Practicing regenerative agriculture at home involves stopping all practices that damage soil life, and implementing alternative practices that regenerate soil life.
Tilling, chemical fertilizers (yes, the "blue stuff"), herbicides and insecticides all destroy soil life. Scientists are now discovering, however, that an intact and thriving soil ecosystem, full of life, is critical in order for plants to be robust, healthy, and packed with nutrition and flavor.
We can take advantage of these recent discoveries and use regenerative agriculture at home to grow the most nutrient-dense and flavorful produce we have ever eaten!
A brief overview of regenerative agriculture practices is available here, but below are the detailed instructions for how to practice regenerative agriculture at home.
I share what has worked for me (and not), and explain how each practice helps restore soil life.
I've tried to cover everything you might want to know about practicing regenerative agriculture at home, even though that made this a long page. All the practices work together to restore a healthy soil ecosystem, so it's good to familiarize yourself with all of them.
Here are quick links to the different sections so you can jump around if you want to:
Dan Kittredge, founder of the Bionutrient Food Association, once
told me that tilling the soil was like running the infrastructure
beneath New York City through a blender. What you don't see below ground
is what enables people to live above ground: water and gas lines,
sewers, electrical, telephone and data cables, the transit subway,
steam pipes ... and even a few secret Chinatown gang war tunnels!
Healthy soil isn't that much different (well, maybe without the gang war tunnels). Below ground there are miles of filaments of mycorrhizal fungi interconnecting plants with each other as well as with minerals and water, that function much like supply lines and internet cables.
Tilling the soil destroys the mycorrhizal fungi by pulverizing the filaments, and disrupts the entire below-ground ecosystem. that is comprised of thousands of species of
Why do farmers or gardeners till (make cuts down into soil) or plow (overturn the soil)? To knock down weeds, "loosen" soil that is compacted, and incorporate plant residues and manures. Farm implement manufacturers claim these machines and techniques are necessary for success, and in fact they are right - under the current, dead-soil paradigm.
How Nature "Tills" the Soil
Let's take a look at how nature "tills" the soil. Across the planet, grazing animals "till" the soil as they roam across the land. Let's use the Great Plains as an example.
Huge herds of bison used to move across the prairies, grazing just the nutritious tops off the diverse plant species and then moving on. This actually stimulated the plants to grow more than if they not been grazed. The bison's weight and sharp hooves trampled the previous year's dead growth down into the surface, where it became incorporated into the bodies of the soil life.
This captured and stored carbon in the soil, rather than it being released into the
atmosphere as carbon dioxide. But most of the carbon remained underground as both living
and dead plant roots. This was one of Earth's major "carbon
sinks", or storage reservoirs for carbon.
When we decided to convert the prairies to agriculture, along came the moldboard plow, invented by a man named John Deere in 1837. The plow completely inverted a deep swath of soil, putting the roots and their diverse and crucial soil life up on the surface, where the microbes are killed by sunlight and the carbon is volatilized off into the atmosphere.
Plowing the prairies on a large scale destroyed the deep plant roots and soil ecology that held water and minerals and anchored soil in place during drought and wind. Their loss led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, in which 2½ to 5 inches of topsoil blew away over a staggering 23½ million acres.
Tilling or disking is not quite as bad as plowing, but it still rips up and damages soil ecology - "the city's infrastructure" - damaging the natural nutrient recycling system and again, driving carbon up into the atmosphere.
As vegetable gardeners, we probably don't have bison in our backyard to help with the natural recycling processes, so how do we proceed to manage weeds while preserving soil ecology?
1) Water really deeply a couple of days before this process, so the ground is softer and about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. (Never work soil that is wet though, or the crumb structure will be damaged and it will dry into concrete-like clods.)
This is my preferred method of
"breaking" new ground. First weed-whack all the weeds down to an
inch or two tall. Rake up the weed tops for the compost pile, and then
use a well-made, high quality stirrup hoe that cuts on both the pull and
push strokes to sever the roots from the stem just below the crown.
