Plant-Based Fertilisers for Veganic Gardening

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Alfalfa pellets used as veganic fertiliser

Many vegetarians, vegans, and just plain healthy eaters like myself want to opt out of agricultural systems that are cruel to animals and/or hazardous to the environment. I have used animal-based organic fertilisers for years, and while I’ve been happy with their performance, their origins have been a sticking point. Most organic fertilisers use animal-based ingredients made from bone, blood, feathers, or manure that originate in the confined animal industry. Hence my search for plant-based fertilisers or soil amendments that work as manure alternatives.

Using Plant-Based Fertilisers

Before going further, it’s important to understand that when you use grain meals or other plant-based fertilisers, you are feeding soil microbes, which will transform that food into nutrients for plants. Nutrient conversion will be fast and sure when the soil is warm and damp, with less activity in cold or dry soil. Like other organic soil amendments, plant-based fertilisers work best in biologically active soil that is regularly enriched with compost, cover crops and decomposing mulches.

Farm supply stores sell alfalfa pellets and grain-based feeds at bargain prices

Cover Cropping with Alfalfa Pellets

I cover crop small areas of my garden when I can, but green manuring is the soil-building technique that most often eludes me in my intensive vegetable garden. This is where alfalfa pellets come in. Sold as a food supplement for horses, goats, and other ruminants, alfalfa pellets contain enough nitrogen to get them rotting fast when they are mixed into the soil. Moisture makes alfalfa pellets triple in size, so the result of adding them to soil is similar to turning under a lush green cover crop. The nutrients in alfalfa pellets are released slowly, over a period of three years, so there is little risk of burning plant roots. Some gardeners mix alfalfa pellets with water and use the green slurry as mulch.

Shop for alfalfa pellets at a feed store that sells horse and goat feed. They are quite affordable! A fifty pound (22.5kg) bag that will last me a year cost only $20 (about £15), and the only storage challenge is keeping the pellets dry.

Fertilising with chicken feed worked well for the author’s robust tomato crop

Fertilising with Chicken Feed

Last year we bought a cheap bag of feed that my chickens refused to eat, so I decided to try fertilising with chicken feed. The label revealed a combination of soybean and grain meals that computed out to about 6 percent nitrogen, so I figured why not? I dug a generous scattering of pellets into the soil, waited a rainy week, and then planted tomatoes and peppers. Maybe it was luck, but the plants grew beautifully with no signs of nutrient stress. This year I’m looking forward to repeating my success.

A word to the wise: For the first week or so after chicken feed or other rich plant meals are mixed into soil, they explode with biological activity that includes the release of ammonia, which can be lethal to germinating seeds or tender plant roots. This is why corn gluten works as a natural pre-emergent herbicide.

The main ingredients in this organic chicken feed are soybeans, barley, oats, wheat and flaxseed

You can prevent problems by adding pellets or plant meals to soil as early as possible, preferably two to three weeks before planting. How fast the meals or pellets decompose depends on moisture and temperature, though in my experience things move along quickly, with soy-based pellets disappearing in about a week.

Grain meals have long been recommended as plant-based fertilisers, but organic soybean meal or even cornmeal can be difficult to find. Organic animal feeds provide a cheap and handy supply, though it’s important to read the label to ensure there are no unwanted added ingredients such as fats or oils. If you’re a veganic gardening purist, watch out for fish meal as an ingredient, which is added to some chicken and rabbit feeds to raise their protein content.

Rich greens or grains can be fermented to create a liquid feed for plants

Plant-Based Liquid Fertilisers

I have always felt squeamish about making liquid fertilisers from compost or manure because of the likely presence nasty bacteria, but I feel safe and confident fermenting plant materials and using the liquid as a plant food. It’s a simple procedure. Mix fresh green grass clippings, alfalfa pellets, chicken feed pellets or another organic grain with water, let the mess ferment for three days, and then pour off the liquid. Because the exact nutrient and salt content of the liquid is unknown, I dilute it with an equal amount of water before using it to feed plants.

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Show Comments


"What are your thoughts about triple sixteen fertilizer?"
Jess Loya on Saturday 21 March 2020
"Jess, that's a lot of nutrients so you would use it very sparingly in the vegetable garden. High analysis chemical fertilizers also carry risks of burning plant roots and upsetting soil life. Most balanced organic fertilizers have an analysis of 5-4-4 or something similar."
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 22 March 2020
"thank you so much for this article! I struggle with finding good fertilizers that don't use animal products and at the nurseries they look at me like an alien when I tell them I am not using bonemeal, fish soil, etc for ethical reasons. These are great tips for specific nutrients beyond general compost."
jodie on Sunday 22 March 2020
"The problem with using soybean or alfalfa products that are not organic is that they use RoundUp on those"
Davilyn Eversz on Saturday 9 May 2020
"If you think just using alfalfa pellets work in the garden ,you should see what going through the horsits then using about a year can do . "
Eliza Smith on Tuesday 19 May 2020
"love seeing more vegan gardening articles popping up everywhere! the comment above from jodie is so true, when we say we don't want dead animal in our soil or fertiliser it's such an incomprehensible idea that they (stores) don't know what to advise, so articles like this are fantastic. just bought some alfalfa meal online from a local seller after reading this. thanks a million! and here's to a future of less suffering for animals"
nico david on Thursday 20 August 2020
"I live in the Arizona desert, here we dont have soil, not even good dirt, just dirt, what has really worked for me and those I share with has been the product you spoke of, my source is a plant that makes the pellets or cubes, I get the waste by the trailer load, and what a diffrence a year has made, from nothing growing no matter what I tried, just germinate and die, to having earthworms (not sure even where they came from) and a thriving garden, for a year now I get the tree service folk to dump on my yard, and I layer the 2 products and it is amazing the results, I use a 12" spacing dripline under the top few inches of chips and it breaks down reasonably fast, add a bit of nitrogen to balance the carbon/nitrogen ratio. The pellet waste has change us from wanting to give up to sitting and almost watch it grow. Be courageous and try, you will be amazed. "
John Hack on Saturday 20 February 2021
"The least expensive complete fertilizer comes out of our bodies: urine. Add 1 part fresh urine to 15-20 parts water."
Angus on Monday 15 March 2021
"Thank you SO MUCH for this article. My heart broke when I realised that nothing is really vegan due to the fish meal, bone and blood in traditional plant fertilisers. I’ve been going crazy trying to find a plant based fertiliser. I make my own compost tea - but who knows the nutrient content t of that. Plus I managed to find 1 vegan fertiliser but it was $20 for 5 pounds! I’m definitely trying your alfalfa meal and chicken feed ideas. You made my day!"
Terri Chrisman on Saturday 20 March 2021
"You're welcome, Terri. This is such a timely topic these days!"
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 30 April 2021
"Chicken feed pellet? Dont think its organic, as almost of them are full of antibiotic and hormones."
Nana on Wednesday 12 May 2021
"Thank you for the article. Where do you get the alfalfa pellets from? Cheers, Renate"
Renate on Tuesday 5 April 2022

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