey leaves can be used as a mulch under tomatoes, cucumbers and fruit trees for the slow release of nutrients. Covering the earth around plants with a thick hay mulch also feeds the soil with organic matter as it breaks down, suppresses weeds and encourages worms. It’s best done in winter.
Vermiculture is when you use worm castings to improve soil quality. You can help re-establish worm populations in your garden by providing the right habitat to attract them.
Worms love cool, dark and damp environments, like in a large compost bin or under a thick layer of hay mulch. Worm castings provide a rich source of organic matter packed with nutrients. As well as aerating the soil and incorporating dead plant matter into it, worms also improve soil structure, which can improve resistance to erosion. It’s a win-win situation, you provide the right habitat, they help improve soil structure and fertility.
Iain Tolhurst has been growing organic vegetables for more than 40 years and is considered a pioneer of the UK organic movement. His farm in south Oxfordshire was the first to attain the Stockfree Organic symbol in 2004. There have been no grazing animals and no animal inputs on the farm for over 25 years.
He says: “We see a big future in stockfree organic systems as they use considerably less land than livestock dependent systems, have a much lower carbon footprint and lower energy requirements. We are pleased to have been at the forefront of developing this important food growing system.”
Still, the idea that animal manure is essential to crop production persists. With animals there are many additional costs, such as fences, buildings, water supply, plus all the bureaucracy and vets bills. You simply don’t get something for nothing!
Animals use energy, they produce methane and lots of waste and if they need additional feed, such as soya, grains or other crops, it defeats the whole object of keeping them for their manure to help grow crops. Farmers are realising there’s a lot to be gained by going stockfree!
Then there’s that old chestnut – what about land where you can’t grow crops? Trees can be planted on poorer soils to provide fruit, nuts and timber and enhance the landscape. Trees also provide a valuable service by locking up carbon they remove from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. Forests store more carbon than any other type of plant ecosystem, either above or below ground.
Storing up carbon
Soil organic carbon is the carbon stored below ground in plant and animal materials at various stages of decay. An estimated 10 billion tonnes of carbon are stored in UK soils, 50 times the carbon stored in UK vegetation, other than trees.
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change says that due to losses of soil organic carbon from intensive farming, around 12 million tonnes of the potent greenhouse gas CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere each year from UK soils. We need more trees!
There has to be a massive reduction in livestock farming, not just for environmental reasons, but also to feed the growing global population. The argument that we need animal manure for crops just doesn’t stack up.
Stockfree farming uses less land, less water, has a much lower carbon footprint and lower energy requirements than livestock farming. In warmer countries, it offers increased resilience against drought – a problem that is only going to get worse in the current climate emergency. In short, it’s a no-brainer, stockfree ‘veganic’ farming is the future and you can start in your back garden today! Give it a try.
Want to learn more about creating a haven for wildlife in your garden? Click here to learn more.
Viva!Health is a part of the vegan charity Viva!. We monitor scientific research linking diet to health and provide accurate information on which you can make informed choices about the food you eat. www.vivahealth.org.uk