Regenerative Agriculture and the Garden

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

Regenerative Agriculture describes soil management practices that help to reverse climate change while rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil.  Through photosynthesis, plants remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. In addition to carbon sequestration, practices that increase soil organic matter also increase biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing water holding capacity and improving soil structure helping to reverse soil loss. 

Carbon cycle diagram with nature farm landscape illustration

While the movement was initially geared towards farmers, more and more gardeners, particularly those involved with the growing of annual crops, have adopted some of these principles recognizing the benefit for both the garden and the environment.   In fact, many of the practices have been employed by gardeners for years without realizing how the benefits for the environment.

Regenerative Agriculture aims to:

  • generate/build soils, increase soil fertility and health;
  • increase water percolation and water retention;
  • increase biodiversity, ecosystem health and plant resiliency;
  • increase carbon sequestration thereby helping to cleanse the atmosphere of excess CO2.

Specific Practices include:

  1. No-till/minimum tillage. Tillage breaks up soil and destroys soil structure. Tillage greatly increases soil erosion and releases carbon sequestered in the soil.  A secondary effect is soil capping and slaking that can plug soil spaces reducing water percolation creating  more water runoff and soil loss.

Conversely, no-till/minimum tillage, enhances soil aggregation, water infiltration and retention, and carbon sequestration. Some soils benefit from interim ripping to break apart hardpans which can increase root zones, improved soil structure and carbon sequestration. At a low level, chiseling in some beds may have similar positive effects.  Cracking the soil slightly allows amendments such as compost to infiltrate the soil without damaging it.  A broadfork can be a very effective tool here.

Lasagna gardening or Charles Dowding’s No Till Gardening Methods are good examples of these practices.  One can put away the roto-tiller and get a broadfork instead.

Fall garden after upper stalks have been removed leaving plant crowns and roots

2. Increase soil fertility biologically through application of cover crops,crop rotations, compost, and animal manures.  These increase the soil organic matter and restore the plant/soil biome which promotes the cycling of essential soil nutrients. Increased organic matter (OM) enhances soil structure, increases porosity which increases water infiltration and drainage.  Increased OM also stores and supplies micronutrients and enhances soil microbial populations. A tip for annual beds; When removing the plant in the fall, only remove the portion above ground.  Leave the root ball in the ground to decompose over winter.

3. Build biological ecosystem diversity with inoculation of soils with composts or compost extracts to restore soil microbial community population and functionality. Restore soil system energy through full-time planting of inter- crop plantings, multispecies cover crops, and borders planted for bee habitat and other beneficial insects.

Increased organic matter means more friable soil.  Friable soil means deep roots; increased biological activity mean more nutrients released for plant use and microbial diversity means less disease.  The result is healthy, vigorous plants that need less watering, less additional feeding/supplementation and less treatment for disease while sequestering carbon at the same time.  That is a win win!

“Earth is what we all have in common” Wendell Berry

Resources:

https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/ra101-section/ra101-definitions.shtml

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20211020-carbon-farming-a-better-use-for-half-earths-land

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