"Regenerative gardening means practicing gardening in a holistic way that regenerates the soil, our bodies, our living environment, and our planet," says Shangwen Chiu Kennedy, a landscape and urban designer who serves as Managing Director of the Inn at Moonlight Beach, the world’s first WELL-Certified Hotel (which has its own large biodynamic garden). "It focuses on putting nutrients back into the soil, resulting in plants capturing and storing carbon from atmospheric CO2 in the soil while also improving soil health, crop yields, water resilience, and nutrient density. This results in more nutritious food for us."
The practice can require a bit more effort and investment upfront than "regular" gardening, but Acadia Tucker, regenerative farmer and author of Growing Perennial Foods, Growing Good Food, and Tiny Victory Gardens, says it's worth it. "Once you've built this ecosystem, it's actually much easier to grow food," she says. "In my experience, the weeds have been a lot less and the soil is healthy, so I'm not having to fertilize or bring in external weed-killers or other pesticides. If you do it right, it starts to kind of take care of itself, and that's that regenerative aspect."
And while the impact of your humble garden may feel insignificant in the face of a global crisis like climate change, the effects are cumulative. "On your own small scale, you're doing a really important thing as an individual to reverse the effects of climate change, and I like to extrapolate that out," Tucker says. "Imagine if you, your neighbors, your family, and so on are all doing this in their backyard—as a cumulative action, it really can be quite powerful."
Intrigued and inspired? Keep reading for pro tips on how to start practicing regenerative gardening in your own backyard.
10 tips for practicing regenerative gardening
1. Refrain from tilling
The most crucial component of regenerative gardening is soil health. "Before we can grow anything, we have to make sure we have fertile soil that is hydrated and life-giving," says Kennedy. "We spent six months working on our soil alone at our biodynamic farm at the Inn before planting anything. The best soil is hydrated, aerated, and has a thriving population of microbes and worms."
To foster soil health before planting, many gardeners practice tilling, or turning over and breaking up soil; however, Tucker enthusiastically advises against it. "The first thing I tell homeowners is to ditch that rototiller," she says. "You want to be able to preserve the unique flora and fauna that you already have in your soil, and every time you till it's basically like a tornado going through your home—you're destroying the small pockets in between soil particles that house all these amazing microorganisms that will help you grow food that much easier." Tilling also releases carbon dioxide from the soil into the atmosphere, which is detrimental for the health of the environment.
Instead, Tucker and Kennedy both recommend a method Tucker calls "sheet mulching." It involves laying moistened cardboard down over your garden bed, then covering that cardboard with green materials such as grass clippings and vegetable waste. Kennedy recommends leaving the soil alone under the sheet mulch for six weeks before planting so it doesn't dry out or lose its volatile elements to the sun and atmosphere. "This replenishes and regenerates the soil so that it’s revived for another round of planting," she says.
2. Feed your plants from your compost pile
Fertilizing your garden with compost materials is another soil-health practice that comes highly recommended by the pros. "Good composting practices help to amend existing soil," says Kennedy. And it reduces or eliminates the need for fertilizers—even organic ones, adds Ian Frederick, landscape expert at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to growing the organic movement through rigorous research, farmer training, and consumer education.
"For small home gardening 101, you can purchase ready blended organic soil and compost to mix with your soil to start," says Kennedy. "And in the meantime, start the practice of recycling your organic waste from home and the garden and generating your own compost to replenish the soil regularly. A compost bin or a small rotating composter works very well for small spaces."
Kennedy utilizes two different methods for speeding up the composting process. The first is vericomposting, which uses earthworms to convert nutrient-dense materials, such as food waste and green crop residue, into forms absorbable by plants. The second is bokashi fermentation, which speeds up the composting process by adding yeast to the process.
3. Plant a diverse crop
One of the trademarks of regenerative gardening is crop diversity. "By planting the same types of plants in the same locations year after year, the soil in those areas becomes depleted by heavy draws of the same nutrients," says Kennedy. "By swapping the location of nightshades, such as tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, with umbels like carrots, parsnips, and fennel one season and legumes the third season, you are providing a nutrient draw balance and regenerating the soil for the nightshade crops again."
Tucker notes that planting a diverse array of crops—not just season after season but within the same season—can also act as an insurance policy of sorts against pests. "If you get a pest invasion that hits one crop, you still have all your other crops free to harvest, so you're less likely to use pesticides or herbicides," she says.
4. Practice companion planting
Companion planting is another helpful technique for growers looking to optimize the health of their garden. "Growing certain combinations of plants together can make them more productive because of their symbiotic nature in nutrient requirements and growing needs," says Kennedy. "Some nice examples are: tomato, basil, and marigold; corn, beans, and squash; and onions, strawberries, and chard."
Such strategic planting can further reduce the need for pesticide use, too. Tucker, for example, plants radishes next to her bok choy, because the flea beetles that would otherwise eat her bok choy instead eat the radish leaves—which she doesn't need to harvest anyway. This is known as trap cropping.
Planting aromatic herbs in with your desired fruit and vegetable crops serves a similar purpose, Tucker says, because the strong smell of herbs tends to deter bugs and larger animals like deer and bunnies. "It's not foolproof, though," Tucker cautions. "There's an old farmer saying: You plant some for yourself, and you plant some for the thieves."
5. Utilize cover crops if possible
The term "cover crops" is used to refer to crops that are planted to protect and enhance the soil rather than to be harvested, and while they're commonly used in regenerative agriculture, Tucker notes that they can be difficult to incorporate into a small garden bed. "Cover cropping in small spaces can take a bit more time and effort than the average gardener may want to pursue," says Tucker. "On a larger scale, they have these awesome machines called crimpers, which usually hook up to a tractor and are used to flatten any cover crop, essentially killing it in place. It's not as convenient to do that on a small scale."
To solve for this issue, she suggests using a cover crop that is easily killed off, naturally, in the winter—which obviously only works if you live in colder climates that experience frost.
More specifically, Tucker recommends using a legume, e.g. field peas or clovers, as a preferred cover crop. "They have this relationship with bacteria that actually helps to add nitrogen into your soil," she explains. "So that's a way to naturally fertilize your soil."
Other cover crops that can be advantageous are those with really long roots, like grasses or winter rye. "Those are traditionally better for soils that are really hard and compact, because those deep roots will go down and help to break up that soil without tilling," Tucker says. "And then when that grass dies off, all that organic matter is left underground, so it's allowing you to put organic matter underground without disturbing the soil—which is really hard to do."
Kennedy, meanwhile, recommends growing green cover crops that you can harvest weekly. "At the Inn, we often grow microgreens such as sunflower sprouts as a green cover crop and harvest it in a week," she says. "Its roots create organic matter that adds to soil nutrients."
6. Add flowers
Tucker and Kennedy both like to add seemingly superfluous flowers into their produce gardens, because they can actually play an important role in the overall health of the ecosystem. "Planting food crops for our pollinators is a really important thing that we can all do, specifically because they've taken a pretty big hit in the last few years—the large-scale use of pesticides has knocked our insect populations down, and all of those other animals like birds and bats that depend on those insects for food," says Tucker. "So, making your garden a space where pollinators will come eat is just as important as making sure you're maintaining healthy living soil."
7. Pack 'em in
Seed spacing is another consideration for the regenerative gardener. Kennedy is a proponent of intensive planting, which basically entails planting crops close together. "It allows us to make more efficient use of the space, reduce the growth of weeds, and keep the soil shaded to help it retain moisture and limit erosion," she explains.
8. Give the lawn around your garden a strategic trim
If you can do so without irking your homeowner's association, John Long, landscape expert at the Rodale Institute, suggests mowing your lawn to different heights, with the taller area on the periphery. "Keep an area of your lawn cut high, and then cut the stuff right around the garden low," he says. "That'll deter rodents from going into your garden because they don't like to be out in the open."
9. Garden according to the moon
Kennedy is an advocate of gardening in accordance with the lunar cycle. "The main opportunity for plants at the Inn to replenish themselves is when we harvest fruits and flowers biweekly during the new moon and the full moon. This allows the garden to take a break and regenerate," she says. "During those days when the gravitational pull of the moon is strongest, we also deep water our gardens. This allows the plants to deepen their roots and strengthen their trunks."
10. Don't give up!
As you embark on your regenerative gardening journey, Tucker reiterates that it's normal to lose crops, and that you shouldn't get discouraged by such "failure." As a professional farmer and gardener, she says she kills plants all the time. "Gardening can be frustrating because you're dealing with elements you can't control, like the weather, but you can look at each season as a way to improve," she says. "Take a look at what didn't work last year and how you can make it better this year. If one thing didn't work, try something new—as long as that new thing is never tilling!"
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