Planting a garden has the power to change the world. A regenerative garden can strengthen the local food system by providing higher quality and more nutritious food, and help reverse global warming by restoring soil health. Some guidelines to follow for a more regenerative garden are as follows:
Keep living roots in the soil for as long as possible, keeping the soil covered.
Cover crops to restore soil nutrients. eg. mulch and organic matter (composting)
Plant perennial plants like orchard fruits and nuts.
Promote biodiversity. eg. plant flowers with your vegetables – marigolds and herbs make useful companion plants
Reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals. eg. Inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides
Allow some weeds and insects to be present. eg. only pull weeds near plants that are overtaking their nutrients
Integrate livestock or animal impact. eg. manure, small livestock such as chickens or rabbits
Tillage damages soil health by disrupting the soil structure and the biological processes in the soil. There are several alternatives to tilling:
Using a permanent bed system — using the same soil season-to-season which retains soil structure
Sheet composting — covering the bed for winter with cardboard, compost, — and leaves or straw
Broadforking — using a broad fork, is a great minimally-invasive technique to loosen the soil without inverting it, thereby keeping the soil structure intact.
For larger areas of land, no-till equipment may be available for local rentals. Many industries and farmers are eager to share regenerative equipment at an affordable price.
By using these practices, the negative impact of tilling the soil may be avoided and the soil health will improve, resulting in stronger and healthier crops.
Keeping the Soil Covered
Keeping the soil covered is essential for healthy soil and crops. Bare soil is more likely to be eroded by wind and water. It also becomes less able to absorb and infiltrate water and nutrients. There are many ways to keep the soil covered. Some ways include:
A thick layer of compost and a dressing of grass clippings and shredded dry leaves.
Plant deep-rooted perennials, such as fruit trees and berry bushes.
Plan succession crops by pulling one crop and planting another in the same day. This increases overall yield potential and decreases the amount of time the soil is left exposed. This can be done easily by having the succession crop ready to plant and set aside an entire day for the task.
Cover pathways. While exposed pathways leave soil exposed, pathways can be seeded in annual rye for a green pathway that requires minimal maintenance, smothers weeds, and increases organic matter. Pathways can also be covered with straw or leaf, which will help retain moisture and increase nutrients in the soil.
One of the best ways to naturally and safely infuse the soil with rich nutrients is by using cover crops. Cover crops also provide mulch and keep the soil covered, improve soil physical properties in just one growing season, and attract beneficial insects and pollinators. A good cover crop plant depends on timing and compatibility with other crops being planted. Some examples include:
For a long time period before planting vegetables, combine a small grain (eg. oats, barley, rye) and a legume (nitrogen-fixing plants like peas or vetch).
For a shorter time period before planting, consider green manure crops, or tender, quick-growing crops that will outcompete weeds and, when finished, will provide some easily-digested, supple foodstuff for the soil microorganisms (eg. Buckwheat and field peas).
Clover and winter rye, as a living mulch to anchor the soil and protect it from washing away.
Different types of plants draw different nutrients from the soil while they grow. Therefore, planting the same plants in the same areas year after year can strip the soil of the nutrients needed by that plant. By rotating crops, plants utilize the variety of nutrients available to help different types of plants over a series of many years. In addition, rotating crops decreases the abundance of pests and disease, as they will be unable to linger when their host plant is replaced with a different plant type.
There are thousands of vegetable plant varieties, but they all fall into one of eleven families. The most common fall into:
Legumes – eg. peas, beans
Nightshades – eg. tomatoes, eggplant, peppers
Chicories – eg. lettuce, endive
Umbels – eg. carrots, parsnips, fennel
Chenopods – eg., swiss chard, spinach
Brassicas – eg. cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts
Allium – eg. onions, garlic, leeks
Crop rotation can work in a garden of any scale. The basic rules are as follows:
Rotate plant families
Provide as much space apart when rotating – i.e. the further you can plant tomatoes from their previous location, the better
Allow as many seasons as is feasible to pass before returning a plant family to a previous location
Promote Biodiversity - Wildlife
Regenerative gardens promote soil and plant biodiversity. Healthy soil keeps plants strong and wildlife such as birds and small mammals control the population of unwanted insects.
Birds and small mammals also help pollinate plants while eating many of the insects that would otherwise harm the plants. Flourishing ecosystems in nature are diverse and teeming with life.
It may be helpful to research the wildlife in the area to limit the access of some larger animals such as deer or groundhogs by using a fence or screen. Smaller gardens in particular are vulnerable to large grazers that may eat too many plants at once. Smaller fruit such as strawberries or tomatoes may be protected by nets during peak growing season to save them for the family. The nets can be removed to share some of the fruit with birds and other wildlife.
Promote Biodiversity - Plants
In addition to promoting animal biodiversity, planting different types of fruit and vegetable crops will help increase crop biodiversity. By increasing the crop biodiversity, a variety of root structures and organic matter enhance the structure and feed the soil. Some examples of this practice include:
Planting annual flowers such as marigolds around vegetable plants. The flowers attract insects away from produce and also help cover surrounding soil without planting competing crops that would fight for the same nutrients from the soil. This eliminates the need for pesticides. This proved to work very well for things like pumpkin and butternut squash that ultimately take up a lot of space but start small and can grow around the annual plants as the summer progresses.
Planting squash, beans, and corn (called “the three sisters”) that grow well together due to their different shapes and nutritional needs. Beans grow up the corn stalk while squash stays low and its large leaves keep soil covered. Beans also replenish nitrogen in the soil that is used up by the corn and squash.
Where crops are not covering the soil, weeds may begin to grow. Weeds play an important role in a healthy garden ecosystem. They can help increase water retention and reduce soil erosion by keeping the soil covered. They also provide food and shelter to many insects and pollinators that help maintain a healthy balance in the ecosystem of the garden. They may be trimmed if they grow too tall or if they threaten to overtake the crops. Weed clippings can be recycled as compost for all the nutrients to be returned to the soil.
Integrating livestock or small animals can increase the soil biodiversity. They can help provide manure, trample weeds, and eat pests. For small operations, fowl or rabbits are a popular option. Fowl such as chickens or quails can also provide fresh eggs for the family. Eggs from fowl raised in organic or regenerative environments are also in high demand in the market and can be sold for a higher average price than conventional eggs. However, integrating livestock requires a commitment of fencing and proper care.
By using principles of regenerative farming, damaged and nutrient-depleted soils can be rebuilt into dark, loamy, and moist soil within several years. When it rains, the water sinks deep into the ground. The soil’s improved ability to retain moisture makes the plants more resilient to environmental changes such as drought.
Healthy soil and ecosystems can be built by treating them the way they exist in nature. Ecosystems and the soil that supports them are filled with biodiversity. A variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms keep gardens and ecosystems teeming with life and regenerating themselves through growth and decomposition cycles that have been churning for millions of years to support all life on our planet. Plants that grow in regenerative environments are safer and more nutrient-rich and the soil is successfully able to capture carbon form the atmosphere, reversing the effects of climate change.