Make your garden grow the veganic way

In the Philadelphia Orchard Project orchard in Fairmount Park, a bee flits around an echinacea flower in front of a peach tree. The orchard is planted with companion plants such as Anise Hyssop, echinacea, false indigo, spearment, yarrow, Queen Anne's lace, fennel, comfrey, Joe Pye weed, among others, that help keep the fruit trees healthy.

THINK YOU NEED animal waste to grow strong, healthy vegetables? Naw, that's just a load of BS.

In fact, the next logical step after a plant-based diet may be plant-based plants.

Flying under the radar, vegan organic or "veganic" growing got a publicity boost a few months back when South Philly's Metropolis Farms became the first vegan-certified farm in the United States. (For a visit to Metropolis and interview with Jack Griffin see philly.com/veganic.)

Now people are curious about this animal-free practice with the newfangled name but a long and venerable history.

That's right: most core principles of veganics are not new or revolutionary but time-honored traditional practices. Companion plants, for instance, are well-established as a plus in gardening, and longtime "V for Veg" readers will recall my discussion of the Native Americans' "three sisters" - corn, beans, and squash - which compliment and assist each other's healthy growth.

Comfrey is one plant that looms large - or rather, deep - in the quest for cleaner dirt. As Phil Forsyth of the Philadelphia Orchard Project explained to me, "Comfrey has a deep root system, so it pulls up a lot of nutrients and minerals, then you can cut it back to make a nutrient-rich mulch."

Mulching and compost teas play a big role in this system, where your main goal is assuring an adequate supply of nitrogen - plentiful in animal waste, but also in the plants animals ate. Forsyth recommends including "nitrogen-fixing plants like New Jersey tea, bayberry and Carolina lupine" in the mix.

Pest control without chemical bug-killers is also a rich topic. Marigolds are pretty familiar as a veg-friendly crop to deter nematodes and other pests, while attracting bugs that don't eat veggie plants but do eat other bugs. Forsyth also suggest sechinacea, brown-eyed Susan, and anise hyssop.

While vegans strive in all areas to avoid supporting the animal agriculture industry (which sustains its profit margins by turning residues such as bone, blood, fishmeal and manure into dollars), an ethical stance isn't always the trigger.

Kelle Kersten, a former organic farm inspector who runs Ahimsa Village veganic farm near State College, was more concerned with soil integrity: "For a while when I was just doing organic, I used manure from a horse farm. But I got to thinking, 'These animals were given medicines and vaccines,' " and she decided those wild-card chemical residues ran counter to the organic idea.

Some all-plant practices emerged as a response to crisis: For instance, in Great Britain's mad cow disease epidemic of the 1990s, a veganic form of biodynamic farming was developed to avoid potentially dangerous cattle blood and bones.

As in the dietary realm, veganic discussions can get to a point of "Where do you draw the line?" Even though worms are an animal that belongs in the soil (unlike, say, ruminant mammals), Kersten declined to recommend a particular potting soil as veganic because it contains worm "castings"- worm manure, essentially. Other vegans, focusing on the industrial animal agribusiness, shrug off this element.

Veganic growers, after all, aren't attempting to eliminate 100 percent of animal residue but to return to a natural balance.

Lee Hall, a life member of the Vegan Organic Network (veganorganic.net) who lives in suburban Philadelphia, says that while veganic growers "routinely augment soil fertility with clover, kelp, and composts," it's also true that "free-living animals, like squirrels and rabbits - worms too! - pass through veganic gardens and add some waste, naturally enriching the soil."

For vegans, the important factor is the "free-living" part: Hall's 2016 book On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Century (CreateSpace) details how being eco-friendly includes respecting and safeguarding wild animals' habitats and living patterns.

In this way, veganic is both a big-picture and a cozy backyard practice with a holistic emphasis. Forsyth says that the Orchard Project's goals "are to work with existing groups, help them take control of their own food system, their own food supply without external inputs - to become as self-reliant and self-sufficient as possible."

With a little education (in addition to POP, local organizations such as Rodale can point to useful resources) a home kitchen garden can be turned into "a fully-functional edible ecosystem," Forsyth says.

So do some fruits and vegetables respond better than others to the veganic approach? When I asked Kersten, whose site ahimsavillage.org also offers veganic tips, she felt it was more a matter of how much the gardener has learned about the available processes, and applying them in a committed way.

"I've been able to grow anything with the right amount of attention," she said. "Anything."

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, musician, 15-year vegan, and the author of the new book V for Veg: The Best of Philly's Vegan Food Column. His monthly column chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. VforVeg@phillynews.com @V4Veg