"Vegetarian" Gardening

Dilip Barman

It's generally great to be a homeowner, and for me very exciting to be able to grow roses, fruit trees, ornamental trees and shrubs, and herbs. However, especially for those of us who live in suburban-style communities, we are expected to maintain some sort of lawn, in spite of the environmental impact of having to water and mow it, to speak nothing of chemical fertilizations and weed killers. I remember reading someplace that lawnmower engines have not been subject to the same pollution controls of vehicle engines, and that the emissions of mowing a standard American lawn is equivalent to that of driving several hundred miles in a car! (In 1994, there were 89 million garden-related engines, and they produced more than five percent of all air pollution. According to the EPA, refueling small engines spills more gas each year than was released by the Valdez oil spill.)

We can try to plant low-maintenance ground covers like junipers, mulch yard areas, build raised-bed herb/vegetable/flower gardens, plant native wildflowers, install a water garden, and use other techniques to minimize the amount of grass that we have to care for. One thing that we can certainly do is to use organic fertilizers instead of chemical ones that can contaminate the groundwater, harm animals and children, and non-sustainably produce quick growth instead of building healthy soils.

However, a vegetarian gardener will notice that many if not most organic fertilizers contain ingredients that are ground-up animal parts, such as bone, blood, or feather meal, or fish emulsion. As vegetarians, we don't eat animals, and many of us don't want to exploit or use animals. Should we be using what are probably slaughterhouse by-products? Some of us may have ethical and perhaps even health concerns.

An excellent organic soil amendment and fertilizer is manure. Are there ethical problems using cow, horse, or chicken manure? How about the manure of wild animals like seabirds or bats that is obtained without harming the animal? There is a terrible problem with disposing of animal waste and, though I suspect that packaged manures come from factory farms, I personally do choose to use manure. Ideally, I'd love to find a gentle caretaker of a few cows who would collect and age the manure (don't apply fresh manure to your garden, as it will "burn" the plants).

A kind of manure that you may not be familiar with is earthworm castings, sometimes called vermicompost. It has no odor, won't burn, and its rich nutrients are readily available. The castings consist of strong bullet-shaped pellets that resist soil compaction, greatly improving soil structure and aeration, as well as insulating roots from extreme temperatures. They keep moisture near plant roots, allowing excess water to drain away. They typically have an N-P-K (see immediately below) of 1 - .2 - 0 and locally are available at Wellspring, Earthwares, and Earth Touch Organics, for roughly $1 per pound. (Nitron Industries [see resources below] is having a sale this summer at a delivered cost of about 50 cents per pound.)

Nutritional Sources
I feel very uncomfortable using products with dead animal parts (perhaps I'm a manure vegetarian gardener, not a vegan gardener?). Plants have an "N-P-K" nutritional requirement for, respectively, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. The table below summarizes what each of these nutrients promotes and what good sources are. The sources are in three categories - vegan, "manure vegetarian", and animal sources that the vegetarian ingredients can substitute for.

Nutritional Sources


Nitrogen promotes stem and good green leaf growth.

Vegan sources: Alfalfa meal (be sure it's organic and not extracted via a chemical), cottonseed meal, soybean meal, any green plant material, legume plants or seeds (e.g. clover, peas, beans), nitrate of soda, Chilean nitrate (only for non-saline soils), hair (human or other).
"Manure-vegetarian" sources: earthworm castings, bat guano, seabird guano.
Animal sources for which the above substitute: blood meal, fish emulsion.


Phosphorus promotes root development, big flower blooms, strong stems, and winter hardiness.

Vegan sources: Rock phosphate (this is particularly slowly released, and lasts 2-3 years in the soil, so you should incorporate it at planting time directly into the hole).
"Manure-vegetarian" sources: Bat guano.
Animal sources for which the above substitute: Bone meal.


Potassium promotes strong flower blooms, fruit production, general health and resistance to pests, and strong roots.

