Recognising that much of our land is in poor condition and would work better with a few repairs, many of us are joining the groundswell of farmers and gardeners using regenerative practices.

The challenge is how to do it.

It’s not hard to find resources on using different regenerative practices like applying compost and biological fertilisers, using zero-till or no-dig gardening, cover crops, crop rotations, mulch, agroforestry, and so on…

But how do we choose the best practices for our growing conditions, livestock, crops, and the soil, pest, and other issues holding us back?

  1. Understanding that we need to get the ecosystems in our farms and gardens functioning again. Particularly our nutrient and water cycles, solar energy capture, and the functional biodiversity to use these resources efficiently.[1]
  2. Developing practices mimicking how these functions get naturally repaired in our climate and other growing conditions.

Established practices then become sources and inspiration for practical solutions rather than recipes to follow.

Levels of soil carbon, organic matter, water infiltration, and biodiversity are valuable measures to track our progress, but they are the products and services of functioning ecosystems. We need ecosystems that work for these to improve.

We can make marginal improvements by replacing pesticides with organic versions and chemical fertilisers with biological inputs. But regular applications of these inputs keep us trapped on a treadmill of substituting for these free ecological services. This interventionist approach defines current conventional farming and gardening, whether we substitute with chemical or organic inputs, with a spade or a 420 horsepower, six-cylinder tractor!

As farmers, we struggle to make an income while agri-businesses return first-rate dividends to their investors. As gardeners, it’s often cheaper and easier to swing by the supermarket to have food in the fridge ready for when we come home tired and hungry.

Getting our ecosystems functioning again, we break this interventionist habit.

We grow nourishing food, remove carbon from the atmosphere, develop ecosystems capable of bouncing back from extreme weather events, and have the joy of bringing Nature back into our farms and gardens. Look at any healthy natural ecosystem in your region. It doesn’t need anyone to spread mulch, compost, apply fertilisers, cultivate the soil, control pests or weeds!

Improving our nutrient cycle and capturing more solar energy, our crops get fed directly from our soil ecosystem rather than from intermittent and inadequate inputs supplied by us. Improving our water cycle, we get rainwater infiltrating and stored in our soil and vegetation, and reduce water loss through evaporation. Excess water drains freely down through our soil, reducing waterlogging. By creating functional biodiversity, using, for example, ecological support plants to maintain resident populations of pollinators and insects controlling our pests, we improve our use of these resources.

Using this principles-based approach makes sense. In fact, the more we delve into how Nature repairs ecological functions, the more eco-logical the solutions become, and easier it is for us to benefit!

Take, for example, getting the nutrient cycle in our soils working.

Soil ecosystems don’t normally have access to truck or wheelbarrow loads of compost, minerals, fertilisers, and mulch – they have to rely on the resources they have available!

Science shows us that what’s crucial is changing how we manage our land to produce a generous, diverse, and preferably consistent food supply for our soil ecosystem in addition to food for ourselves and our livestock. We can then leave our soil organisms to maintain soil structure and get our nutrient recycling system naturally supplying food to our crops.

Diagram showing how to regenerate our soil ecosystem

Most soils have become degraded because we have designed our farms and gardens to maximise plant growth for human and livestock consumption. As a result, soil organisms get a “lousy catering service: the menu is limited, portions are small, and the service unreliable!”

By way of example, in temperate and other cool climates, many farmers, like the well-known American regenerative farmer Gabe Brown, have improved their soil to the point where their soil ecosystem naturally supplies nutrients to their crops. The Brown family have stopped using fertilisers without sacrificing their yields using cover crops, diverse crop rotations, and mob grazing to improve food supplies to their soil.[2]

These techniques work because they mimic the growth, diversity, continuous vegetation cover, and recycling of organic waste materials naturally occurring in the Prairies – their region’s natural ecosystem.

However, in warmer and wetter climates, these techniques are not sufficient. Families remain trapped in poverty, often having inadequate manure, compost, or the funds to substitute with commercial fertilisers.[3] For soil organisms to get their nutrient cycling systems working, more organic materials and root exudates (the sugars and proteins which plants release from their roots) need to be recycled in the soil.[4]

Learning from and mimicking the architecture and dynamics of their native vegetation, farmers in tropical regions devise ways to grow and recycle more organic materials in their soil. For this reason, farmers use alley cropping, and silvopasture (adding trees in pastures) is now ranked across Africa, Asia, and South America as the most important climate-smart intervention graziers can make.[5]

Learning to use prescribed practices correctly is not the important thing. What’s essential is developing regenerative practices mimicking how Nature repairs ecosystems’ functioning in your climate.

In Africa, south of the Sahel desert, there is a striking example of what we can achieve using this eco-logic.

Understanding the ecological principles, families are increasing their food production and resilience to droughts by re-introducing trees into their landscapes using designs that work well for their climate, pastures, arable fields, and home gardens.

Approximately 250,000 hectares of land are regenerated every year.[6] Families themselves mainly lead the change. They double or triple their incomes by improving crop yields and growing up – using trees to supply additional fruit, nuts, seeds, firewood, timber, honey, and more…

Applying eco-logic, we combine the expertise Nature has developed over 400 million years with human ingenuity and gain the know-how to develop regenerative practices that work well for our circumstances. We can trial techniques, learn and share our experiences, and respond constructively to emerging issues and threats.

It doesn’t matter what climate we grow in, what we grow, or our property size. Getting the ecosystems in our farms and gardens functioning again, we produce the goods and services required to nourish our families, communities, and our planet and get off the treadmill of substituting for Nature’s free ecological services.

Discover how to use this eco-logical approach with the Eco-logical Gardening Handbook and Eco-logical Farming Handbook.Front cover regenerative gardening

Front cover regenerative farming

References for how to do Regenerative Farming and Gardening

[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2018, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Publ Learning from Nature

[2] Gabe Brown,2018, Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green Publ.

[3] Roger R.B. Leakey, The Role of Trees in Agroecology,  In ‘Routledge Handbook of Agricultural Biodiversity 1st Edition. Edited by Danny Hunter, Luigi Guarino, Charles Spillane, Peter C. McKeown. Routledge

[4] Wendy Seabrook, 2018, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Publ Learning from Nature

[5] Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life. Insights from CSA Country Profiles across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sova, C. A., G et. al. 2018. “Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life: Insights from CSA Country Profiles Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” World Bank, and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Washington, DC. (https://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/abs/10.1596/31064)

[6] Tony Rinaldo, 2008, The Development of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, Permaculture Research Institute (https://www.permaculturenews.org/2008/09/24/the-development-of-farmer-managed-natural-regeneration/)

Featured image Tom Fisk

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