Most contemporary gardens and landscapes rely on fertilizers, pesticides, and other soil amendments.
This is the exact opposite of what regenerative gardening aims to do.
Regenerative gardening focuses on non-invasive practices that cater to the natural soil composition rather than alter it.
Gardeners of all levels can help restore soil health on their properties using these techniques.
Improving soil health isn’t just about creating a more productive garden.
Regenerative gardening can have a direct impact on the soil’s ability to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, hold onto groundwater, and support biodiversity.
In other words, regenerative practices could be the key to more sustainable gardening as a whole.
How Is Regenerative Gardening Different From “Normal” Gardening?
Some regions feature soil that is unsuitable for popular garden plants.
Examples include soil with high sand or clay content and soil that has previously been overplanted and depleted of nutrients.
Planting non-native species can sap key nutrients from the soil. If steps aren’t taken to naturally replenish these resources, fertilizer must be used instead.
Wildlife removal can also have major repercussions when it comes to soil health. Most gardeners understand the importance of pollinators.
Decomposers like worms, fungi, and bacteria are also essential to their respective ecosystems.
In normal gardening, at least in many parts of the world, such issues are “fixed” with chemicals or physical processes.
Regenerative gardening practices focus on preventing soil depletion from occurring in the first place.
4 Characteristics of Regenerative Gardening
1. Minimal Tilling
There are plenty of common gardening practices that impact the environment in very obvious ways.
But you might be surprised to learn that tilling is one of the main practices opposed by regenerative gardening.
To the naked eye, tilling is good for garden soil because it breaks up compacted materials and improves aeration. On the microscopic level, however, it can do more harm than good.
Tilling the soil breaks up important fungal colonies. It also increases the rate of soil erosion and water run-off.
It’s important to note that tilling in regenerative gardening is prescribed on a case-by-case basis. Some types of soil do benefit from tilling.
The key is taking a conservative approach and only using this practice when necessary.
2. Organic Fertilizer
Adopting regenerative gardening practices does not necessarily mean ditching the fertilizer altogether. It just means using organic fertilizers instead of synthetic ones.
Take compost for example:
While compost is technically manmade, it’s really just a concentrated version of the decomposed material found in any ecosystem.
Responsible fertilization mimics the natural decomposition cycle as closely as possible.
3. Multi-Species Planting
Multi-species planting is more relevant in agriculture than within the average home garden.
But understanding the importance of this practice can shed light on how regenerative gardening works as a whole.
Every plant species has specific nutritional needs. As a result, planting a single species over an area of land (also known as monoculture) will lead to some nutrients being consumed at a higher rate than others.
Monoculture can also negatively impact biodiversity by eliminating habitats and food sources for wildlife.
Strategic multi-species planting fights the disproportionate consumption of resources and preserves the native ecosystem to some degree.
4. Cover Crops
Cover crops are a simple practice with incredible benefits. Think of cover crops as living mulch (but even better).
These crops are planted to maintain soil health when the land is not actively being used for agriculture.
The benefits of cover crops can range from preventing erosion to restoring essential nutrients to the soil.
Cover crops are commonly used in agriculture. However, this practice can also be adapted for the average lawn or garden.
Grass is a popular — though sometimes problematic — ground cover plant that protects the soil while also being aesthetically pleasing.
Other examples include clover, creeping jenny, and even moss.
What Are the Advantages of Regenerative Gardening?
The basic principle of regenerative gardening is restoring and maintaining soil health.
Perhaps the biggest motivator behind this movement is the potential to increase carbon sequestration.
Carbon sequestration refers to carbon molecules that are stored in the soil. Healthy soil can hold significantly more carbon than soil that has been physically or chemically altered.
Why is this important? Because carbon molecules stored in the soil cannot also be present in the atmosphere.
One leading theory is that human activities affecting the soil — e.g., agriculture, mining, construction — are significant contributors to CO2-related climate change.
Increased carbon sequestration could help stop or even reverse this damage.
Modern gardening and agriculture are largely responsible for declining biodiversity within the soil — both directly and indirectly.
There are obvious reasons for poor soil biodiversity, such as pesticides and manual tilling.
But countless animals, fungi, and bacteria are harmed by overplanting and the depletion of nutrients in the soil.
Regenerative gardening practices are also some of the best strategies for improving soil biodiversity.
Improved moisture retention is yet another benefit of high-quality soil.
Soil that contains large amounts of organic material is able to hold more water, preventing harmful run-off and improving groundwater filtration.
Greater moisture retention is also extremely beneficial for garden beds and agricultural crops.
When the soil is able to hold onto adequate amounts of water, the need for manual irrigation shrinks as well. This is great news for water conservation.
Does It Have Any Potential Downsides?
No gardening practice is perfect. Regenerative gardening is no exception.
The biggest downside to starting a regenerative garden is that it takes a lot of time.
Extremely depleted soil may take several years to return to a balanced state. Even relatively healthy soil can take a while to improve.
On top of waiting for your hard work to pay off, regenerative gardening is often very labor-intensive.
The reason tillers, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides are so commonplace is because they make gardening easier and faster. There are no shortcuts in regenerative gardening.
Can Anyone Practice Regenerative Gardening?