Johnny's Selected Seeds makes a really good stirrup hoe, which I also
use every year when I cut down my cover crops.
You can remove the severed weed clumps to the compost pile/bin, or invert them on the surface and plant right through them (well, between them).
2) Another way to accomplish the same thing is to weed-whack all the weeds down to ground level, but leave the top material in place. Water deeply (again) and cover the whole thing with cardboard to deprive the plants of light. It usually takes two layers of cardboard to makes sure there are no cracks where light can get through. The cardboard will blow around when the wind comes up, so you need to weight it down with rocks, bricks, or soil and then wait patiently for a few months while nature works her miracle. Earthworms love to eat wet cardboard, and will come up to chow down, which builds soil structure and creates channels for water and air. I find this method works well for small areas, but is too cumbersome for larger ones.
3) If you have a larger area to prepare, "solar sterilization" is an effective method. Weed-whack down whatever is growing there as low as possible, and then water very deeply so that the soil is really saturated. Tightly cover the area with a heavy-duty clear plastic sheet, and secure it around the edges with soil, stones or bricks.
("short wave") radiation passes through the clear plastic, where it is
absorbed by the earth. It then reradiates out as heat energy ("long
wave" radiation), but the heat gets trapped by the plastic, which is
quite effective at killing the plants underneath. This method is very
effective, but works best in the hottest part of the summer, and takes
about 4 weeks.
Other downsides are that it uses plastic, also kills surface microbes, and requires patience. It probably won't be useful for this year's garden, because by midsummer when it's hot enough for this to work, the better part of your growing season is usually over. But then again, gardening is a teacher of patience, and the best gardeners I know are good at thinking ahead and taking the long view.
4) Build a raised bed on top of the weed patch. This is my least favorite, but is many people's first choice, because raised beds look tidy, are easy to reach, and are quick to start. They seem, at first, to do away with the weed problem.
But raised beds use a precious resource, wood, which is expensive, and not as "renewable" as the forest industry would have you believe. Wood is now grown on plantation "forests", where repeated monoculture harvests denude the soil and require heavy use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Another downside to raised beds is that they have a finite lifespan: the healthier your soil ecosystem, the shorter the lifespan of the raised bed, because fungi do their job and eat away the wood. This takes a few years, but it is inevitable.
As your gardening season progresses, cut weeds off just below the
surface with a sharp collinear hoe, a "Ken Ho" hoe, or a Japanese
weeding sickle, and let the tops just lie on the surface, where they will become mulch that protects the soil from erosion, prevents sunlight
from killing microbes, and becomes food for earthworms and microbes. More importantly, the roots will be left intact underground, where they sequester carbon and feed microbes.
You can also pull weeds up roots and all, and lay them on the surface. This is not as good as leaving the severed roots underground, because as the roots slowly decay they leave carbon-rich tunnels behind as earthworm freeways, viaducts and air pockets. If you are concerned about weed seeds, cut the seed heads off before laying the weeds down. Or not. You'll catch 'em next time around.
Mulch protects against erosion, brings up and feeds earthworms, feeds
microbes, keeps soil moist longer, prevents the sun from killing
microbes, and over time composts in place to release nutrients and
carbon and eventually become humus, which acts like a savings vault for
Mulch can be fall leaves, straw, or pulled-up weeds.
However, there are also two possible downsides of too much mulch (try saying that really fast three times…): it can harbor slugs and earwigs which both eat tender leaves, and it may increase potassium levels in the soil.
Now it has taken me years to come around to seeing the beauty of this - but mulch can also be living plants, yes - weeds. I used to pride myself on carefully managed, photogenic weed-free beds, but now I let purslane and yellow clover grow wild on them, all around my crops.
