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Regenerative agriculture is a rapidly growing buzzword of a very specific food revolution, a revolution that aims to put nutrients back into the soil and therefore into our bodies. Regenerative farming is one of the many techniques in order to accomplish this. Plus, regenerative farming, while enriching our food and bodies, also subsequently helps absorb carbon dioxide from our atmosphere!
As the practice spreads through cities from the East to the West coasts, many people are opting to purchase regenerative food products, preferring the nutrient-dense makeup and positive environmental impacts. Even urban gardeners are looking to put these techniques into practice in their own backyards.
Here’s a bit of information about regenerative farming, as well as tips and techniques for building your own urban regenerative garden!
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
If you haven’t heard about regenerative agriculture yet, now’s the time to get familiar!
Over the years, our soil has been depleted through the traditional agricultural practices of tilling, carbon mining, and the use of “agricultural chemicals and salt-based fertilizers.” Regenerative agriculture aims to reverse these negative effects. This amazing holistic land management technique focuses on “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.” Specifically, regenerative agriculture “leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.”
Simply put, regenerative agriculture aims to increase the organic matter in the soil used to grow vegetables. By infusing the soil with more nutrients, we are infusing our foods with more nutrients and, therefore, infusing our bodies with richer quality nutrients.
The Science of Soil Enriching
How does regenerative agriculture work? Regenerative farmers adhere to the following strict guidelines:
Minimum to zero tilling
The use of “cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures, which restore the plant/soil microbiome to promote liberation, transfer, and cycling of essential soil nutrients.”
Building biological ecosystem diversity and restoring soil system energy via “inoculation of soils with composts or compost extracts” and “full-time planting of multiple crop intercrop plantings, multispecies cover crops, and borders planted for bee habitat and other beneficial insects.”
Stimulate plant growth, while also increasing soil carbon deposits and fertility, insect and plant biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration via well-managed grazing practices.
Through these set of protocols, regenerative farmers are able to increase soil biota diversity and health, as well as increase “biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths, thus drawing down climate-damaging levels of atmospheric CO2, and improving soil structure to reverse civilization-threatening human-caused soil loss.”
Building Your Own Regenerative Garden
While it may seem that you need to be a scientist in order to practice regenerative agriculture, it’s actually quite simple to create your own regenerative garden in your backyard! Incorporating all the techniques may not be financially sustainable or time-friendly, yet, by following similar principles you can enrich the soil and do your part in helping with climate change.
Here are a few ways to make your home garden regenerative!
One of the best ways to naturally and safely infuse the soil with rich nutrients is via a cover crop. What is a cover crop? It’s a specific “crop you grow for the soil, instead of for your plate.”
A cover crop has the ability to “add organic matter to the soil, and add nitrogen in a slow-release way that plants can handle, leading to less nitrogen volatilization.” Nitrogen is an essential compound for plants. In fact, for plants, nitrogen “is the nutrient in most demand.” With that said, “too much is as bad as too little excess of nitrogen or an imbalance of nitrogen compared with other nutrients can make plants more prone to pest and disease attack.” Instead of manually adding nitrogen to your soil, which breeds human error and can kill your plants, cover cropping naturally infuses the necessary nitrogen levels into your garden’s soil.
On top of that, cover crops provide mulch, “improve soil physical properties in just one growing season, and attract beneficial insects and pollinators to your garden.”
What is a good cover crop plant? This all depends on timing.
If you’re planning on a long period before planting vegetables, you’ll want to “combine a small grain (think cereal ingredients like oats, barley, rye) and a legume (nitrogen-fixing plants like peas or vetch) for best results,” such as this No-Till Cover Crop 13 Seed Mix. On the other hand, for a shorter time period before planting, “consider green manure crops, or tender, quick-growing crops that will outcompete weeds and, when finished, will provide some easily-digested, supple foodstuff for the soil microorganisms,” such as buckwheat — Outside Pride Buckwheat Cover Crop Seed — and field peas.
After you’ve completed your cover crop season, you can kill the cover by “mowing, weed eating, or just chopping down with some loppers.”
Decrease Soil Exposure
One of the best ways to keep soil healthy is by planning succession crops and using sown pathways.
For regenerative practices, it’s recommended to “pull one crop and plant another in the same day, both increasing your overall yield potential and decreasing the amount of time soil is left exposed.” For small farmers, this can be a difficult feat. Yet, for a small urban garden in your backyard, this is completely doable! Simply, have your succession crop ready to plant and set aside an entire day for the task.
You can also use sown pathways. While exposed pathways leave soil exposed you can “seed them in annual rye for a green pathway that requires minimal maintenance, smothers weeds, and increases organic matter.” If you’re looking for a simpler approach, simple cover your pathways with straw or leaf, which will help “retain moisture and increase nutrients in the soil,” or use landscape fabric — such as this Southwest Boulder & Stone Weed Barrier Landscape Fabric, or plastic — such as this Plastic Sheeting Roll.
You may have noticed that one of the guidelines for regenerative agriculture farmers is a minimal to zero tilling practice.
What does it mean to till soil?
The term tilling simply refers to the “turning over and breaking up [of] the soil,” with either an engine-powered tiller, cultivator fork, or even just a deep spader. Large organic agricultural operations use tilling as a non-chemical way of avoiding weeds and “incorporating plant residues” for a richer and organically derived succession crop. It’s also a great way to incorporate amendments (such as nitrogen) into the soil.
Why is tilling bad for the soil and the environment? Even though it’s a great way to prep a garden bed, it has many negative effects. One of the main issues is that tilling degrades the structural integrity of the soil and therefore reduces its ability to retain water and resist erosion. On top of that, tilling “releases carbon from the soil.”
There are a few alternatives to tilling including implementing a permanent bed system, — using the same soil season-to-season which retains soil structure — sheet composting, — covering your bed for winter with cardboard, compost, — such as this Unco Industries Wiggle Worm Soil Builder Organic Fertilizer — and leaves or straw — such as this biodegradable and organic EZ-Straw Seeding Mulch and Track — or broadforking, — using a broad fork, such as this Bully Tools Broad Fork with Fiber Glass Handle, is a great minimally-invasive technique to “loosen the soil without inverting it, thereby keeping the soil structure intact.” By using these practices, you can avoid the negative impact of tilling in your home garden.
Looking for a quicker, no-hassle, zero-tilling method? Try our soil solarization. This involves both “cleaning out the old crop (either by flail-mowing or hand-pulling) and layering clear plastic over the bed(s).”
How does soil solarization work?
By covering your plant beds with clear plastic — such as this Greenhouse Clear Plastic Film Polyethylene Covering or this Agfabric Plastic Covering — you’re providing a heated environment that kills weed seeds and pathogen, and “prepares the bed for a direct-seeded crop.” It’s recommended to allow the soil to heat for at least 24 to 36 hours, which increases “the soil temperature to 85 [degrees] in the first [two to three].” Remove the plastic, “rake off the residue and direct-seed.”
By enacting the principles of regenerative agriculture in your home garden, you’ll end the growing season with a harvest of nutritionally dense veggies! Now what? We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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