Regenerative gardening uses the natural ecosystem to help keep pests and diseases under control. Organic practices are used instead of chemicals to encourage plant growth. It’s a more sustainable approach to gardening (and agriculture) and often yields more nutrient-rich produce. Here’s how to garden regeneratively at home.
I’m all about organic, sustainable living, and I try and apply that to my garden.
After listening to this podcast with Gabe Brown on Regenerative Agriculture, I thought, “Why not apply these practices to my home garden?”
Who says regenerative agriculture can only be done on farms? Why not on small gardens, too?
Here are some of the methods and practices used by regenerative farmers on their land to grow crops more sustainably, and how we, as home gardeners, can use these practices for our veggie patches, too.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture seeks to conserve and rehabilitate the land we grow our food on. It is largely focused around topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing the ecosystem around the crops, supporting biosequestration, increasing the resilience of crops to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.
Some of the practices include recycling as much farm waste as possible, and adding composted material to the soil to promote the growth of bacteria, fungi, worms, and other soil-nourishing organisms.
Depending on where you live (i.e. What country, region, etc.) will determine what cover crops, plant pairings, and plants you grow, as climatic conditions will vary from place to place. Be sure to research what plants to grow in your area for regenerative gardening. I live in Australia, so I chose the plants best suited to my area.
Regenerative Gardening Practices
How to apply regenerative farming practices to your own little (or big) home garden.
Planting cover crops helps to protect any barren soil from the harsh elements, like the sun or heavy rain. It also prevents moisture loss, and promotes biodiversity in the soil.
In nature, you would never find large spaces of land bare and exposed, as this leaves the soil open to erosion, moisture loss, and makes it dry and compact.
Instead, you’ll see places like rainforests which are completely covered in a variety of different plants, leaving not one inch uncovered or open to exposure. Cover crops act as living mulch to anchor the soil and protect it from being washed away.
How do Cover Crops Work?
Each time a new plant is grown, it draws nutrients out from the soil. Once those plants have been harvested, the nutrients used need to be replaced to prevent soil from becoming barren with time.
Certain cover crops have the powerful ability to “fix” nutrients like nitrogen and carbon dioxide into the soil from the atmosphere, making them an important tool in maintaining and promoting soil fertility without the use of chemicals.
Cover crops also play a part in the organic no-till method. Tilling is a common practice used amongst farmers, but it damages the soil and kills the healthy array of microbes, and is a huge part of why we’re losing so much of our topsoil.
When finished with your cover crop, a roller crimper can be used to roll over the plants to create a mulch that’s weed-suppressing.
What are Good Cover Crops to Grow?
That all depends on timing.
If you’re planning on waiting a while before growing plants for food, it’s recommended to combine a small grain (like oats, barley, or rye) with a legume (which is a nitrogen-fixing plant, so things like peas or vetch) to reap the best results (this no-till cover crop 13 seed mix was one recommended by Chelsea Debret from One Green Planet).
On the other hand, if you plan on a shorter time period before planting, some “green manure” crops (or quick-growing, tender crops), are a better option as they will outcompete weeds, and when you’re finished with them, they can provide some ‘easily-digested, supple foodstuff’ (as Chelsea puts it) for the soil microorganisms. This includes plants like buckwheat and field peas (this Outside Pride buckwheat cover crop seed was recommended to be a good mix).
More Cover Crops to Incorporate
More examples of cover crops include Austrian winter peas, alfalfa, mustard, and:
- Hairy vetch, a great legume cover crop most often used in vegetable gardens as it has wonderful nitrogen-fixing abilities. It’s a good choice for those who live in colder climates and drought conditions (as it’s quite resilient), and can be planted in a range of soil types and pH levels. It’s recommended to plant hairy vetch during the late summer or early autumn, and mow it down in spring. Once the crop has been cut down, you’re free to plant your vegetables directly in the resultant mulch a few weeks later.
