Regenerative gardening draws in all sorts of life such as stick insects
Regenerative gardening is about the restoration of the cycles of nature, fostering healthy and thriving home gardens. Throughout this guide, we’ll explore regenerative gardening principles and practices, providing actionable tips and expert insights. From embracing no-till techniques to nurturing vibrant soil ecosystems, discover how regenerative gardening can revitalise your soil and plants and contribute to a healthier planet. Join us to cultivate a greener, more sustainable future, bed by bed.

What is regenerative gardening?

Regenerative gardening is a holistic approach that prioritises the health of ecosystems and the natural nutrient cycles. Unlike conventional gardening methods, which may deplete soil nutrients and harm the environment, regenerative gardening aims to improve soil health, increase biodiversity, and enhance ecosystem resilience. It involves practices such as minimal tilling, composting, and mulching to nurture soil fertility and biodiversity. Ultimately, regenerative gardening seeks to mimic natural processes and create thriving, self-sustaining ecosystems that benefit both humans and the planet.

Firstly let’s talk about the term “regenerative”. You’ve probably started hearing it bandied around a bit in recent months or if you’re listening, recent years. Back when I did my Permaculture Design Course  (PDC) through Milkwood Permaculture in 2010, Nick Ritar made a really compelling point when he said something along the lines of:

“Sustainability is a pretty low bar; think about it, to sustain something is to just keep it going. We need to move past that and start actually improving and repairing the damage of the past. We need to think and act  regeneratively.”  

Would you want to be in a “sustainable” marriage? Does that sound like where you and your partner want to be? I’d rather have a marriage that gets better and better every day. Ever since that moment I have applied a regenerative lens over all my actions. It led me to study Horticulture and then Landscape Design at TAFE, and now to Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web School.

The regenerative movement is literally a grassroots movement as it works from the ground up in a very real sense whether it be in landscape management or in business.

It recognises that our natural systems are the real foundations of our economic system and not just some “externality” to be kicked down the road for future generations to figure out whilst we chase perpetual growth on a finite planet. For a look at how the world’s economy could work for the benefit of all life here on our little rock in the solar system, check out Doughnut Economics

OK back to reality. In a horticultural context, Dr Elaine Ingham’s work back in the mid 1980’s revolutionised our understanding of soil biology thanks in part to the advent of progress in electron microscope technology and her wanting to know the function and relationships of all the various genera of biology down under the surface of the soil. At the time the siloed science fields of Botany, Biology, Chemistry, Ecology didn’t acknowledge any function to the billions of bacteria, fungi, archaea, nematodes, earthworms, micro and macro arthropods and protozoa in healthy soil. 

The (not yet Dr) went and spoke to the heads of departments of each school and was told – “Meh, they’re just sorta hanging out down there. They don’t really do much as far as we can tell.” As an undergrad she felt this wasn’t going to cut it and went ahead and did her thesis on the relationship between all of these organisms and pioneered the field of what is now known as The Soil Food Web. 

Put simply, The Soil Food Web refers to the fact that when the right organisms below the surface of healthy soil are in balance in an aerobic environment (not compacted), there is no opportunity for pathogens (usually anaerobic microbes) to get a foothold as they are outcompeted, consumed or inhibited by the beneficial organisms.

So how does the Soil Food Web work?

The Nutrient Cycle

Healthy soil starts with the relationship between plants and soil – an area called the rhizosphere – (where microbes interact with the plant). The plant creates exudates via photosynthesis whilst also making oxygen at the same time – cool huh? These exudates are used by the plant to either pump underground to the rhizosphere or to conserve to further its growth – each plant can make literally thousands of different exudates. 

Some plants can exude up to 80% of these exudates (carbohydrates and proteins) which it exchanges with the bacteria and fungi in the rhizosphere for water and minerals.

Special shoutout to fungi at this point

If you haven’t seen the incredible doco Fantastic Fungi on Netflix, I highly recommend it to really show you visually, the role of fungi in our soils.

Put simply, fungi is often referred to as the ‘Wood Wide Web’ as much like the internet, there are billions upon billions of miles of fungal threads beneath our feet, connecting to everything and somehow exchanging water and minerals for sugars, breaking down rock, organic matter, carrying chemical signals between trees…simultaneously! Amazing stuff.

