Garden writer and soil ecologist Becky Searle of Sow Much More explains...
What is Regenerative Gardening
“Regenerative gardening is gardening for the future. It’s a way in which we can all take steps to limit climate change through our gardening – however small those steps. So, make your gardening count!”
- Dalefoot Cofounder Professor Jane Barker
Regenerative gardening is becoming one of the latest horticultural trends and with good reason. Its popularity reflects the changing mindset of gardeners. Regenerative gardening focuses on working with nature to build ecosystems and healthy soil in our gardens.
Using regenerative gardening practices, we can build resilience in our gardens and contribute to local and global biodiversity.
What is regenerative gardening?
Regenerative gardening is the practice of building biodiversity and soil health in your garden. We observe the natural processes around us and try to incorporate them into our gardening. Regenerative gardening should always increase the natural health of your garden and aim to improve it year after year.
Focussing on biodiversity and soil, regenerative gardening uses no dig practices to build soil health. We recognise that the soil ecosystem is a vital part of a garden’s ecosystem.
Building soil health
There are many great reasons to build soil health in your garden. The first is that healthy soil grows healthy plants. Healthy soil is fantastic for several reasons:
1. Healthy soil negates the need for liquid fertilisers.
The organisms in the soil act like a gut for our plants, making nutrients available for our plant roots. Plants can only access the nutrients within the soil with the help of the soil microorganisms. The bacteria help to release nutrients from the organic matter and sediments in the soil. Then fungi help to transport the nutrients for the plant.
Plants have a reciprocal arrangement with the life in the soil. Plants send carbohydrates down through their roots to feed the soil life. If we use liquid fertilisers, we interrupt this reciprocity. This means that our plants rely on being fed with liquid fertilisers, and the life in the soil is no longer being nourished.
This is important because liquid fertilisers can contribute to the pollution of waterways and the degradation of soil. They are also mainly focused on three primary nutrients, leaving our plants without access to other vital micronutrients for healthy growth. In addition, some liquid fertilisers, when applied to soil, release nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
2. Healthy soil builds its own structure.
As the organisms in the soil move through the soil, coming to the surface to feed, or in the case of bacteria moving just a few millimetres in their lifetimes, they open up spaces in the soil. First, bacteria secrete sticky sugars called polysaccharides that glue the tiniest soil particles together. Fungi also excrete a glue called glomalin that helps to bind the less tiny particles together. This creates something called aggregates in the soil, which is that beautiful crumbly texture that is very desirable to gardeners. Then mycorrhizal fungi strands and plant roots help create stable soil structure. Soil structure built this way is well aerated and holds onto water well too. This makes it a great environment for our plants' roots. It's also incredibly hardwearing, making it less susceptible to erosion and degradation.
3. Healthy soil needs less watering and doesn’t get waterlogged.
Fresh water is one of the most precious resources on the planet, so using less of it is an excellent step towards becoming regenerative gardeners. As healthy soil builds its own structure, it creates an environment that can hold onto water. This is beneficial for the plants, which feed the life in the soil, and for the life in the soil, which need water to survive. The soil acts like a giant sponge, with water clinging to the soil aggregates and air filling the pores in between.
The life in the soil can create aggregation and aeration throughout the layers of the soil, meaning that water can pass right through it and into underwater aquifers when it rains. As it rains, water filters through the pores in the soil and creates a vacuum which draws down air. This actively aerates the soil even whilst it is raining.
4. Healthy soil can help suppress annual weeds.
Whilst weeds are a natural and perfectly healthy part of a garden ecosystem, they can get in the way and sometimes muscle out our smaller plants. However, weeds are essential food for soil life if the soil is bare or not carrying enough plants. The soil life depends on carbohydrates and sugars from plants, so when the soil is bare, it will encourage the growth of weeds by allowing populations of nitrifying bacteria to proliferate. These bacteria produce nitrates which help annual weeds achieve the fast growth they are famous for. As healthy soil is never depleted, it can be grown on all year round, and if we add organic matter to the surface when we are not growing on it, the soil life is fed through dead plant material instead. This means that the soil doesn’t need weeds to get food, and populations of nitrifying bacteria are kept under check.
How to Build Healthy Soil
Building healthy soil is easy; we simply have to let it do its own thing. We need to ensure that we are not adding chemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides (even applied in gel form to leaves), fungicides or fertilisers. All of these things imbalance the soil ecosystem and can cause it to degrade quickly. Digging also degrades the soil ecosystem by breaking apart fungal hyphae and exposing organisms that are adapted for life under the soil to sunlight and air. It also breaks down the glues that hold together aggregates in the soil, degrading the soil’s natural structure.
