Gardening and Farming Principles
“Sustainable”, “Organic”, “Regenerative”, “Chemical Free”; all have become buzzwords in the last years, but what do they mean exactly? There’s a lot of information out there, and many of it is questionable, much of it is counterproductive, and yet there’s almost always something to be learned wherever you go. How do you sort it all out?
I’ve found the most helpful way to think about gardening or farming is to learn and understand the different ideologies, or principles, behind the practices. This sounds boring, but if you don’t understand the “why” behind what you’re doing in your backyard, you’ll find that trying new gardening techniques or fixes can actually destroy your garden.
There are two main thoughts behind growing food. I’m going to label them “Chemical Agriculture”, and “Regenerative Agriculture”. This is a gross simplification, but unless you take a deep dive into this world, simple is better.
Chemical Agriculture focuses on controlling the growing environment through chemicals and supplements. A typical growing season (whether garden or farming) generally consists of the following though the order or details will change depending on the gardener or farmer:
- Tilling the soil to mix in leftover plant growth or cover crop (most often done in the fall if no cover crop)
- If GMO herbicide resistant crops are being planted, herbicide is often sprayed before planting to prevent weed growth.
- Seeds are planted and chemical fertilizer is sprayed
- If there are growth or pest issues, appropriate chemical supplements, fungicides, or pesticides are applied
- Crop is harvested and field is tilled for next year
In contrast, Regenerative Agriculture recognizes that plants have grown without human intervention for thousands of years, and attempts to integrate the garden or farm with natural surroundings and natural plant growth patterns to create efficient, self-sustaining ecosystems without the use of chemicals and with as little human intervention as possible. Regenerative Agriculture fits a huge range of growing options and methodologies, and it is difficult to boil down a typical growing season. So I will explain what we did at the Airdrie Urban Farm Collective as a sample:
- Built raised lasagna beds to build self sustaining soil that doesn’t require fertilizer
- Planted the food
- Mulched the beds with hay to prevent weed growth. The bottom layers of hay also retain moister to preserve water and the lower levels of hay compost around the plants to provide further nutrients for the plants
- Weeds that were grown were pulled and thrown on top of the lasagna beds where possible to compost in place
- Food was harvested, beds were further covered with hay for the winter and left in place without disturbing
When pests come along, instead of looking to chemicals, the regenerative gardener looks to nature. How do natural ecosystems deal with that pest? If there are aphids, allowing the wasp nest nearby will fix it. Are there gophers? Try attracting some birds of prey or create a weasel habitat in the area to keep them under control. Experiencing fungal rot or other disease? Try inoculating your soil and plants with compost tea, worm tea, and/or predatory insects and fungi, which will then remain in your soil preventing the infection from happening again.
At Airdrie Urban Farm Collective, we do our best to farm in a regenerative manner, but in real life it’s not as simple as choosing one or the other, and there are massive pros and cons to each methodology. In the next part, we’ll introduce some of the pros and cons of chemical vs regenerative growing, talk about how some of the basic principles that cannot be combined (for example, using fungicides to prevent disease will kill soil microbes that feed your plants), and provide some resources to learn more about how to garden and farm in a regenerative manner.