These fungal walls are a stable form of carbon when left undisturbed. One part of the carbon drawdown process you are creating when you garden regeneratively.

The impact of artificial fertilisers

When we use synthetic nitrogen fertilisers we are damaging the soil’s structure by interrupting this free exchange process and also polluting our waterways and releasing nitrous oxide (and ozone depleting greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.

There is growing evidence that chemical nitrogen burns out the soil carbon and releases it into the atmosphere and we need that in the soil where it acts as a sponge for water and nutrients.

Another thing people don’t really talk about is the carbon footprint of fertiliser production which is not insignificant.Consider the energy, raw material extraction, fossil fuel transportation, packaging and in a domestic setting, consider those little brightly coloured balls…there are growing concerns those balls are not biodegradable – industry seems tight-lipped on what they are made from – hopefully they are a natural and fully degradable compound because they last for Y.E.A.R.S!

The impact of pesticides on garden biology

Pests are nature’s way of letting you know there is something out of balance in your garden. Before you say “I’m not an expert, how would I know what’s out of balance?” realise that the treatments available all have consequences for non-target species whether they be microbial or right up the chain to us. John Muir, the American naturalist famously said:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

So if you’re trying to kill a weed by using glyphosate, be aware that it’s acutely toxic to fish as well as soil microbes and of course, our own guts, as those same microbes are inside and on us. If you’re trying to kill a bug, whilst selective insecticides are available it’s very hard to kill just the target species. If you’re trying to kill a fungus, be aware that fungicides affect the good fungi as well as bad and we know how important fungi is. If you’re obliterating a bacteria, note that most bad bacteria are anaerobes so just improve airflow otherwise you might be compromising the rhizosphere.

Put another way, in the garden, everything is someone else’s lunch.

You kill the pest, the beneficial organism goes hungry and leaves, you kill the beneficial organism, you inherit their job. You can end up with a long list of jobs if you’re not careful. This applies to your whole property inside and out. My lovely mother-in-law got a pest controller to spray for spiders and was suddenly overrun with all sorts of other bugs and her garden suffered overall. Last week I saw 3 species of spider interact: A jumping spider caught a Daddy Long Legs spider, a Daddy long Legs spider caught a black house spider. Are you getting the lunch analogy yet?

Make friends with nature. “Integrate don’t segregate” (a permaculture principle).

The impact of pesticides on human biology

Don’t forget about the dangers of pesticides to human health, these are sometimes very serious chemicals that we have been led to believe are totally safe only to find in recent years that this is very far from the truth.

We’ve seen in recent years, Bayer AG is having to pay out on some very high profile class action lawsuits against their subsidiary company Monsanto’s product, RoundUp. There have been more than 165,000 Roundup Lawsuits filed in the US with more than 80% settled and Bayer is on the hook for more than $10 Billion USD.

The impact on global climate

Many governments both local and international have declared a Climate Emergency. Let’s face it, we have a pretty dire situation on our hands with emissions rising even as we are slowly starting to embrace renewable energy, thinking about what we eat, wear, drive (or not), there is a real problem:

In spite of what seem like pretty good reasons not to, our carbon emissions are rising and the natural drawdown processes have stalled or plateaued, meaning we have reached a point where nature appears to have hit a stumbling block, BUT…

Carbon absorption: Nature’s storage solution

Plants and healthy ecosystems have an unparalleled capacity to absorb carbon through photosynthesis and store it in living biomass. In addition, soils are, in large part, organic matter—once-living organisms, now decomposing—making them an enormous storehouse of carbon.

Land can therefore be a powerful carbon sink, returning atmospheric carbon to living vegetation and soils.

While the majority of heat-trapping emissions remain in the atmosphere, land sinks currently return 26% of human-caused emissions to Earth—literally. Read more on land sinks at Project Drawdown.

We are still encroaching into wilderness areas and show no sign of letting up. The natural ecosystem functions by which carbon is reabsorbed into land and biomass has for now, peaked.

We need to change the way we manage land- both our farms AND our gardens.

Whilst not many of you are farmers in the truest sense, you probably grow grass, trees and shrubs and maybe even grow the odd vegetable. If we add all the gardens in all the suburbs together we get some pretty big areas. In the United States, there are three times more irrigated lawn (in area) than is under corn cultivation. And they grow a LOT of corn over there! So if we all start to manage our gardens more regeneratively, we can really make a decent impact.