Purslane is a common weed where I live in hot, dry Colorado. It is a relatively low-growing, fleshy, thick-leaved plant that does not compete with crops for light, and saves more water that it uses by insulating the ground beneath from the sun, which is very intense here at altitude in hot, dry Colorado. It pulls its juices back down underground in the winter, so whatever mineral nutrients it used for its own growth have largely been preserved in the soil. It doesn't raise potassium levels like importing straw stalks from off the land, and slugs and earwigs don't like it.
And clover pulls nitrogen from the air and puts it into a form that plants can use as fertilizer. Win win!
The main benefit of well-made compost is not the bit of nutrition that
it holds, but the amount of soil biology it contains. Ideally, it is
full of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, archaea, and
micro-and-macro arthropods, and earthworms. This diversity of life,
which together makes up the soil ecosystem, is critical to plant health
through countless symbiotic relationships. (There are even better ways
to boost microbe levels than using compost. We'll get to brewing
microbial teas in a bit.)
Compost eventually breaks down into the miraculous substance known as "humus", which has an extremely high surface area on a microscopic level. This provides what is known as a high "cation exchange capacity", which means that humus (along with clay) is very efficient at holding cation nutrients like calcium and magesium "in escrow" in the soil, preventing them from washing away until they are needed by plants.
Some authors say that if you use enough great quality compost you don't need to fertilize, but I disagree with this for several reasons. One is that even if you're making your own compost, most soils are now so depleted of minerals that storebought food (and maybe our garden produce at first) is also depleted, and the compost made from that food is also deficient in minerals.
Another reason is that if you're using purchased compost, chances are it's made using somebody else's waste product, like sewage sludge (containing peed-out pharmaceuticals like birth-control hormones, chemotherapy drugs, etc.), feedlot cow manure (hormones, antibiotics, glyphosate, GMOs) wood or bark chips (high-carbon, nitrogen-stealing substances that are now grown on herbicide-heavy plantations), yard waste (containing herbicides and insecticides), etc. You get the picture.
As with too much straw mulch, too much compost can raise potassium levels in the soil, which can upset the optimal nutrient ratios and make minerals that are present in the soil unavailable to the plants. An application rate of about a half-an-inch per year is usually about right.
You can figure this out more accurately by doing a soil test, sending it to a professional lab, and checking to make sure your potassium levels are not too high. I recommend Logan Labs, and you can read more about this whole process on the organic fertilizers page.
If you find you have excessive potassium levels, plant native grass and/or red clover as a cover crop, and let the bed or area "rest" under it for a season. It will pull potassium, and then harvest and discard the crop residue instead of composting it. Use low-growing living weeds as mulch, and use microbial teas for awhile instead of compost.
* A note about "biology": "Biology" and "ecology" are defined as "the study of living things" and "the study of how living things interact with each other and their physical surroundings", respectively. The words are now frequently used in common parlance to mean "the life in the soil" and "how life systems interact". (Apologies to my university biology professors.)
Stepping on your growing beds compacts soil, which makes a
lot more work for your microbes. Water and air cannot penetrate
compacted soils, and it is harder to scratch minerals into the surface.
I recommend making growing beds no wider than twice your comfortable reach, with paths in between. This enables you to reach the middle of the bed from either side. If you need to walk on the bed in the off season for some reason, use a "digging board", a piece of stout plywood about 2 ft square to distribute your weight.
In the "olden days" all farm waste, including crop waste, human and
animal manure, food scraps, dead animals and even dead people were
buried on the farm. This made mineral recycling a closed loop.
Nowadays crop after crop is exported off-farm (or garden), and the land is "fertilized" (with the blue stuff) to achieve to maximum yield, not maximum nutrition. It takes a lot more minerals in the soil to achieve maximum nutrition than it does maximum yield, which is analogous to how, in a human being, it takes more vitamins and minerals to achieve vibrant health than it does to merely avoid deficiency diseases like scurvy, rickets, or beriberi.