Vegan sources: Kelp meal (I take kelp and spray it with a hose end or pump sprayer directly on leaves for gentle but effective foliar fertilization), organic banana peels, greensand (slowly released), sulphate of potash, wood ash (use sparingly).
"Manure-vegetarian" sources: N/A
Animal sources for which the above substitute: N/A

In addition, plants need a suite of trace minerals to thrive. Kelp meal, mentioned in the table as a potassium source, is also a great source of these trace minerals, and is one of the best supplements available to improve soil health and fertility. Made from seaweed, kelp meal is rich in minerals, won't burn, and increases the soil's water-holding capacity. Like rock phosphate, other slow release fertilizers are dusts of mica or granite, or glacial dust; these provide a wide range of trace minerals.

It is important to understand nutritional sources, but most soils have adequate N-P-K, and some organic gardeners simply use cover crops to enrich the soil and apply an inch or so of good organic material like compost to help make the nutrients available.

Whether you fertilize or not, the best thing that you could do for your gardening needs is to compost. Properly done, it should generate no smell and diverts your vegetable refuse from the landfill, where it won't decompose without air, to become a very rich soil amendment.

All you need to do is make a pile in your yard in which you bury organic material that will decompose over time; you can hasten the process by turning the pile periodically or purchasing a composting bin. It is good to have both "greens" (fresh and nitrogen-rich) like produce scraps, grass clippings, tea bags, and coffee grounds, and "browns" (dried and carbon-rich) like leaves, branches, and compostable paper towels and bags; avoid weeds and diseased plants. Check with your county extension office for composting clinics by master gardeners or for possibly low-cost bins.

Pests, Roses, Bio-Organics
If there is interest, I may write a future article about other subjects such as integrated pest management, organic care for roses, and other approaches consistent with vegetarian gardening. I will quickly mention that I have successfully used dormant oils, garlic extract, and neem (an extract from a tree that grows in India) for repelling pests; I will soon publish on my gardening web page (see below) a presentation that I gave in June on Organic Rose Gardening; and the bio-organic approach, which uses a microbial inoculant to enrich the soil so that, properly done (it is claimed), there is minimal additional fertilization or work needed after the first year.

Your county extension office is a great resource for care of landscape plants in general. A local store, Earth Touch Organics (743-0150) in Raleigh next to Wellspring, has some fertilizers like kelp.

If you are on the internet, I have a gardening web page at www.cs.unc.edu/~barman/plants.html.

The best information source for organic gardening in general is the Organic Gardening List; send email to LISTSERV@LSV.UKY.EDU with the following two-line message to participate in this online discussion:


There are several excellent mail order companies. The ones I have used the most are Gardener's Supply and Gardens Alive!; I'll list these and a few others here:

Gardener's Supply, VT (800)863-1700, http://www.gardeners.com - Great source at good prices; lots of vegetarian fertilizers; knowledgeable and friendly staff

Gardens Alive!, IN (812)537-8650, gardener@gardens-alive.com - My primary source till I found Gardener's Supply; most of their fertilizers are not vegetarian but they are a good source for other products like dormant oils, neem, and beneficial insects

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, CA (530) 272-4769, www.groworganic.com - Excellent catalog of products and wide selection of vegetarian fertilizers; worth getting the catalog but shipping products from California is expensive

Rohde's Nursery & Nature Store, TX (800)864-4445, eorganic.com, GRohde@aol.com - Good selection and good prices; in addition to green sand, has lava sand, both for great prices (before factoring in shipping)

Nitron Industries, AR (800)835-0123, www.nitron.com - They have a great summer 1998 sale going on through Sept. 21 for earthworm castings; for orders over 200 pounds, castings are less than 50 cents per pound, delivered

Two companies whose catalogs I have recently received that may be good resources in related areas are:

Arbico Environmentals, TN (800)827-BUGS, www.usit.net/BICONET, arbico@aol.com - Beneficial insects

Bio/Organics Supply, CA (800)604-0444, www.bio-organics.com, don@bio-organics.com - Information on the bio-organic approach

Happy gardening!