How to Build a Regenerative Garden
Regenerative gardening is a restorative way to grow food and flowers, revitalizing our soil. We can all take small steps to lower our carbon footprint by gardening more naturally. Join small-scale farming expert Jenna Rich as she explores what regenerative gardening means and how you can take small steps now to bring these practices into your own backyard, helping to mitigate climate change one garden at a time.
Growing food and flowers is one of the most natural things we can do as humans. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of our existence. In conventional and mono-crop farming, we’ve strayed away from the natural act of producing food for our communities and families. Monocrop and conventional farms that plant for large-scale growth and economic gain have environmental consequences. Regenerative farming can help us mitigate them.
Mono-cropping uses the land to grow one thing, like soybeans or canning tomatoes, over and over. This has led to the exploitation of natural resources and has had some seriously damaging effects on our topsoil.
Regenerative gardening is how our ancestors grew. By shifting practices now, we can revitalize our soil so future generations can grow their own healthy food, too.
Let’s get into it.
What Is Regenerative Gardening?
Regenerative gardening, or regenerative agriculture, is the idea of getting back to our roots (literally and figuratively). It means caring for, nourishing, and replenishing our soil without external fertilizers. It means creating a true ecosystem of balanced nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that work together to build healthy, productive gardens.
Reimagine our relationship to soil and how its health equates to our health and that of our planet. This low-carbon footprint gardening method is better for the environment than traditional farming. It doesn’t rely on practices like heavy tillage and mono-cropping.
Regenerative gardening is a way of holistically managing land while patiently rebuilding what has been lost from our soil. Consider how gardening affects the health of our planet (yes, even in your garden plot).
Regenerative Gardening With Animals
Regenerative agriculture sometimes uses livestock to decrease the need for external amendments. When grasses grow long and lush, they are the perfect grazing snack for cattle, sheep, or other livestock animals. In turn, more grass photosynthesizes, storing more carbon in the soil. This creates a full food cycle for the animals and the soil. The manure can then be aged and used to fertilize vegetable-growing beds.
Practice safe food management when allowing grazing animals to leave manure behind in fields. Timing has to be right when rotating livestock where you grow food. You must ensure fresh manure doesn’t come into direct contact with produce about to be harvested.
Generally, you should wait 90-120 days after grazing livestock in a plot before harvesting produce. If you have or are seeking organic certification to sell your produce, check with local officials for specific guidelines.
There are ways to procure animal waste even if you don’t have the space to raise the animals yourself. For a rich source of compost, befriend a nearby cattle farmer. Maybe you can trade veggies for cow manure to use in the garden! Just be aware of your source’s practices to ensure their way of raising and grazing animals aligns with your beliefs.
Why Practice Regenerative Gardening?
Growing regeneratively can:
- Restore and maintain soil health
- Reduce topsoil erosion
- Control pests and weed pressure
- Reduce inputs
- Increase yields
- Help your garden maintain moisture
- Require less labor, leaving you more time to simply enjoy your garden
Admittedly, there is only so much small-scale agricultural practices can do to reverse these effects. Awareness of how everything we do in our gardens affects the world around us helps us understand the bigger picture.
The Bigger Picture – Climate Change And Agriculture
Humans have pumped carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, factory farming animals, and deforesting. The excess carbon in the atmosphere causes temperature to increase. This leads to melted glaciers and what we know as climate change.
Climate change appears in extreme weather patterns like flooding and drought, unseasonably colder and hot days, and even food insecurity. It’s happened quickly due to the rapid increase in population.
Climate change affects small-scale farms everywhere. My farm in New Hampshire deals with snowier winters, which cause soil to be cooler for longer. Cooler spring temperatures make it difficult to succession plant and start the growing season. I must increase the use of greenhouse heaters. Erratic weather patterns, like flooding, cause crop loss throughout the summer.
Now, let’s learn how we can start practicing regenerative gardening.
How To Build a Regenerative Garden
Simply sustaining your farm, just giving the soil what it needs to get through the season, doesn’t set up your land for long-term success. Encourage your soil to sequester carbon, retain moisture, and break up compaction to create a diverse ecosystem, including worms, fungi, and beneficial microbes. These result in increased yields and improved soil structure while mitigating climate change.
