Virtually all of the land used to grow food, and currently managed sustainably, has the potential to provide more support to food growers. Regenerative farming and gardening practices are used to improve growing conditions and realise this potential.

Unfortunately, there is some ambiguity as to what to regenerate and the principles for how to do it.[1] [2]

The listed goals usually include keeping water in our landscape, improving soil health, water infiltration and storage in soil, regenerating topsoil, increasing biodiversity, improving organic matter and soil carbon levels. While these goals are helpful measures to track our progress, they are all the products and services of functioning ecosystems. We need ecosystems that work for these to improve.[3]

Therefore, the aim of regenerative farming and gardening is to grow food in functioning ecosystems.

The Rationale

The production systems in our farms and gardens are no different in principle from the systems that manufacture big-screen TVs and make espresso coffee – except that our systems also require ecological parts to operate!

Image showing how regenerative farmers and gardeners regenerate their production systems

Production Systems in Farms and Gardens

These ecological components haven’t worked well for so long, we’ve largely forgotten about the services they naturally provide. And like any production system with essential parts that haven’t been maintained, our:

  1. Costs go up as the underlying problems mount up, and our
  2. Production systems are more likely to break down when under extra strain.

We’re seeing the consequences of this now.

Our ability to grow food is collapsing under the extra strain from the droughts, flooding rains, extreme heat, unusual pest and disease outbreaks we are now experiencing. We’ve neglected crucial ecological components that would otherwise provide some protection.

We’re cultivating soil, applying fertilisers and pest controls. Trapped in a vicious cycle substituting for the processes that functioning ecological components can provide. It has become the norm. Virtually everybody does it!

By way of an example, by maximising plant growth only for human consumption and livestock, we’ve neglected our soil ecosystem. Our soil organisms haven’t been adequately resourced to complete the tasks they have had million years of on-the-job training to do. That is to maintain the soil infrastructure and recycle plant nutrients for plants to reuse.

Whereas, when we design our farms and gardens to also produce a generous, diverse, and consistent food supply for our soil ecosystem, our plants get ‘Silver Service’ catering, rather than intermittent and inadequate inputs supplied by us.

Benefits of Regenerative Farming and Gardening

Getting the ecological components in our food production systems working again, we:

  1.  Improve our capacity to produce food and other products
  2.  Reduce our input costs relying instead on ecological functions
  3.  Grow food in systems less likely to break down when under extra strain
  4. Improve the capacity of our ecosystems to provide services like biodiversity, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, together with reduced fertiliser and sediment run-off, as natural by-products

We also see the economic value of these ecological components – the cost-savings they provide, and their role in reducing the impacts of extreme weather, pest outbreaks, and other disasters, and in improving our ability to recover.

Regenerative Farming and Gardening – The Design Principles

1.    Repairing the ecological functions holding us back, enhances the capacity of our ecosystems to produce products and services

We’ve overlooked the crucial role ecosystems play in enabling us to grow food.

Soil carbon, organic matter, water infiltration, and biodiversity are valuable measures to track our progress. But like food, are products and services of functioning ecosystems. We need ecosystems that work for these to improve.

Like any production system needing an overhaul, repairing the parts inhibiting production we:

  • Improve our capacity to produce goods and services
  • Reduce our input costs with fewer underlying problems
  • Make our systems less likely to break down when under extra strain from extreme weather, pest and disease outbreaks, etc.

2.    Work with Succession

Nature has evolved an amazingly sophisticated strategy to repair ecosystems. It, therefore, makes sense for us to work with succession to get our ecosystems functioning again.

Like an orchestra without a conductor, succession will play without you. You would have seen the changes as plants colonise bare soil and the plant and animal community undergo a sequence of changes improving the functioning of the ecosystem. Productivity increases, as does the ecosystem’s ability to respond positively to change.

Working with succession, you accentuate the qualities you want while using as your guide, the sequence of changes in types of plants and animals that would naturally occur in your conditions.

3.    Regenerative practices provide better outcomes when they mimic how ecological components get naturally repaired in our growing conditions.

Learning from Nature, we benefit from 400 million years of research and development carried out in every growing condition on the planet. We use established regenerative practices as the source and inspiration for ideas rather than recipes to follow.

4.    Using plants, animals, microbes, and other living organisms that thrive in our conditions, we grow from our strengths.

Every living organism has environmental and climatic conditions it prefers. Using species that thrive in our growing conditions, we are better positioned to benefit from the ecological services they provide.

5.   Creating functional biodiversity, we create resource-efficient and resilient ecosystems.

Biodiversity is invaluable, but choosing species because they provide specific functions is more expedient. We build connections enabling efficient use of resources made available by improving our nutrient, water cycles, and solar energy capture. By doing this we start re-creating the inbuilt resilience, adaptive capacity, and emergent properties of complex natural ecosystems.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Are compost, biological and other organic inputs regenerative practices?

It depends on how you define regenerative. Switching from chemical to organic and biological fertilisers and pest controls will improve the functioning of your ecosystem. As will, boosting the amount of compost, biological and other organic inputs, you regularly apply (see diagram below). Therefore, in this context they are regenerative.

However, relying only on inputs to improve your ecosystem won’t get you to a stage where you can step back and leave more of the work to your ecosystem. To benefit from functioning ecosystems, you’ll need to roll up your sleeves, put on your ‘thinking hat’ and develop practices enabling you to mimic how the ecological functions holding you back, get naturally repaired in your climate and other growing conditions.

Image showing Regenerative farming and Gardening - comparison of approaches

2. How do I do regenerative farming and gardening?

>> See here

 

See here for guidelines on How to get started

Or get all the information you need to start using our Eco-logical Farming Handbook or Eco-logical Gardening Handbook.

Front cover regenerative gardening

Front cover Ecological Farming Handbook

References – What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening

[1] Wikipedia, Regenerative Agriculture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regenerative_agriculture)

[2] L. Schreefel, R.P.O. Schulte, I.J.M. de Boer, A. Pas Schrijver, H.H.E. van Zanten, 2020,
Regenerative agriculture – the soil is the base, Global Food Security, Volume 26, 2020, 100404,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100404.

[3] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, Ecological Farming Handbook, Publ Learning from Nature

Featured image by Tom Fisk

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