Yes. Regenerative gardening is a set of principles that can be utilized in nearly any garden.
While following every tenet of regenerative gardening is ideal, perfection is not the goal.
Don’t hesitate to borrow whatever practices are feasible for you and your property at the moment.
Even seemingly small changes could mean greatly improving your soil’s health and cultivating a more sustainable garden.
Does Regenerative Gardening Require Special Tools or Skills?
Regenerative gardening is largely made up of common skills like composting and plant pairing.
These are all things with which the average gardener has some experience.
If there’s anything you’re unsure about, it’s not hard to find more information online or from your local community when needed.
When it comes to regenerative gardening, the greatest tool at your disposal is knowledge.
Of course, owning the right tools can certainly make starting a regenerative garden easier.
For instance, having a compost pile at your disposal can make fertilizing your garden cheaper and more convenient. But it’s not at all necessary.
How Do You Start a Regenerative Garden?
Since regenerative gardening is mostly about ongoing practices, gardeners can partake whether they have an established bed or not.
Transitioning to regenerative gardening rarely requires starting from scratch.
You can start regenerative gardening immediately by ceasing tilling, switching to organic compost, and covering as much of the soil with plants as possible.
Keep in mind that adopting regenerative garden techniques might require overhauling part of your existing garden.
You may need to make some difficult choices about plant species that are unsustainable without soil amendments like fertilizer.
The most important thing to remember is that regenerative gardening starts at the soil.
The amount of time it takes to repair the soil will be directly proportional to how many changes have been made to it in the past.
In some cases, starting from scratch may be the easiest strategy after all.
6 Tips for Your Regenerative Garden
1. Maximize Coverage
Bare soil is vulnerable soil. Get creative with cover crops to ensure your soil is protected from the elements.
Ground-covering species like creeping jenny, thyme, and phlox can be placed between larger plantings to protect the soil.
These plants can also be used to keep soil in place in lieu of an actual garden.
For a more contemporary take on ground cover, employ responsible mulching in your garden beds.
2. Test Your Soil
Is soil testing absolutely necessary?
No. But it can offer valuable information about the current state of your garden soil and provide a benchmark for future improvements.
The soil testing process doesn’t need to be complicated. At-home kits are relatively easy to find and use.
For more detailed testing, consider sending off a soil sample to a fully equipped laboratory.
This testing is available as a paid service but you also might be eligible for free testing through a local extension office or non-profit organization.
3. Utilize Solarization
How do you remove weeds without tilling or herbicide?
Solarization is a simple, non-invasive method popular throughout the sustainable gardening community.
This technique uses a clear plastic sheet placed over the offending weeds.
When left in the sun for 2-3 days, the temperature below the plastic sheet will rise enough to kill off most established weeds and their seeds.
After removing the plastic, the weeds will be much easier to rake away by hand without disturbing the soil beneath.
Some vegetable gardeners also use this technique to sterilize beds before planting.
4. Plant in Succession
Planting your garden with a dense cover crop will do little good if the foliage dies off halfway through summer.
To maintain soil health and prevent erosion throughout the year, be sure to account for every season in your plantings.
This practice is both about choosing species that flourish at different times of the year as well as when you actually put plants in the ground.
Succession planting is a technique that spaces out seeds by 1 to 3 weeks. This schedule ensures that the garden bed is consistently filled throughout the entire growing season.
5. Attract Local Wildlife
Most residential gardens feature a variety of plant species. Take a look at how your garden fits together in order to preserve soil health and support local wildlife.
Native species are an extremely valuable asset when it comes to increasing biodiversity.
Even non-native species can be utilized to support diversity above and below the soil.
But be prepared to invest more time in researching appropriate plants for your regenerative garden if you choose this route.
6. Invest in Plant Diversity
Techniques like companion planting can have huge benefits for the garden as a whole. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice aesthetics for more efficient plantings.
Companion planting pairs different species that complement each other for one reason or another.
The benefits of companion planting can range from deterring pests to maintaining the soil’s nutrient balance.
There’s tons of information readily available online about potential companion plants and the effects their pairing can have on your garden as a whole.
This practice can be utilized in vegetable gardens and ornamental landscaping. Even some lawns feature companion plantings.
For example, replacing just 10-15% of your grass lawn with clover is an excellent way to maintain soil nitrogen.
Clover’s ability to add nitrogen to the soil supports the grass’s nutritional needs without the use of synthetic fertilizer.
Greater garden diversity can also help keep weeds and diseases at bay.
It’s much more difficult for pathogens to bounce from plant to plant when they are all different species.
And weeds have a harder time breaking through dense plantings — something that’s easy to achieve with multiple species.
Regenerative gardening is an all-around beneficial technique that we should all be paying attention to.
Yes, regenerative practices are incredibly important in commercial agriculture. But they can also have a profound impact in the home garden. Remember: Every little bit counts!
One of the greatest things about regenerative gardening is that it doesn’t need to be all or nothing.
Adopting even one or two regenerative techniques can help boost soil health and make your garden more sustainable.
And while regenerative gardening means giving up many of life’s modern conveniences (i.e., chemical fertilizer, pesticides, tilling, etc.), the long-term benefits far outweigh any extra work involved.