Here in western Massachusetts, there is a blanket of snow on the ground, but I’m dreaming about my garden. It’s what gardeners do. If we’re not out and about among the flowers, we’re planning and reading and dreaming about them.
One of the most consequential books I read last year about gardening is A New Garden Ethic by Benjamin Vogt. It advocates for gardening with native plants but is much more than a gardening book. It’s a plea for justice and fairness in the way we view our landscapes and those who share them with us. Unintentionally, it’s also a compelling argument in favor of a vegan ethic.
First, a couple of things about native plants and how they relate to veganism. Native plants have evolved naturally in their location and they share evolutionary history with native wildlife. In North America, they are plants that were here prior to European settlement. Many of our native wildlife need native plants in order to survive. But North American gardeners, including me, are often drawn to beloved introduced plants from across the globe– like peonies, lilacs, and day lilies, just to name a few. They are lovely, but they crowd out the native flora that are crucial for supporting wildlife and sustaining biodiversity.
Vegans who garden should feel compelled to choose native plants. Stealing habitat from wildlife to grow plants that give us pleasure is clearly not compatible with a vegan ethic. But that’s not what this blog post is about. It’s about the fact that native plant advocates – whether they know it or not – are our vegan allies.
Benjamin Vogt’s book makes this abundantly clear. I flagged sentence after sentence that spoke to a vegan ethic. He writes convincingly about the need to expand our circle of compassion to other species. But just as veganism is about more than compassion, so is native plant gardening. Central to this book’s message is a challenge to our belief in human superiority: “Plants are not for us,” he writes. “We just presume this to be the case because we live in a culture that views humans as primary, superior and all other life – all other intelligence—as secondary, here to be used only for our benefit.”
Vogt doesn’t just invoke the concept of speciesism – he names it. “Perhaps our landscapes too often practice a sort of speciesism,” he writes. “In that way, they may even embody the worst of what we do to ourselves and each other – marginalization, possession, and superiority. “
So, was I surprised to learn that Benjamin Vogt isn’t vegan? Not really. Too often, non-vegans have no idea how veganism relates to their own values and beliefs. They may think it’s a diet related mostly to health concerns, or maybe a diet aimed at reducing our contribution to global warming. And yes, those are nice potential benefits of eating this way. But just like native plants, veganism is about much more; it’s about ending our contribution to the exploitation of all animals – domestic and wild –for food, clothing, and entertainment.
That people want to ignore these connections isn’t surprising either. Changing how we eat and shop and entertain ourselves is hard. So is native plant gardening, which, according to Vogt, is a threat “to an entire Western culture, and an entire industry.” He says that “We will do anything we can to avoid looking more deeply and authentically at our culture so we don’t have to face the loss, the grief, and the effort to change.”
That sense of loss isn’t so different whether you’re giving up meat or giving up zinnias. I’ve spent a lot of time scouring gardening books and websites in pursuit of a loophole — some kind of reassurance that a more flexitarian approach to native plant gardening is okay. In his book Nature’s Best Hope (also highly recommended if you’re interested in these topics) native plant expert Douglas Tallamy assures me that my garden will not lose its ecological clout if I include a few of my favorite non-natives.
But the truth is that I’m no reducetarian, and neither is Vogt. He says “Time and again I hear how native plant landscapes aren’t possible, that it’s necessary to meet people where they are, gently encouraging the addition of a few native plants here and there over time, or slowly removing lawn from public spaces. […] Where people are, though, is stuck in a culture that extracts life from the planet to satiate fleeting pleasure.”
Certainly as a dietitian, I want and need to meet people where they are when it comes to dietary change. At the same time, I want them to know that every change they make to remove animal food from their lives, the better. Every time you choose a vegan meal, you’ve made a choice that favors justice, compassion, and fairness. It’s the same for every time you plant a native. “Every action we take carries weight and importance and liberating power, for us and for other species,” Vogt reminds us.
So just like I learned to bake without eggs and veganize my mom’s famous baked ziti, I’m learning a new way to garden. And just as I see this as central to my vegan ethic, my hope is that those in the native plant community –and those involved with any effort to build a more just world — will recognize that a commitment to justice isn’t complete if it doesn’t include all animals.
“Every organism on Earth is here not for us but with us,” Benjamin Vogt writes.. That’s the rationale for native plant gardening. It’s also the rationale for veganism.
Intersectionality is very important but hadn’t thought of it framed this way before. A very thought-provoking and thoughtfully written piece. Will re-think my love of zinnias. Thank you for the book recommendations.
Zinnias are hard to give up! I think the most important thing in the beginning is to choose perennials, trees, and shrubs that are native. I’m in the transition stage myself.
Wonderful article! I once planted some (native I think) berry bushes and had wrapped the roots in wire mesh to protect them, but some non-human friends decimated the bushes in no time. About 15 years later now there are wild blackberry bushes in the garden – the strange ways of the non-human friends. 😀 The non-human friends (insect larvae and squirrels) also eat all the hazelnuts. There are hazelnuts everywhere but I’ve never found an edible one on the hazelnut bushes.
Well, those larvae are feeding the birds, so that’s a good thing! And the squirrels are no doubt planting more hazelnuts. 🙂
Love this so much, Ginny! Thank you for sharing it. We are amateur vegetable gardeners here – I am curious if the same is to be said about non-native veggie plants? Also would love to know your veganized mom’s ziti recipe if you’re open to sharing!
Thank you, Taylor! I don’t think the types of veggies you grow matters too much since you are growing these for yourself and not the wildlife regardless. My small vegetable garden is the one part of my yard that is off limits to the critters. They are welcome to everything else and I even plant the groundhogs their own little garden of clover (which is great for wildlife in general) and spinach. (And I have seen photos of your vegetable garden which make me think you have graduated beyond “amateur!”)
Here’s my version of my mom’s baked ziti.
Baked Ziti with Cashew Cream “Ricotta”
1 box (16 oz) ziti
2 cups raw, unsalted cashews*
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
24-oz jar spaghetti sauce (marinara is best)
1 16-ounce bottle Miyoko’s pizza mozzarella
*Can replace cashews with 16 ounces Tofutti brand Better than Ricotta. I sometimes use half cashews and half ricotta, which is the version of this dish I like the best.
At least 8 hours before baking: soak the cashews in the enough water to cover plus 1 inch (in the refrigerator)
Heat oven to 350.
1. Cook the ziti according to package directions for al dente.
2. Make the cashew ricotta: Drain the cashews and place in a blender or food processor with the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt plus ¼ cup water. Process until smooth – about 2 minutes in a food processor.
3. Mix together the cashew ricotta with ½ bottle of mozzarella.
4. Toss together the pasta and spaghetti sauce. Spread half of it in a 13x 9 pan.
5. Top with cashew ricotta
6. Add rest of pasta and drizzle the remaining mozzarella over the top.
7. Cover loosely with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 5 minutes. Can put under the broiler for a minute or so to brown the mozzarella.