5 areas to integrate regenerative practices into your home garden

Here are some of the key areas in your home garden that can make a big impact:

  1. Lawns: The problem with traditional lawn care

In environmental circles lawns are seen as a relic of a very strange part of history. A period when the European landed gentry would surround their stately manor house with neatly mown expanses of grass. The concept has spread throughout the world and is now synonymous with home ownership. 

In conventional home ownership circles, lawns are a symbol of pride, of status and belonging. They are of course a completely artificial construct and cannot exist in nature. It is estimated that there is roughly 40 million acres of lawn in the US. Sorry, all the stats are American but as we all know, what happens in the USA, Australia follows very soon after. 

Maintaining a monoculture relies on irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides to preserve its appearance. HOWEVER there is a good aspect – if managed in a more thoughtful manner, some say they can be a carbon sink. In much the same way as thoughtfully managed grasslands can be. Here’s a primer on grassland ecology if you care to look into it. 

Basically we can graze our lawns better. Better? I didn’t know I was grazing them in the first place?!

As a matter of fact, you are, or your gardener is. 

  • A lawnmower is a grazing machine. Albeit not a perfect one. It does the first part well – mostly too well. By this I mean TOO CLOSE. 
  • We mostly mow too short which allows the sun better access to the space below the leaves, where the weed seeds are waiting for their chance to germinate. 
  • Once the weed seeds germinate under a very short lawn they are up and off to the races whilst your poor lawn is recovering from being cut so short. 
  • The roots of the grass have just dumped a whole bunch of exudates in order to stimulate the bacteria and fungi to go and get more food so it can recover. 
  • The weeds just jump up and put their leaves on top and start making flowers before you need to mow again. 
  • Also the lawn is now needing more water as you have removed their moisture retention blanket so you water and the weeds – if you listen carefully – are cheering your generosity!

What can I do?

Regenerative lawn and garden care

  1. Stop mowing your lawn so short: My lawn is being overrun by weeds! Raise the cutting blade to avoid “scalping”. Remember those blades of grass are your lawn’s means of feeding itself. When you cut close you remove the ability to provide exudates for the bacteria and fungi in the soil which take those in exchange for plant available nutrients.
  2. Use a mulching mower: In summer, let the clippings break down on the lawn. It might look a bit unsightly for a few days but if you lay off the chems, the biology will deal with the clippings and turn the clippings into fertiliser and sequester carbon. This is mainly a summer thing though. In Winter if you are still mowing, pop the clippings in your compost bin along with those autumn leaves.
  3. Compost: Back to the grazing – your compost bin can now be the rumen of the grazing animal and break down the clippings if you don’t want to leave them on the lawn – just make sure you add some dry ‘browns’ (leafy materials, twigs etc) then once you harvest your compost you can mix it with some sand and apply as a top dressing on your lawn.Compost helps feed the microbes in the soil. These in turn will outcompete pathogens as well as break down the parent material in your soil and feed it to your lawn in the amounts it requires without the runoff and eutrophication.
  4. Water wisely: In America between 50-75% of a household’s water usage can be dedicated to irrigating the lawn – Probably not quite that here in Australia but we live on the driest continent on earth so we need to think about what we’re doing with our potable water.

    Think about a grey water system. Water only when you notice your lawn needs it. Leaving your lawn a little higher will mean it holds more moisture and the compost will help hold the moisture in the soil too.

    When you do water, water deeply but not as often, you want the roots to be deep not up on the surface where they will dry out if you forget to water or the battery runs out on the irrigation system. Light, regular watering leads to vulnerable lawns.
  5. Hand weed: Don’t spray to kill that weed! Use a sharp knife or a specific tool to ‘crown’ it and then cover the bare ground with some turf topdress or compost to prevent other weed seeds in the soil from germinating.
  6. Ease off the fertilisers: When we apply synthetic fertilisers, we cut out the “middle-being” (in this case bacteria and fungi) that is actively breaking down minerals and organic matter in the soil and feeding it to the plants in quantities they need – FOR FREE.

    They will either go dormant or die then the nutrient cycle dies (like when you apply fertilisers) and your lawn will become more vulnerable to deficiencies and in turn diseases and pests. Additionally as most chemical fertilisers are in the form of salts (dissolve in water) they will mostly run off and become a big problem when they reach the waterways where they will be the cause of “Dead Zones”.