A plant may grow to a certain size for market, and even be organically grown, but still be lacking in flavor and nutrition. (Last winter I bit into an organic tomato from our local health food store, and I swear, it was so utterly without flavor that had I not seen it I wouldn't have known what it was.) Since farmers must pay extremely close attention to costs in order to stay in business, for most farmers these days, the primary concern is yield, not nutrition.
Maximum nutrition is achieved by providing appropriate, slow, biologically-driven rock dust (or ocean product) blended according to needs shown by a soil test, along with creating and maintaining a healthy soil ecology, including fungi, bacteria, archaea, micro-and-macro arthropods, etc. Other methods (explored below) are also part of supplying the plant with what it needs to achieve its full genetic potential.
As vegetable gardeners we generally have more liberty than farmers in our choice of goals and in how we manage our soil. If our primary goal is maximizing nutrition and flavor for feeding ourselves and our families, then remineralization and care of soil biosystem will be a highest priorities.
Many gardeners have been in the habit of fertilizing their gardens with some version of "the blue stuff", which as we've learned, is soluble-salt fertilizer that kills and bypasses natural soil ecology. It will grow plants, but not healthy and healthful plants. Healthy plants naturally resist pest infestations and diseases and are rich in flavor compounds, which (not coincidentally) contain much of the nutrition. They are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals that support and sustain human health and longevity. Plants that are healthy themselves are healthful for us.
To remineralize garden soil naturally requires attention to both minerals and the soil ecosystem. For the mineral part, it's important to understand that minerals need to be present not only within some upper and lower limits, but in certain ratios to one another. It can get complicated pretty fast, but fortunately, there are tools available that make it easier to manage.
First, you will need to take a soil sample and have it tested. Home test kits are not comprehensive enough, nor are State University Extension Service tests! State Universities receive most of their funding from corporate entities, including Big Ag and the pharmaceutical industry. Their soil testing services are geared toward a "blue stuff" fertilizer prescription for maximum yield under a non-regenerative (shall we say degenerative?) paradigm, not toward optimal soil health for maximal human nutrition. To build healthy soil with good mineral balance and diverse soil ecology, we need to address deficiencies as well as excesses. For more extensive information on how to take a soil sample, where to send it, and how to work with your results please visit the Custom Organic Fertilizer page.
The best way to boost the population of good microbes in the
soil is to make a batch of microbial tea. Also called "actively aerated
compost tea", this bubbling bucket of biology* can transform your soil
into a loose, friable, vibrant place where roots thrive and party down
with their microbe buddies. (A thought for an aside… Cleve Baxter and
the lie detector on plants' reaction to pouring boiling water down the
There are many recipes out there for different microbial teas to address specific deficiencies, but my go-to, general-support tea recipe is from Jeff Loewenfel's book Teaming with Microbes. A more comprehensive guide to making specific teas and foliar sprays is The Regenerative Grower's Guide to Garden Amendments by Nigel Palmer. These are both excellent books that I heartily recommend. Nigel's book offers fertility amendments as well as biological ones.
I used to use a 5 gallon bucket with a big bubbling aquarium airstone for making aerobic compost tea, but then I built an "airlift brewer" which is much more effective. The airlift brewer circulates the water completely without leaving stagnant corners that can become anaerobic, and studies have proven that it generates a far higher diversity and volume of good microbial partners than the traditional airstone bubbler.
And as an added bonus, it sounds like a Yellowstone mudpot when it's running.
I'll have my own YouTube about this coming soon, but here is a link to a good one from the original guy who developed this particular brewer:
The big benefit of making microbial teas is that the organisms it contains are key to taking the mineral nutrition from your soil and delivering it to the plants. It also helps above-ground when sprayed on the foliage, as the minerals it contains are partially absorbed by the leaves, while the microbes help leaves fight off pathological viral and fungal infections without harming mycorrhizal fungi.
In support of thriving soil ecology, a few years ago I stopped digging,
forking and... well really, deeply disturbing the soil at all. I now use
a 3-tined cultivator in the early spring to incorporate rock dusts,
compost, worm castings and other natural fertilizers into the surface of the soil with minimal disruption to the its deeper ecosystem.