- Red clover, a legume which delivers plenty of nitrogen and biomass to the soil that greatly benefits your garden. If using, plant your clover seeds among your rows of growing vegetables anytime between spring to early autumn.
- Winter rye, a winter cover crop suitable for the cooler, frostier months. It’s recommended to sow winter rye in the late summer or early autumn, after you’ve finished harvesting your vegetables. It grows quickly and vigorously, and will resume growth in spring, at which time you can mow it down and allow the winter rye biomass to work into your soil.
- Annual rye grass, is quick to germinate and better at controlling weeds than legume cover crops. Depending on what you’re needs are for your garden, you can plant your annual rye grass seeds among your vegetables or wait until you’ve harvested your vegetables before planting rye grass as a winter cover crop. In the spring, mow it down and let it and decompose into the soil, delivering a an array of nutrients. Just note that grasses don’t increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil, which is why pairing grasses with a legume cover crop is important.
Reduce Soil Exposure
Another important part of regenerative gardening is planning what succession crops you’ll be growing after the current ones have been harvested.
Ideally you want to pull one crop and plant another in the same day. This not only helps increase the overall yield potential of your plants, but also decreases the amount of time the soil is left exposed. This is why planning your succession crops in advance is really important.
Another practice to cultivate is using sown pathways. This is where you seed the exposed pathways in annual rye for a green pathway that requires minimal maintenance, smothers weeds, and increases organic matter in soil.
If you’re looking for a simpler approach to this method, just cover your pathways with straw or leaves to help the soil retain its moisture and increase nutrient quantity. Alternatively, you can use landscape fabric (this weed barrier landscape fabric by Southwest Boulder & Stone is really good).
No More Tilling (Zero-Tilling)
One of the things you can gladly say ‘au revoir’ to is tilling!
Tilling simply means to turn over and break up the soil. This can be done with anything from an engine-powered tiller, a cultivator fork, or even a deep spade. Tilling is often used by organic farmers and gardeners as a way of preventing weeds without the use of chemicals. It’s also seen to help incorporate plant matter, biomass, and nitrogen into the soil, and promote a healthier and organically derived succession crop.
When you switch to regenerative gardening, tilling is no longer required. Read more about no till gardening and how to cultivate a thriving garden with minimal soil disturbance here.
One of the main problems with tilling is it degrades the soil overtime, weakening its structural integrity and its overall ability to retain moisture and withstand erosion.
What’s more, tilling releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere. As plants need carbon to grow (among other nutrients), releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere not only contributes to climate change, but removes this important nutrient from the soil.
Instead of Tilling, Try These Methods
Rather than till, there are other practices to cultivate as part of regenerative gardening:
- Implementing a permanent bed system. This involves using the same soil season-to-season which helps retain soil structure.
- Using sheet composting. This involves covering your garden bed with cardboard, compost, leaves, or straw over the winter.
- Practicing broadforking. Using a broadfork, this method helps to loosen the soil without inverting it, thereby maintaining the soil structure.
As well as growing annual crops, incorporating some perennials into your garden can help sequester carbon and strengthen soil structure.
Perennials have a much longer life span compared to annuals. They grow at a much slower rate and are able to forge deep roots that help to fortify the soil.
Because of their deep roots and prolonged soil coverage (they don’t leave soil exposed for part of the year), they can help reduce soil erosion and sequester more carbon.
As perennials live for years, carbon-capturing organic matter can build up around the plant over time. You will notice the top portion of a perennial will die back in winter, but new growth will start appear again the following spring from the same root system.
Types of Perennials
Some great examples of perennials include:
- Lavender, a member of the mint family, can grow almost anywhere. It’s drought-resistant, so perfect for climates where little rainfall occurs.
- Thyme requires very little water maintenance, and comes in over 200 varieties, so you’ll almost certainly find one that will thrive in your climate.
- Currants thrive for up to 15 years and are really easy to grow.
- Blueberries can grow as a sprawling bush or an upright tree, and are great for growing in acidic soil.