    Salts are also not a very smart thing to add to a soil right? In ancient times to vanquish your enemies you would salt their fields after the conquest so they could not grow food and recover. Why the heck would you salt your soil intentionally?! As mentioned above, there is a significant carbon footprint in the manufacture and supply of chemical fertilisers. Nobody really talks about that.
  7. Ease off the pesticides: Yes, I know you just want a perfect lawn but the moment you start killing stuff you start simplifying the ecosystem and disturbing the natural balance. A pest is nature’s way of telling you something is missing or wrong in the wellbeing of a plant.

    Check the pH of the soil, the suitability of the variety to the conditions, the cultural conditions (shade, drainage etc). The moment you spray you are killing unintended species and you’re then going to have to do their job too. Plus you are introducing a poison into your home environment and whatever is down the hill or stream.

    Do you have children that play on that grass? Pesticide exposure in urban environments is highest in children in their early years due to high hand-to-mouth activity and sensitivity to active ingredients. Of 302 cases of accidental exposure to pesticides in Australia, 133 were in children aged 0-4 years with the remainder being spread across ages most likely being the applicators rather than those interacting with the areas under the application.
  8. Aerate your soil: If you have started your lawn on top of clay and noticed poor drainage, it’s a good idea to aerate your lawn by either opening it up with a fork or an aeration device to allow roots to go deeper and improve the soil and for the soil microbes to thrive. Problems happen when soils go anaerobic as all the beneficial bacteria die or go to sleep and the pathogens get going. When aerating, you’re not wanting to disturb the profile, just get some air in there and a bit of organic matter.

Read more on lawns as a carbon sink.

2. Compost

If you have a garden, you have a means by which to really supercharge your contribution to reduce your carbon footprint should you choose and this is by taking your food waste and diverting it into a composting system away from landfill.

Nearly half of the solid waste produced globally is organic or biodegradable. Much of it ends up in landfills; there, it decomposes in the absence of oxygen and produces the greenhouse gas methane, which is up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a century. While many landfills have some form of methane management, it is far more effective to divert organic waste to composting.

Composting ranges in scale from backyard bins to industrial operations. The basic process is the same: 

  • Ensuring sufficient moisture, 
  • Air, and 
  • Heat 

For soil microbes (bacteria, protozoa, and fungi) to feast on organic material. Rather than generating methane, the composting process converts organic material into stable soil carbon, while retaining water and nutrients of the original waste matter. 

The result is carbon sequestration as well as production of a valuable fertiliser. More on composting at Project Drawdown.

As well as reducing methane production, you are reducing the need for more trucks on the road and doing the best thing for your garden: adding compost. Don’t get me started on composting! It’s amazing and if we all did it we wouldn’t be in such a pickle but in short: it adds biology, retains moisture, draws down carbon (via microbe activity) which in turn feeds plants. Also there is very little leaching from organic forms of nitrogen compared to soluble reactive forms of nitrogen.

3. Fertilising

We looked at fertilising in the lawn section but it deserves its own section as it’s a pretty major part of your garden’s capacity to do good for the climate. We have probably added more than a billion people to the world’s population thanks to The Green Revolution . Sadly what set out with good intentions wound up causing some very serious unforeseen problems. Here’s what Project Drawdown says about nitrogen fertilisers:

Nitrogen fertilisers have vastly improved the productive capacity of agricultural systems in the past century. Some of the synthetic nitrogen is taken up by crops, increasing growth and yield. 

The nitrogen that is not utilised by plants, however, causes untold problems:

  • Chemically destroying organic matter in the soil.
  • Seeping into waterways; creating algal blooms and oxygen-depleted oceanic dead zones; and causing major fish kills.
  • Causing global warming, as soil bacteria convert nitrate fertilisers into nitrous oxide—298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its warming effect.

Nitrogen can be more efficiently managed to reduce these effects by attending to the Four R’s:

  • Right source: matching fertiliser choices with plant needs.
  • Right time and right place: managing fertiliser applications to deliver nitrogen when and where crop demand is highest.
  • Right rate: ending over-application of fertiliser as “insurance.”

Notice they say “some of the synthetic nitrogen is taken up by crops”. Some. It is estimated plants only take up about 30% which means the rest end up in our waterways and cause Eutrophication. 