Then I stand back and allow the earthworms, protozoa, archaea, bacteria and fungi do all the work for me, which is really so much easier. Phew!
But easy is not really the point, it's a side effect. The point is that healthy soil creates healthy plants, which lead to healthy people and a healthy planet.
It may sound like work, but compared to double-digging or forking in nutrients, it's nothing. I do a detailed soil test every year to check my nutrient levels, and then I make a custom fertilizer blend to assure that I supply this year's crop with what it needs, as well as to slowly and gently correct any imbalances.
I rake the mulch off the surface, sprinkle on my custom fertilizer blend, top it off with about a half-inch of completely finished compost and whatever worm castings I have on hand, and then drag the three-tined cultivator over it, which basically scratches up the top inch or so of soil so that the minerals and compost are evenly mixed into the surface. When it rains (or I water) some of the minerals are carried a bit deeper, and the fungi and bacteria have a field day.
Then I rake the mulch back over the top, go inside, grab a cup of coffee and curl up with a good book (*some recommendations).
I have now nurtured the soil life to such an extent that it takes care of my garden's needs, just by being itself. It's a gardening choir, where every member sings its part. I'm just the conductor and the music frees me up from doing all the work I used to do.
Daily puttering is much more enjoyable, connecting, and effective than
leaving the garden for a week at a time and then feeling overwhelmed
with tasks to do.
The old adage "The best fertilizer is the gardener's shadow" is attributed as an ancient Chinese proverb. I don't know about fertilizer, but the best, most productive, and most enjoyable gardens I've ever wandered through are those that are visited daily by their caretakers, who are themselves an integral part of the garden ecosystem.
You are the conductor of the garden symphony, and if you want it to perform well, you need to direct it.
Many busy people just starting out think of their gardens as some "thing" they do on the weekend. But our gardens will be much more productive, enjoyable, and fullfilling if we think of them instead as relationships to be nurtured and sustained. Make a relationship with your garden, spend time with it. Even just sitting there quietly doing nothing but observing will teach you things and deepen your appreciation for what's happening.
What's the best thing to do with your garden beds in the fall? Most
people just leave them bare until spring, perhaps with the winter-killed
crops left standing. This is better than pulling everything up by the
roots and leaving the garden completely bare, but it is not as good as
using living cover-crop blends to assure that your precious soil
microbes, worms, fungi and other friends are fed and sheltered
throughout the fall, winter and early spring months.
Roots anchor soil in place and prevent erosion, and when they die, they. provide food for earthworms and microarthropods, as well as create channels in the soil allowing water and air penetration. But as we've already learned, living plant roots also exude sugars into the soil that feed the fungi and microbes in exchange for minerals, and this "liquid carbon" is critical for building soil structure.
What is "soil structure" exactly, and why is it so important?
Soil structure is the way particles in the soil clump together (or not), which depends on both chemical and biological processes.
If you've ever had the experience of putting a shovel to the ground and not even being able to break the surface with all your weight, you know what bad soil structure is like. Roots, water and earthworms have as hard a time penetrating it as your shovel does, and it won't make a good garden! On the other hand, some soils are so loose, friable and full of worms that you can dig deep with your bare hands.
Some of the liquid carbon that is exuded by roots is acted upon by fungi and microbes and transformed into glomalin, a substance that aggregates soil into structures that allow free movement of water and air, hold nutrients and act as carbon sinks. It makes the soil spongy.
The fungi that break down dead plant material (ie, compost, crop residue, mulch, leaves etc.) are different species than the mycorrhizal fungi that grow around and between the roots of living plants, and they eat different things. Nurturing mycorrhizal fungi means keeping living plants growing in the ground, even if they go dormant in the winter.