Let’s discuss how small-scale gardeners, farmers, and homesteaders can build a regenerative garden.
Start By Regenerating Your Soil
Soil is the start of everything in gardening. Crops don’t perform in heavily tilled, nutritionally depleted, or eroded soil. Germination rates and yields will decrease.
If you are new to gardening (or have new land), learn all you can before attempting to grow in your soil. Depending on past tillage interactions, weather, and growing region, every soil is different in type and fertility. First, work with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agent to find out more about your region’s soil.
There are a few ways you can make sure your soil is healthy. Let’s start with the basics:
Cover crops are grown between plantings of cash crops meant for consumption. These useful plants add fertility, protect the soil from erosion, decrease weed pressure, and attract beneficial insects to your garden. The most popular cover crops include grasses and legumes, but others can include brassicas and cereals.
How can cover crops be used?
Say you grow a lot of quick greens, such as spinach, arugula, and mustard greens in the spring. When those come to an end, the soil is still a bit too cool to transplant tomatoes. This is a great time to sow a quick cover crop. It ensures coverage during spring rain and can add back nutrients.
Buckwheat is the perfect cover crop to use at this time. It germinates in temperatures as low as 45°, and the plot can be used again in a few short weeks. Buckwheat grows quickly from seed and can be terminated easily. You can use the debris as mulch. This works best if done before flowering in 3 or 4 weeks.
If left a bit longer, its tiny white flowers provide nectar for many pollinators. Even though it reseeds easily, it’s a cinch to pull out if it pops up in an unwanted area.
Buckwheat is known as a phosphorus scavenger because its root system helps pull up and stabilize the macronutrient into an available form to future plants. If you let it flower, it nourishes pollinators. Buckwheat can do it all.
To add organic matter and build fertility
I love using an oat and field pea blend on fields that need extra TLC or in new garden plots. If you’re starting fresh, this is the perfect blend. It adds organic matter, keeps weeds from popping through, and sequesters nitrogen. If you sow in the fall and your area has a hard frost, it dies back in winter. This leaves a thick layer of healthy mulch on the soil to protect it from erosion.
Neither of these crops will return in the spring, making it a great winter soil cover crop. If you wanted coverage immediately in the spring, you could even add some winter rye to the mix. It survives frost and continues to grow in the spring. The possibilities are endless!
To create mulch for future crops
Another great way to use cover crops regeneratively: sow them, allow them to grow, and terminate them at the right stage. Then, plant another crop directly into the debris. The cover crop debris is referred to as “green manure.” An example of this is a summer cover crop of buckwheat.
As I mentioned, buckwheat roots stabilize phosphorus and make it available to the next crop. It must be left to decay and/or tilled under. This is called soluble phosphorus. Garlic needs phosphorus in the fall when first planted (in addition to other nutrients) to help them focus their energy beneath the surface.
So not only will the buckwheat provide this much-needed macronutrient for the future garlic crop, but its debris will also serve as green manure, add organic matter as it breaks down, and keep the soil surface weed-free and protect it from winter weather erosion.
To break up compaction
Anything with a strong, deep taproot can help break up soil compaction, especially when moving from a tilling to a no-till system where fields have been driven over repeatedly with a heavy tractor.
Try planting a field of Daikon radishes. Daikons can have up to a 24-inch taproot and, if left in the ground to rot, create humus for your soil, adding healthy organic matter. Bonus: After using them as a cover crop, you can eat them! Alternatively, you can allow them to rot in the ground, creating food for scavengers and soil microbiology, which in turn can add organic matter.
There’s a wide variety of crops to cover your soil that bring life beneath the surface, reduce weed pressure, keep topsoil from being washed away, and retain moisture. Many seed companies make it easy to decide which cover crop is the right one for your plot. There are filters and categories based on different needs you may have and even blends of seeds that will amplify the results.
Conservative Tillage Or Following No-till Practices
Decreasing and limiting the number of times you pass through your soil by tilling in a season will help maintain soil moisture levels, reduce the amount of weed seeds brought to the surface to germinate, keep your soil structure intact, and reduce your dependence on heavy machinery.
Practices like broad forking your beds will help aerate and loosen your soil, incorporate amendments, and prepare the soil for your next crop, leaving all the thousands of beneficial bacterial, fungal, and insect life beneath your garden beds happy and thriving. In comparison, tilling rips that soil structure apart, leaving the collective life forms to start all over from scratch.