Where do we live? Yes, right next to the oceans, mostly. 

Instead, use organic fertilisers as that’s what the microbes and plants have evolved with and they will convert into plant available forms and they are less likely to wash away in the next decent rainfall.

4. Pesticides

Pests are a sign that something is out of balance. Before you reach for the spray, consider that the plant is telling you something. It could be a deficiency – water, nutrition, light..or an excess – too much nitrogen will create a growth spurt of soft sappy growth that bugs LOVE. 

Have you planted enough small flowering plants that will feed your predator insects whilst they wait for the pests to arrive? If you spray you will kill the good bugs along with the ‘bad’ bugs.  

Last week alone I encountered 3 different spider species interacting with each other. When I say interacting I mean eating each other. A jumping spider was having an early breakfast of Daddy Longlegs on our dining area wall and a Daddylonglegs had caught a large black house spider and was enjoying a leisurely meal in a garden shed.  

You spray for spiders and you will get loads more flying insects and then the spiders will eventually come back but probably not in the variety that was there before so you will then notice more of one type. 

It should be pointed out that in the US, more insecticides are sold to homeowners than farmers and I’d be pretty sure it is the same in Australia. Also, realise these will drip down and get into the soil where they will affect the soil food web and keep on killing. If you want to see more butterflies and small birds, rethink your use of insecticides. 

5. Mulch

If you have a place where there are no plants growing you must cover the soil – as many a passionate gardener will tell you: 

“Mother Earth hates to be naked!” Weeds are her response to bare soil.

Protecting the soil is important for so many reasons: 

  • You want to avoid compaction of the soil from the rain hitting the soil… “What? A raindrop hitting the soil leads to compaction? Yup and then erosion – which also promotes the leaching of nutrients.

    It squashes the air out of the soil which will prevent the organisms breathing which in turn will reduce the nutrient cycling capacity of those microbes. This will create nutrient deficiencies in the plant and where there are deficiencies, pests will find a way in.
  • You want to keep the moisture in the soil as long as possible and keep the sun and wind off as it will evaporate soluble nutrients with it and N2O is a really bad greenhouse gas as well as it will kill microbes and release their carbon. 

Use the right mulch around plants

When you add organic mulch, you are feeding microbes, thus building soil. 

  • Preferably use a woody mulch around trees and perennials and 
  • Use a lighter annual based mulch like lucerne or sugar cane around annuals and veggies. 

What you are doing here is feeding fungi with the woody mulch and bacteria with the lighter mulch as that’s what the plant partner associations are in those beds. AND you are sequestering carbon so keep laying it on there! 

Plant more trees please

A carefully chosen and located tree can really make a garden if you only have a small space. There’s a lot to think about when selecting a tree but I encourage you to plant some if you have space. 

If you’re in a bushfire prone area, plant deciduous trees if your local council allows as there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest they save houses in serious fire events. If you plant deciduous trees, you get a really good cooling effect in summer. 

Deciduous trees transpire really effectively (unlike our native gums that have very thick waxy leaves that only give you shade and very little trans evaporative cooling). Also, gums drop a lot of branches and leaves which isn’t in itself a bad thing until a bushfire comes through.

Deciduous trees lose their leaves all at once (which lets light in just when you need it) whereas evergreens tend to constantly shed leaves which can be annoying if you want the place looking schmick 24/7. 

With that big leaf drop in autumn it coincides beautifully with the last few times your wheeled herbivore will graze on your perfect savannah err I mean lawn. So make yourself a compost pile with lawn clippings, some of your food scraps, and those lovely leaves and store the rest in a leaf cage for future use and creating leaf mould. 

I could go on for days about the benefits of trees in the urban and suburban environment but I’ll leave that for another post. Suffice to say that you will be drawing down more carbon growing a tree or two than if you aren’t. You will be cleaning your air AND making more air and reducing your heating and cooling costs if you select and locate them sensibly. 

In summary, there are so many low-cost ways to get started as a regenerative gardener, right in your own backyard. It all starts by understanding and harnessing natural nutrient cycles, building your own rich compost and mulch and reducing your use of damaging chemicals. Join us as we cultivate a future where gardens flourish in harmony with nature’s rhythms, one mindful step at a time.

Reach out to me anytime and book a consult if you’d like help getting started.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *