We garden for a lot of reasons, don’t we? The fresh air, exercise, and the taste of that perfect garden tomato are all gratifying benefits to tooling around in the garden. The smell of basil and the sound of birdsong aren’t bad either.
Increasingly, though, we’re gardening as if our lives depended on it.
Industrial agriculture is destroying our soil. Every year, techniques such as monoculture (planting only one crop species over a wide area), chemical amendments, and tilling the soil are depleting both the structure and the biological health of the soil.
It’s no wonder some of us are looking at the ground we stand on and wondering if there is a better way. Although there is a lot of grim news out there on the state of our soil, there is a beacon of hope. Regenerative agriculture is an alternative to industrial agriculture that is being increasingly embraced by farmers, policy advocates, and even, to some degree, corporate America.
Amazingly, home gardeners can use a lot of the techniques of regenerative agriculture right in their own backyards.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
At its core, regenerative agriculture is about restoring soil health. It is a philosophy and set of practices that were employed by numerous Indigenous communities before the advent of industrial agriculture.
We depend on the ground beneath our feet to produce the food that sustains us. Soil health is critical to that food production. Beyond its role in feeding us, healthy soil helps protect us from flooding and drought by absorbing and releasing water.
There is no one method of practicing regenerative agriculture. Large and small farms and home gardeners may use one or many of these techniques to support soil health:
- Cover cropping
- No-till planting
Regenerative Methods Explained
Let’s break down what some of these regenerative methods look like in home gardens. The simplicity of some of them will amaze you. Once you have them in place, they may even create less work for you.
One of the simplest ways of protecting soil health is to create a barrier between the soil and the elements. Mulching garden beds prevents soil from being blown or washed away by harsh weather. By keeping soil in place, mulching gives the topmost layer of soil a chance to break down and become part of the underlying soil structure. Mulching also provides extra organic matter that can further break down and add nutrients to the soil. You can use many different materials as mulch. Shredded leaves, straw, seed-free hay, wood chips, and grass clippings are a few options.
Instead of throwing food and yard scraps out in the trash, you can use those materials to create a powerful soil amendment — compost. Compost is what’s left after soil organisms have broken down yard waste and food scraps. It is rich with nutrients that soil and plants need to thrive. Farmers and gardeners who are concerned about soil health use compost to feed their soil.
Cover crops are planted to replenish the soil. They are not intended for eating or bringing to market. Cover crops are usually planted in the fall to provide a “living mulch” to protect the soil. They do this by:
- Not leaving the soil bare over the winter
- Adding nutrients to the soil (while growing and when turned into the soil)
Cover crops also suppress weeds, making for less work come springtime.
Planting cover crops is as easy as sowing some peas or legumes, clover, rye, or hairy vetch seeds in your beds. Cover crops planted in the fall are cut and turned into the soil in the spring.
One of the most radical differences between industrial and regenerative agriculture is how the soil is prepared for planting. Tilling, the process of turning over the soil to loosen it, is one of the more detrimental aspects of industrial farming. Tilling the soil disrupts networks of living organisms that are vital for soil and plant health. It also breaks up soil structure which is what helps it hold water.
No-till planting seeks to disturb the soil as little as possible. In a working garden bed, that may mean moving the soil only as much as necessary to get your seeds or plants in the ground. Even better is to add organic matter to the soil and then plant in that material. When planting a new bed, no-till methods smother existing plants before amending the soil in nutrient-dense layers of organic matter.
One More Benefit of Regenerative Methods — Maybe
There has been a lot of talk about the possibility of regenerative methods helping to trap carbon underground. Project Drawdown estimates that if regenerative agriculture were adopted on a grand scale, it could pull up to 23 gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere over the next 30 years. Yale 360 cautions that some of those claims may be overstated and that more data is needed. We can hope, though.
Imagine: healthier plants, healthier soil, and the chance to help reduce carbon in the atmosphere. That tomato may taste even better next year!
This article was originally published on October 18, 2021.