Think of it as someone coming over to your house every few months and shaking the whole thing up, leaving you to clean up the mess. That’s what tilling does to all the life underground. It may seem like a simple method, but you are actually setting your garden back over and over again. Really, it has all the tools it needs to take care of itself.
Permanent raised beds, mulched paths, and heavy compost on each bed are a great way to start the no-till process if you are converting from a tilling system.
All crops we put into our gardens take certain nutrients and sometimes leave others behind. Crop rotation is intentionally rotating different families of crops to ensure your soil isn’t repeatedly depleted, and it also aids in adding nutrients for the next round of crops.
With proper crop rotation, we can naturally replenish our soil throughout the season, whether through intercropping, double-cropping, or cover cropping in between rounds of vegetables. As an example, legumes capture atmospheric nitrogen and encapsulate it in their roots by forming an interesting relationship between their root nodules and bacteria in the soil called rhizobia. In this example, legumes would be considered a plant-based fertilizer and negate the need for external fertilizer.
You may have heard the term “heavy feeder” before. This refers to crops like peppers, garlic, and tomatoes, which require a lot of specific nutrients at certain times to perform at their peak ability. Heavy feeders are generally crops that have to grow flowers, fruit, and leaves. You’ll want to be conscious of what crop you put in after a heavy feeder to ensure it has what it needs to produce good yields and stay healthy.
Not only is crop rotation important for soil fertility, but it can also break pest life cycles and the possibility of diseases being harbored in the soil. If you grow cucumbers in the same spot each year, you will see a decrease in productivity due to nutrient deficiencies and likely an influx of pests each season. Break the cycle, and you will see better results all around.
These are the six different crop families that should be rotated regularly.
- Alliums – garlic, leeks, onions, shallots
- Solanaceous vegetables or nightshades – potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant
- Cucurbits – cucumbers, squash, melons, pumpkins
- Brassicas – kale, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages
- Legumes – peas and beans
- Umbellifers – carrots, parsnips, fennel, parsley, dill
Here are a few examples of how you can use simple crop rotation to see the results of regenerative gardening in action:
- After your last bean harvest in the fall, cut back your plants, leaving the roots to break down in the soil. Legumes absorb nitrogen from the air and affix it in their root systems, and as they break down, the nitrogen will become available to crops grown in this space the following season.
- Give the soil a break from heavy-feeding peppers by planting onions afterward.
- Try planting tomatoes after carrots. They like the deeply aerated soil carrots leave behind.
Pro tip: Don’t plant cucumbers directly after summer beans. The nitrogen-rich soil will promote heavy foliage but not much fruit.
How To Plan A Crop Rotation
It’s not as hard as it may seem to create a home crop rotation. Using what you know about the different crop families and what each crop adds and takes away from the soil, chart out what you plan to grow this season.
- Make a color-coded key for yourself, giving each of the families of crops you grow a color.
- Create an outline of your gardening space.
- Recall what has been planted in each area and use your knowledge of what each crop gives and takes from the soil, then map out your garden based on spacing requirements.
Many gardening experts will recommend a six-year crop rotation plan but agree that a three-year rotation is usually acceptable. Although traditional crop rotation by crop family may not be practical in a small garden space, there are ways you can incorporate some of these methods and still see good results.
You can also intercrop to efficiently take advantage of small spaces while still practicing good plant companionship and rotation. The bottom line is to have a plan and have as much diversity at any given time to promote a thriving garden.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a garden planner that allows you to save up to five seasons worth of garden plots, which will help you plan each subsequent season using proper crop rotation.
Compost is typically used in the spring and fall, before the first plantings, and in preparation for winter months. In the spring, several inches of lush compost provides a nice, clean seedbed for direct sowing things like carrots, radishes, or spinach, providing nutrients to the new plants. When compost is spread in the fall, it is given several months to break down, adding organic matter and attracting earthworms and beneficial bacteria to the soil. This adds to the overall health of the soil.
Many home gardeners have compost bins, and lots on the market today come on a stand and feature a crank for mixing to ensure proper breakdown, provided that you’re adding both carbon-rich materials and nitrogen-rich materials. You can also build your own simple system. This is a great way to repurpose kitchen scraps like vegetable peels and eggshells by turning them into a new product to feed your future garden.
You can also purchase compost by the bag or yard. Again, ensure the company you buy it from is trustworthy and whose practices align with your beliefs.
Protect Your Soil With Mulch
Author of The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Growers Guide to Ecological Market Gardening Jesse Frost has three principles of no-till farming. These principles are to “disturb the soil as little as possible, keep it covered as much as possible, and keep it planted as much as possible.” Adding items such as grass clippings, mulched leaves, woodchips, or pine needles will help retain moisture in the soil and decrease weed pressure.
I mentioned using cover crop debris as green manure to keep the soil covered. This can also be considered a way to mulch future crops naturally. A great example of this is laying down a cover crop seed of your choice after you harvest garlic in the summer.
This could be buckwheat or a blend of oats and vetch. Once it’s ready to be terminated, cut or weed-whack it down and let it lie over the area to start breaking down. You can cover the area with a tarp to speed up this process if you’d like. Then transplant winter crops like Swiss chard or collard greens right into the debris!
The more diversity in your garden, both in plant life and wildlife, the more it will thrive. Think bees, bats, snakes, frogs, birds, and wasps. Everything has its purpose in a garden, and we need to know what they need, how they help, and how to keep them around.
Even something as simple as building a bat house or two, installing a simple waterer for birds and bees, or leaving some sunflowers to produce seed for the birds can help make these visitors feel welcome.
Less Lawn, More Food!
Another term you may have heard before is “rewilding.” This means allowing nature to take back some of what’s been cultivated by humans, such as manicured lawns. As a society, we have been trained to believe that perfectly trimmed shrubs and walkways deem us worthy of living in certain neighborhoods and that pots filled with annual flowers and green grass equate to “curb appeal.”
If you would like more space to garden in, why not tarp some of your lawn to kill back the grass, add cover crops to revitalize the soil, and put in some new raised beds or toss out some wildflower seeds? In my opinion, nothing is more stunning than a “yard” full of native flowers, buzzing bees, and fresh food to feed a family. Don’t be afraid to stop mowing and rewild some of your property.
Native plants are much more resilient to varying climate change conditions, including floods, drought, and prolonged cool and hot temperatures. They are adapted to your climate, serve as attractive food sources to native insects and critters, and help create nature-based solutions to climate change. Each year, they become more adept at dealing with whatever comes their way.
Planting more native plants and flowers around your garden and incorporating them into your landscaping will attract native insects and pollinators and help them thrive. Their strong root systems will keep your soil from eroding.
Tall native trees and shrubs will be a windbreak throughout all seasons and can potentially prevent snow from compacting your plots. Their berries will feed birds and critters when food is hard to find in winter and early spring months, and they will serve as an area for rest and protection for all sorts of animals. And best of all, native plants and flowers will also require less water, fertilizer, and maintenance.
Pro tip: Use the Native Plant Finder to find what will grow best in your area. You can also find a local gardening supply shop or contact your local NRCS agent as a starting point.
Regenerative agriculture causes carbon sequestration. This is the ability to grab atmospheric carbon and hold it in the soil in an available form for later use. This offsets or neutralizes the carbon that we’ve pumped out via burning fossil fuels, over-farming animals in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), and industrial agriculture practices. In simple terms, by using regenerative practices, we can remove some of the carbon from the atmosphere and store it back in our soil. This is what we want!
Sequestering carbon on a larger scale includes protecting our forestlands, re-foresting land, converting previously forested land back into forest, and creating new forests. Foresting is an inexpensive way to sequester carbon and possibly even create a new “carbon sink”, which is an area that takes in and stores more carbon than it puts out, also known as negative emissions.
Regenerative gardening is gardening. It is the way of our ancestors and the only path forward to a healthier planet. The most important thing is keeping the soil covered, rotating different crop families, growing native plants, and finding new ways to prepare and flip bed space that is healthier than heavy tillage.
With erratic climate patterns in so many parts of the country, preparing your garden for potentially high winds and heavy snow and rain will help keep your soil in place and nutrients intact while also allowing the millions of microbes living beneath the soil surface to thrive.
It takes planning and diligence, but together, we can put the pieces of our soil back together and grow healthy communities, all while helping mitigate climate change.