- Asparagus may take some time to establish, but once settled, these plants can live for 30 to 50 years!
- Garlic is really low-maintenance and takes up very little space in the garden. It is most commonly grown as an annual, but if you leave the small plants behind and harvest only the big ones, you’ll have a perennial garlic crop that regrows every year.
- Walking onions get their “walk” from the tiny bulbs that form at the tip of the leaf, called topsets. These bulbs cause the plant to bend and fall over, and these fallen topsets then root into the soil and grow into mature plants the next season. You can eat the entire plant, from the topsets to the hollow leaves and shallot-like roots.
This isn’t essential when it comes to regenerative gardening, as once you’ve established a healthy ecosystem and ground coverage with the plants of your choosing, the soil should begin to replenish and become healthy on its own. It should attract an array of plant-loving microbes back into the depths of the soil, and develop a lovely dark chocolate cake-like look to it (that’s when you know the soil is lush and healthy).
Different types of plants require different nutrients from the soil while they grow.
If you plant the same crop in the same areas of your garden year after year, this can strip the soil of its nutrients (and eventually cause soil to become barren). By rotating crops, you make use of the variety of nutrients available and allow different plants to take what they need, while allowing the soil to replenish its stores.
Soil is also full of bacteria, fungi and microorganisms that are important for maintaining soil health (kind of like our gut microbiome), but they can also carry disease. If you plant the same fruit, vegetable or crop in the same place each year, it increases its risk of disease as pathogens can linger behind once the crop has past, waiting for its next victims to come along. Changing up the plants you grow can help starve out disease.
Drawing up a little map of the garden and writing down what vegetables you planted and where can be very helpful when it comes to crop rotation and regenerative gardening.
Weed & Soil Solarisation
This method involves cleaning out the old crop (either by flail-mowing or hand-pulling) and layering clear plastic over the bed(s). It’s a great alternative to soil tilling.
When plant beds are covered with clear plastic (this greenhouse clear plastic film polyethylene covering or this Agfabric plastic covering are both highly recommended), a heated environment is created which kills weed seeds and pathogens, while also preparing the soil for direct-seeding.
Allow the soil to heat for at least 24 to 36 hours before removing the plastic.
If seed production did not occur, the remaining organic matter can be left in place to add to soil quality, or it can be removed and composted. From there, the soil is ready for direct-seeding!
Intercropping or Plant Pairing
Different plants require different nutrients, as well as spatial demands, varying amounts of sunlight, and more. Certain plants like living near each other, while others do not.
A common pairing (called “The Three Sisters”) is squash, beans, and corn. They grow well together due to their different shapes and nutritional needs.
Beans grow up the corn stalk while squash stays low to the ground, where its large leaves keep soil covered and protected. Beans help to draw nitrogen into the soil which is then used by the corn and squash.
In addition to planting different varieties of fruits and vegetables together, annual and perennial plants, like marigold or calendula, can be planted around food plants.
Marigolds and calendula flowers attract bugs and insects away and help cover surrounding soil without the need for planting competing crops that would fight for the same resources and nutrients.
Cardboard, newspaper, woodchips, straw or a combination of all these materials, can be used as mulch to help bring carbon back into the soil and encourage microbial growth.
The cardboard and straw cover helps prevent weed growth, promote soil repair, prevent soil erosion, and increase water retention.
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products. I am not a doctor. All opinions expressed are my own personal thoughts and feelings of the products mentioned. Check with your doctor or health practitioner if you are uncertain about trying out any of the products, recipes or tips mentioned in this post.
What are you growing in your garden at the moment? Do you use plant pairing to help control pests? What are some of your gardening tips? Share in the comments below.
Lots of love,
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Johnson, Samantha. (July 8, 2013). 5 Cover Crops for Your Small-scale Garden. Retrieved from https://www.hobbyfarms.com/5-cover-crops-for-your-small-scale-garden-3/
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Regenerative agriculture. (last edited: 14 October, 2020). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regenerative_agriculture
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