Applying a compost mulch in the no-dig gardening style once a year replenishes the organic matter we take away from our gardens by harvesting food and clearing away dead plants. It replicates how nature replenishes the dead organic matter in the soil by allowing leaves to fall in autumn. There is one key difference, though; leaves applied to your garden, like in forests, can cause problems in the UK climate as they create habitat for slugs and woodlice. So, we allow the first part of the breaking-down process to happen on our compost heaps, away from our plants. Then, when the compost starts having the texture of soil, we add it to our beds, and it continues to break down, feeding the life in the soil and building soil health.
Allowing parts of your garden to rewild is a powerful and easy way to practice regenerative gardening. By simply not mowing a small portion of your lawn, you will soon find that the number of plant species increases. You will begin seeing wildflowers, which will bring in insects and, in turn, insect predators such as birds. If you can give more space, you will see more benefits and wildlife visiting your garden.
Rewilding your garden is one of the easiest ways to attract nature into your space and build habitats. Ecosystems will build themselves when they are left alone to do so, and
There has never been a more critical time to build ecosystems in our gardens and encourage biodiversity. The area of gardens in the UK is estimated to be around 433,000 hectares. In England, gardens occupy over four and a half times the size of our national parks. This makes them an enormous ecological asset if they are used as such.
We can use our gardens to create ecosystems and plant flowers for bees. We can develop chemical-free environments for wildlife to feed and take refuge. Creating several habitats in your garden can provide safe places for insects and animals to hibernate. Now, more than ever, this is of paramount importance.
Regenerative Gardening and Climate Change
The unrelenting march of global warming is already putting pressure on our nation's insects, which some argue will feel the heat first. Many insects in this country are perfectly adapted to cooler climates. Many species will need to move their ranges further north to cope with the changing temperatures. The problem that they face with this is that much of their habitat has now disappeared and become fragmented. As gardeners, we can provide essential stepping-stones for these tiny climate-change refugees on their journey north.
Regenerative gardening can also help tackle climate change in a rather more head-on way; by sequestering carbon. If you have a garden, you can build your own carbon sink, helping to draw carbon down from the atmosphere and store it safely in your garden. You can do this by composting and adding compost to your garden and not digging. When we dig our soils, we turn stored, stable carbon into carbon dioxide, which releases into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.
Regenerative gardening is about making our gardens better for the environment. Of course, we can do this by improving our gardens and our own soil, but we can also use our gardens to reduce our impact on the planet in other ways.
If you want to be a regenerative gardener, you may also wish to grow your own food. By growing your food, you can guarantee that it is fresh, local, and organic. In addition, you can grow your food to benefit your local wildlife and build carbon in your garden by growing a diversity of plants and taking care of your soil.
Connecting with Nature
By encouraging nature into your outside space, you are presenting yourself and the other occupants of your house with a unique opportunity to connect with some of your native wildlife. This is particularly important when you have children. Allowing children to form these connections will teach them the importance of nature and of looking after it. Without experiencing the joy of bees flying heavily from flower to flower or watching tadpoles become froglets, it isn't easy to understand the importance. This is something that we can learn in our later years too. By providing easy-access nature in your garden, you can help others form a special appreciation for the bees, butterflies, birds and more that share our space.
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
We must limit outside inputs as we aim to make our gardens work positively for nature and the environment. This means reducing the number of things we buy for our gardens and reusing items where possible (or sharing with neighbours and friends). If we must throw something away, try to recycle it where possible. If you need to buy something new, it’s a good idea to ensure it can be recycled or composted before purchasing.
Composting is the ultimate in reducing, reusing, and recycling, so set up your own compost heap if you can. There is a little more to it than just throwing everything on, so create a healthy compost heap by ensuring a good balance of “green” and “brown materials.
How to do Regenerative Gardening
• Build soil health; Keep your garden chemical free and try no dig gardening. By composting and adding organic matter to our gardens, we can build soil health and create our own carbon sinks.
• Encourage Biodiversity; rewild your garden, or part of your garden or create habitats and grow flowers for your local wildlife. This will help insects and other animals find food and safe places to live, helping preserve global and local biodiversity.
• Reduce, reuse, and recycle; we should seek to reduce inputs into our garden. This includes buying things new where we could make our own or purchasing second-hand and reusing items. If we must throw something away, recycle it, if possible, but only throw things away if they aren’t useful to you or anyone else.
• Grow food; Growing food ensures that we eat in a way that is good for the planet and us. We can have fresh, local and organic produce for little to no cost to us and our environment.
So if you have a garden or outside space, you can use it as a powerful force for good and encourage others to do so too. By gardening in a regenerative way, we can restore tired soils, rebuild fragmented habitats and provide spaces for nature. The best part is that it's tremendously enjoyable and brings us and those around us closer to nature.
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