Agriculture is a surprisingly big contributor to the climate crisis, responsible for 9.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2018. And given that we can in no way do without it, we need to find ways to transform it.
One of the most promising ideas for transformation is to turn (or rather, to turn back) to regenerative agriculture.
You may have heard this term applied to farms and large-scale agricultural operations. But backyard gardeners in cities and suburbs, rental houses and townhomes, big lots and micro-yards can use regenerative farming principles to build more resilient gardens, with less work and less environmental damage. Here’s how.
First Off, What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a set of agricultural philosophies and practices that improve the land being farmed rather than depleting it. Regenerative farmers consider the area they farm as an ecosystem and find ways to support that ecosystem while they farm it.
In that ecosystem, what’s beneath the surface is as, if not more, important as what’s above it. Healthy soil contains an intricate network of microbes and fungi that feed off plant root exudates like sugar, and in turn, provide plants with nutrients. These networks improve the ability of the soil to hold water, balance key nutrients like nitrogen and stabilize the soil by giving it structure.
Regenerative farming is about paying close attention to that soil ecosystem, feeding it and improving soil function and health so that everything in that underground system can thrive.
What’s above the soil is, of course, important, too. The principles of regenerative agriculture include preserving diversity, not just of plant species, but of cultures and peoples. And they include protection of habitats, as well as protection of environmental and human health.
It’s a holistic way of farming that understands that there’s more to growing plants than plants.
How Does Regenerative Agriculture Differ from Modern Agriculture?
Industrial farming techniques and, to a lesser extent, modern gardening techniques, tend to be focused on maximizing the yields of single crops (or a few crops). To maximize yield, land is cleared and tilled so crop seeds won’t have to compete with weeds and won’t have to try to grow in compacted soil.
The problem with these modern methods is that plowing and tillage disrupts the soil’s microbial ecosystem, killing off beneficial microbes and disabling the soil’s ability to hold nutrients. Bare soil then becomes more prone to compaction, runoff and erosion, which further disrupts the vital networks needed to maintain nutrient-rich soil.
Because this way of farming depletes the quality of the soil (and, ironically, worsens the problems it was trying to address in the first place), modern agriculture and gardening has had to become input intensive to increase yields.
Gardeners and farmers need sometimes large amounts of water and fertilizers to replace the nutrients conventional practices robbed the soil of in the first place.
Ways to Introduce Regenerative Agricultural Practices to Your Backyard Garden
If you find yourself struggling with common gardening problems like water management, soil health, pests and weeds, it might be time to step away from conventional methods.
Here are some ways to adopt regenerative practices into your own gardening.
Basically, don’t disrupt the soil if you don’t have to. Don’t till it. Don’t fertilize it with artificial fertilizers. Don’t apply pesticides or artificial weed killers.
Instead of turning up the soil, try a no-till method. The University of Saskatchewan offers this guide to getting started.
Instead of fertilizing with artificial fertilizers, use compost instead. You can put down a 3-inch layer of compost in the fall and let it nourish the soil over the winter.
And instead of using pesticides, plant natural pest repellants like marigold. Or invite other animals that eat pests into your garden. Bats, for instance, are great at pest control. Chickens are, too, but they’re not conducive to you doing less labour.
To control weeds naturally, try sheet composting, where you put a layer of cardboard or thick mulch down over your garden in the fall and let it do the work.
Cover the Soil
One of the principles of regenerative farming is to minimize the amount of bare soil and the amount of time soil is left bare. One way to do this is through cover crops.
These crops aren’t for human consumption—they’re grown to reduce soil erosion, compaction and runoff and provide habitat for insects and wildlife. These fast-growing crops also outcompete weeds.
Sow cover crops as your primary crop is being harvested, as well as in pathways in between rows or garden beds. Some common, easy to grow crops include clover, alfalfa, buckwheat and hairy vetch.
Different plants draw and exude different nutrients from and into the soil. To keep nutrients balanced, regenerative farmers rotate crops and diversify.
Diversify your own garden by incorporating native species, especially perennials, that can help stabilize soil with their roots and give beneficial microorganisms and insects a secure home. Add pollinator-friendly plants to increase the diversity of the insect life around you.
Focus on the relationships between growing plants as you diversify. Instead of planting in conventional rows, try intercropping, i.e., planting a few species together so they can support each other.
The most famous example of intercropping is the Haudenosaunee “Three Sisters” approach, in which corn, beans and squash are grown together. The corn provides support for the beans, the beans supply nitrogen and the squash smothers weeds and shades the soil, keeping it moist. These kinds of companion plantings support growth, even during challenging growing seasons.
The concept of regenerative agriculture is not a new one. It’s been around for thousands of years, and only really went out of favour in much of the world because European colonists were convinced they were much better at farming than the Indigenous peoples whose lands they were stealing.
In fact, Arohi Sharma of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) astutely points out that the modern interest in this concept is more like “the dawning realization among more people that an Indigenous approach to agriculture can help restore ecologies, fight climate change, rebuild relationships, spark economic development, and bring joy.”
If those sound like things you can get on board with, try something old and turn your garden into a thriving new ecosystem.