And if you plant a cover crop that includes a legume like field peas, hairy vetch or clover, it will form a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria that pull nitrogen from the air and fix it so that it is stable in the soil and available to plants for building amino acids and proteins.
There are many choices available as fall cover crops, and some of my favorite are available from Johnny's Selected Seeds. Their descriptions are complete (just as an FYI: I do not get commissions from them) and I particularly love their fall blend:
So planting a cover crop at the end of your food-growing season:
The more diverse your plant population, either in food crops or
cover crops, the better it is for your soil. People have been practicing
"companion planting" for generations, claiming that some plants do
better when grown together, while some plants should specifically not be
Up until recently this wisdom has been mostly observational and anecdotal, but science is finally taking a look at some of these associations and finding that (surprise!) a lot has a lot to do with microbes.
Plants that grow particularly well together often form symbiotic relationships with the same microbial species, and some even share the same mycelial network.
But mixing it up can be good too. I just drove over to a friend's house to help her do some weeding, and along the way there was a bit of wild verge along the side of the highway. Tall and short grasses, unknown tall spindly wildflowers, dandelions, and a bunch of other plants were all growing together, with the soil completely covered. All the plants looked to be vibrantly healthy.
So why do we think our vegetable gardens should all be in neatly weeded rows or beds with bare soil in between? Why are we offended by things looking "weedy"?
Scientists are finding healthier and more diverse soil ecosystems in areas that have the greatest plant diversity. The greater the above-ground diversity, the greater the below-ground diversity, and the more complete the nutrition in the plants.
It's interesting to note that the species of weeds that inhabit your soil are reflective of the health of your soil. There are many weeds that will grow in baked-hard clay, sending down extremely deep roots that over time, will help loosen the soil and bring up water and nutrients. These same weeds will disappear when the soil is restored to a loose, friable state.
Rotating your crops, so that you don't plant the same plants in the same place every year is another way to provide diversity.
One of the most disturbing consequences of "degenerative" industrial/chemical agriculture is pollinator die-off. When soils are unhealthy, plants are unhealthy, and unhealthy plants become vulnerable to attack by diseases and pests
Unhealthy plants don't have the energetic resources to mount their own "chemical" phenol defense system, and so industrial farming uses poisons to kill the insects that are attacking the weakened plants. The poisons are indiscriminate, and kill pollinating insects as well as crop-eating insects.
Many GMO plants have been genetically engineered so that the plant itself is poisonous to insects. This is a big factor in mass die-off of monarch butterflies. Monarch larva eat milkweed, which grows wild around GMO cornfields. When the pollen from GMO corn lands on the milkweed and the larva eat milkweed, they die.
I have a particular love for bees and butterflies of all kinds, and have written several articles on how you can help pollinators. Even a small pollinator garden can be a boon to our pollinator friends.
Plant a variety of perennial wildflower plants that are native to your region in order to support wild bees, beetles and butterflies, as well as some bee-favorite annuals like borage, French marigolds, and zinnias. See (VGG Pollinator pages) for more information.
If you're interested in the evolving science of boosting nutritional density in produce, check out these two organizations.
Bionutrient Food Association founder Dan Kittredge is a brilliant organic farmer in Massachusetts who has enlisted growers, engineers and scientists in a consortium dedicated to determining exactly which growing techniques boost nutrient density, and how to measure that nutrient density in an easily-implementable way. He organizes the annual Soil and Nutrition Conference, bringing in cutting-edge growers, scientists, authors, and forward-thinking food industry executives together to learn from each other and brainstorm together.
Regeneration International's mission is "To promote, facilitate and accelerate
the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management
for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger and
rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological and economic systems." They are doing crucial work. Has maps of where to find regenerative farms worldwide, and much useful information.
Regenerative agriculture is an ever-growing field, and fathoming the depths of soil ecology is a fascinating and massive undertaking. New research is uncovering new wonders every day. Not all of this shows up on the web right away, so do check out what is being published in book form as this field of knowledge deepens.
Three of my current faves are: