Natural ecosystems have a wide diversity of plants, animals, and soil organisms, and ideally so should our gardens. One of the main aims of veganic gardening is to provide ourselves with food while respecting the environment and animals. We can accomplish this by growing a diversity of plants, especially heirloom crops and native plants, as well as accepting and encouraging a wide variety of insect and animal species. Long term ecological balance is based on biodiversity, and gardening is a way that we can participate in bringing biodiversity back to altered landscapes.
In each spoonful of healthy soil, millions of organisms from thousands of different species are flourishing in a microscopic universe. These organisms keep the soil fertile by decomposing plant matter into a form that is accessible to growing plants. Protecting the biodiversity in the soil is key to veganic gardening, and is accomplished through keeping the soil constantly covered with plants or mulch, and minimizing disturbance to the soil. Learn more about the soil food web and good soil stewardship.
There are thousands of varieties of edible plants that we can grow. Faced with an increased uniformity of fruits and vegetables on supermarket shelves, helping to preserve the biological heritage and culinary diversity of edible plants is a worthy task for all small growers. Consider supporting independent producers of organic and heirloom seeds, and visit Plants for a Future to learn about the 7000 varieties of perennial plants that are edible, medicinal or otherwise useful.
It’s also important to incorporate native plant species in your garden design, as they are adapted to your bioregion. Native plants are interrelated with other elements of the natural ecosystem, such as insects and soil organisms, and they contribute subtle functions that are important for the overall health of the ecosystem.
When planting, consider growing different species side by side in the same bed. This brings a mixture of root systems, with some roots spreading widely and improving soil structure, and other roots growing deeply, drawing nutrients to the surface.
Polycultures are also more resistant than monocultures, and tend to have fewer losses from insects or disease. Ensure that annual crops are grown in a different spot of the garden each year, to vary the fertility demands on the soil.
"Weeds" - Re-valuing and understanding
"Weeds" are unceremoniously lumped together as the category of "plants we wish weren’t there". If we learn to recognize them, name them, and learn about their roles and functions, perhaps certain "weeds" will become your new favourite salad ingredient or source of fertility for your garden. Among common "weeds", dandelions are healthy and medicinal, clover fixes nitrogen, purslane is an excellent source of omega 3, and lambsquarters are more nutritious than most of the crops that you planted on purpose. Proper identification is key: certain plants should only be eaten in small quantities, and some plants are toxic, so do your research first!
"Weeds" are better referred to as "pioneer plants". If the soil becomes bare, nutrients are lost through wind and rain. Pioneer plants quickly establish themselves, and they perform the vital role of storing nutrients in their bodies and lessening erosion through the presence of their roots. They are the first generation of tough and hearty plants in the natural development of complex ecosystems. When we till or dig the soil to start a garden, is it any wonder that they show up and prosper? To lessen the influx of pioneer plants, we can do what nature wants: keep the soil covered at all times, either with mulch, a ground cover, or densely-planted crops. This will greatly diminish the time you spend pulling up or cutting down pioneer plants.
Animal diversity: Habitats
It’s important to recognize that human settlements—houses, modern farms, roads, and lawns—have significantly infringed on natural spaces for wildlife. We can help reverse this trend by providing habitats, nourishment and water points to attract a variety of animal species.
A few ideas for encouraging wildlife:
- Trees and hedges can serve as as homes for birds, insects, and small mammals.
- We can put up bird houses and bat boxes. Rather than feeding them with birdseed, which can lead to dependency, consider planting native species that would normally serve as their nourishment in your region.
- Piles of wood and rocks can host grass snakes.
- Water points can provide habitat for toads and frogs. You can even convert an old kiddie pool into a small pond (though, as always, take appropriate precautions with water if small children live nearby).
- Flowers can be planted to attract pollinators and beneficial insects.
When there is a wide variety of animal species, it also lessens the chance that any single species will overpopulate the garden. All of these efforts help sustain wildlife while contributing to an overall environmental balance in our gardens.
Natural pollinators - bees
Native bee populations are in serious decline, which is particularly worrisome because the food supply of many species (including humans) is fragile in the absence of pollinators. Bees need nourishment from nectar and pollen, and unfortunately many hybridized flowers do not provide enough of either. As gardeners, we can plant a wide variety of native flowers in our gardens, ensuring we include early and late varieties so there is nourishment available for pollinators throughout the entire growing season. To learn how you can provide nourishment and habitats for bees, visit the Pollinator Resource Centre of the Xerxes Society to find out about beneficial native flowers for your bioregion.
Insects: finding balance
The vast majority of insects and microorganisms have a beneficial or neutral influence on our gardens. Natural pollinators are essential for the success of many crops, and the billions of microorganisms in the ground help keep the soil fertile. Pesticides are destructive to this delicate web of life, killing far more than their “target species”. If insects are multiplying on one of the crops, one approach is to do nothing at all: it’s natural for insects to seek out food, and by doing nothing, it’s more likely that other animals will be attracted and that a dynamic ecosystem will be formed in your garden. When there is a diversity of animal species, there is less of a chance that any given species will over-run the garden. And when we grow a wide variety of vegetable crops, we’re still likely to enjoy a sizeable harvest even if we lose a few crops.
We can also use non-invasive methods such as mesh and fencing to deter certain species, and concentrate on growing plants that have a good track record in our garden from year to year. Rather than becoming fixated on the few crops that we lose, it is more rewarding to concentrate on the many crops that we reap, as a small part of our harvest will always be shared with the animals in the neighborhood.