What does Regenerative Gardening Mean?

Conventional gardening is often an extractive activity—we harvest the plants that we want, and remove the weeds that we don’t.
We deplete the soil of nutrients and try to supplement with synthetic fertilizers.

Regenerative Gardening is about changing how we grow things.
It’s about returning what we take from the soil and from the Earth, replenishing and nurturing it.

Regenerative Gardening is about finding ways to grow things by working with the environment, and possibly even regenerating the Earth.

We can treat gardening as medicine, for us, the Earth, and our relationship with it.

That includes the vegetables and flowers we grow, but it also includes the soil, the microbes, and ourselves. All are entangled in the relationships of being living organisms.
Really, it’s about relationships.

Our relationship with the plants we care for.
Our relationship with the Earth that cares for the plants and us.
And our relationship with one another.

An example might make it more clear.

You are in the garden.
You have some tomatoes and basil planted.
But there’s also all these wild “weeds” growing all around.
Your first instinct is:
“Oh weeds are bad, pull them out.”

This is what we encountered at the community garden.
We had our initial vegetables planted, but all this wild greenery growing as well.

Take a look.

So many “weeds”! We were all ready to just start pulling them out. But this plant is actually “wild spinach”, and it is regenerating the soil in its own way.

The soil beneath is quite void of life.
No worms, no critters, it was literally dumped from a sterile composting facility a few weeks back.

This wild spinach (“Callaloo” to the Carribeans, Keerai to the Tamils), is the first flourishing life here.
Their roots are aerating the soil, their leaves are capturing carbon and solar energy and returning it into the soil.

They are beginning the process of bringing this land back to life.

What do we do instead?

Keep them.

Their roots are naturally tilling the soil beneath, creating air pockets.
They are nourishing the soil, shading the soil to keep it moist, and attracting life.

If we need space to grow some vegetables we prefer, don’t pull these spinach from their roots. Keep their roots in the ground.

“But won’t they grow back then?”

These Wild Spinach roots don’t survive over winter. By keeping their roots underground, all that energy, nutrients, and carbon they gathered over the summer can decompose and literally create new soil.

If we move beyond the binary of “good” and “bad” plants, we can start to see what every plant really does.

We can end the season with a healthier soil, that’s storing more carbon, attracting more life, while also harvesting vegetables for our enjoyment.

This is just one example, and there’s many more.
As we think more about relationships and what plants can teach us, we can move beyond black and white simplistic thinking, and see a more restorative relationship between plants, us and the Earth.

Principles of Regenerative Gardening

1. Circular System

Anything we throw into the yard waste bag is life and energy being removed from our garden. That includes thistles, “weeds”, and dried up plants. All things we deem as not needed.

But we want to keep all this life and energy circulating within our garden. So we must be careful what we remove from the garden, and try to keep as much of it within as possible.

We must compost.

Thistles are deep rooted, we all know how difficult to remove they are. But they are also pulling minerals from deep in the soil, up into their leaves.

We can pull them out, but we don’t discard them.
We set them out to dry so their seeds can’t propagate.
Then we can compost them, turning their beautiful leaves into rich soil.

Compost whenever and wherever we can.

2. Honourable Harvest

When harvesting time comes, we are gifted with an abundance of food brought about by our diligent care and the gifts of the soil.

A core tenet of indigenous practices is the honourable harvest. When we take things from the garden during harvest, we must remember that the garden is feeding and providing for us, so we must take care of it in return. In order to sustain our relationship with the Earth, we must treat it as more than just a resource for taking.

Our current industrial agricultural system has left behind these principles, where decades of growing and harvesting on the same piece of land have stripped the soil, releasing all its trapped carbon, and left lands barren. Something that once took care of communities for thousands of years, ruined because of years of misguided practices.

Replenishing nutrients to the soil through compost, reducing food waste, and minimizing disturbance to the soil’s expansive network of organisms are just some of the ways we can honour the land that is providing us with food.

So for each time the land gifts us a juicy cherry tomato, we have to remember to give back to the land that gave us that gift.

We must take care of the things that take care of us.

3. Importance of Relationships

We are social creatures, and so are plants.
We both thrive when in a supportive community.

When starting a new season, we are often focused on planting vegetables, so we think singularly about our crops and the soil we plant it in.

But if we consider the vegetables as a part of a complex community of living beings, the garden becomes an entire ecosystem, and we begin to see things a little differently.

Usually we plant a vegetable into soil we’ve purchased from the garden centre, which is pretty devoid of life.
We might throw in some fertilizer to try to compensate.

Grow them in a sterile environment, and yes, they will grow.
But a sterile environment deprives plants of interactions with other organisms that help them reach their full potential.

Diversity creates strength in all environments, and gardens are no exception. A biodiverse garden gives each plant a chance to play to their strengths, whether it is attracting beneficial insects, or improving the growth of nearby plants.

Beyond the plant’s relationships with each other, we must also consider the relationships with the soil itself and the organisms within it.

Plant roots actually form relationships with the fungi and bacteria in the soil, exchanging sugars, minerals, and energy much farther than the tips of the roots that we see.

Insects and earthworms aerate the soil with their movements and consume decaying matter in order to produce organic fertilizers to feed the soil.

We must be mindful of the relationships that exist in the garden, and re-establish our own relationship with the land.

4. Our Oldest Teachers

We must remember that these plants have existed for much longer than we have. It stands that we can learn a lot from them.

We had a group of tomato plants growing, and among them, some spiky thistles and thick stalked wild spinach started growing.

Instead of pulling them out, we watched them and saw how they interacted with each other.

Some of the tomatoes flopped on the ground, while some started growing along the stalks of the wild spinach, climbing with it and supporting one another.

The thistles actually protected the tomatoes from getting eaten away by other animals, allowing them to grow and fully ripen on the vine.

Every plant has something to teach, if we would only shut up and slow down a bit to learn from them.

Interested in Learning More or Getting Involved?

Check out our blog to learn more about Regenerative Gardening and other ways we can build a more positive relationship with the environment and community.

If you are interested in getting involved, we would love to hear from you! Send us an email at community@unearthD.org, let us know a little bit about you, what interests you, and why you reached out, and we would love to connect!