As I’m sure many green thumbs can attest, as new gardening concepts are introduced, we adapt our own gardening styles accordingly. I’m not referring to following the latest trend. I’m talking about learning something new and changing because of a love and respect for the environment. My gardening evolution over the years, as I learn new things, has included: planting for pollinators, drought, and heat tolerance; over-seeding with low-maintenance fescues and clovers in my lawn; adding more native plants to my gardens; not cleaning up and cutting back the entire garden in fall; etc. Regenerative gardening is one of those concepts that we are starting to hear a lot more about. There are elements of it I was already doing in my garden. However as I learn, I modify what I do.
At the heart of regenerative gardening is the soil. There is a whole web of activity happening below the surface. Roots and soil microbes form a complex network through which plants can access nutrients and water. Consequently, regenerative gardening requires a no-dig approach, one that does not disturb that web of activity, but that sequesters carbon dioxide in the soil so that it is not released into the atmosphere.
Regenerative gardening practices in a home garden
On a larger scale, regenerative agriculture is used by farmers to create more sustainable food systems. On a smaller scale, we can apply regenerative gardening concepts to our own gardens. If you’re already focused on building healthy soil using organic growing techniques and completely avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, taking a no-till approach, as well as planting to increase diversity, you’re already applying regenerative techniques.
I like to think the little microcosm I create in my own garden can make a difference. It’s my own way to help fight climate change, even if it’s a drop in the bucket. In her book, Grow Now, which I mention below, author Emily Murphy talks about “the power of our patchwork of gardens,” reinforcing that what I do in my garden, however small, is important.
Feeding the soil from your own garden
Applying a layer of compost to your garden provides a host of benefits, including adding nutrients and increasing water retention, which will help your plants, especially in drought conditions. It also helps minimize soil erosion. Our garden “waste”—grass clippings, leaves, stems, etc.—all can be broken down and put back into our gardens. Jessica wrote an article that breaks down the science behind making good compost, and provides creative ideas in another for using your fall leaves in the garden.
Reuse materials in your yard
Instead of putting all your yard debris to the curb, or taking it to the dump, leave it in a backyard garden and get creative. If you have room, of course. I’ve seen some beautiful fences and garden borders created by using twigs and sticks. You can also stack logs from felled trees to create privacy areas, or use them as furniture. There are lots of possibilities. When we had to take down an elm tree, we used the wood to create stools around the fire pit. If you’re not using the wood to burn as fuel, you could also have it milled to build something else.
Modify your fall and spring garden cleanup
At Savvy Gardening, we’re big advocates of not doing a fall cleanup and delaying a spring cleanup to help overwintering insects and other small garden denizens. Leaves are gently raked into the garden to feed the soil instead of all that organic matter being packed into yard bags and sent to the curb. And I don’t cut everything back. The main plants I’ll pull in the fall are spent annuals and vegetables—tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, etc. Pests and diseases can overwinter in the soil, so in my vegetable garden it’s a priority to clear away plants.
Here are a couple of thorough articles that explain what to do (and what not to do):
If you’re not growing fall crops or overwintering certain vegetables, like carrots, cover crops can add valuable nutrients back to fallow raised beds and in-ground gardens. These “green manures” as they’re called can also act as a living mulch, suppressing weeds that would take advantage of a bare garden.
Plant with purpose
Whether you want to grow a food forest or expand a perennial garden, try to be mindful of what you are planting. If this hot, dry summer has shown me anything, it’s that drought tolerance in plants is essential. When choosing plants, think resilience. What’s going to survive in the extreme conditions of a garden area, whether it’s wet or dry?
I’ve been really trying to focus on adding native plants to my gardens. These are plants that you can find in nature, and that have adapted to your specific climate. Some of my new favorites, because of their pretty flowers, include prairie smoke, perennial basil, and wild bergamot. Liatris is another fave that has expanded in my front yard garden, and that looks interesting through the winter months.
In trying to foster biodiversity in my gardens, I’ve also been focusing efforts on removing invasive species. One garden that was full of lily-of-the-valley and common daylilies is ready to be planted and built into a new garden. I need to focus on building the soil and I’m thinking of planting berry bushes in that space. This would be my own little version of a food forest.
Welcome wildlife into your garden
While I can do without certain garden visitors (ahem, I’m looking at you, skunks and deer), I like to think that my garden is a haven for beneficial insects, toads, snakes, bats, birds, and more. I created my pollinator palace as a refuge for pollinators, with special nesting tubes for mason bees. And I’m working to rewild bits of my property, which will help to shelter other garden visitors. This article shares tips on creating a four-season wildlife garden.
Rewild parts of your garden
Rewilding is another buzzword you’ve probably seen a lot of lately. Quite simply, it’s letting nature take over a space that was once cultivated or used for something else. Larger scale projects are restoring an ecosystem over a sizable area to what it once was. In a home garden, it might mean dedicating an area of your own backyard to becoming an unmanicured space. You could dig in a small selection of native plants and then don’t touch! You essentially let nature do the rest.
Regenerative gardening resources
This article is just an introduction to regenerative gardening. If you’re looking for more information from a home gardener’s perspective, there are two books I would recommend that recently came across my desk. Grow Now by Emily Murphy outlines how our own gardens can go a long way towards nurturing biodiversity and improving soil health. She articulately explains the science of regenerative gardening, and provides advice on how to create habitat, attract pollinators, and grow our own food, while diving into other gardening concepts, like food forests.
The second book is actually called The Regenerative Garden. It is written by Stephanie Rose, the creative mind behind Garden Therapy. (Disclaimer: I got an advanced copy and wrote an endorsement of the book, which appears on the back cover.) Rose is really good at breaking down a concept into easily digestible information and DIYs that home gardeners can attempt. Each chapter comes with gentle suggestions on a scale of good, better, and even better, so as not to overwhelm the reader.
Rewilding Magazine also presents regenerative ideas on its website and in its newsletter as part of its aim to educate about global rewilding projects, as well as conservation efforts that happen closer to home. It includes actionable tips home gardeners can follow on their own properties.