Today, gardener Mike Farnsworth shares his story of applying Regenerative Agriculture principles to his home garden. He shared with me some of his experiments and I asked if he would write them up to share with all of you. Thank you for taking the time, Mike – this is excellent to see in practice. -DG
Regenerative Ag(ish) Gardening
by Mike Farnsworth
After reading Steve Solomon’s The Intelligent Gardener and Water-Wise Gardening and trying his methods on a small scale, I have also been preparing for the day we can try to get our own homestead going where we would deal with a much larger scale, which has very different constraints.
I also read books by Joel Salatin, Greg Judy, and finally Gabe Brown, and a bunch of lightbulbs went on as Gabe Brown laid out the whole regenerative agriculture approach. He even says in his book Dirt to Soil that you can apply it to the garden, but he kinda glossed over it.
Well, I don’t have a farm or a homestead yet, so I figured it was time to experiment and start learning some of the ropes, and see what would happen.
For some background, here in my neck of the woods in northern Utah we get 13-14 inches of rain per year (a lot of that is snow-water equivalent from snowpack, which is our lifeline). Summers are hot, dry, and pretty much no rain. We had a good water year, 150% of snowpack and good rain into early June so the reservoirs and most lakes are full, so irrigation water availability isn’t much of an issue. My garden is small enough I can lay out drip lines and it won’t break the bank or irritate me with the amount of work.
Regenerative Agriculture Principles
Regenerative ag for farming and pastures has just a handful of principles:
* No tilling
* Remove dependence on chemical fertilizers
* Get roots in the ground year-round if possible; make heavy use of cover crops
* “Armor” the soil, meaning trample/cut the cover crops and leave them on the ground
* Diversity of plant species (more on this in below)
* Integrate livestock to trample, manure and essentially mow the plants for you; usually the density of animals is high and they are moved often (sometimes called high density grazing, mob grazing, or management intensive grazing)
Alleged Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture
The alleged benefits are numerous, here are a few:
* More biological life in the ground: roots, worms, mycorrhiza, bacteria, etc. The goal is to build a robust ecology.
* With good plant selection, you get carbon and nitrogen sucked into the ground for you, and you can tailor them to your local climate and so on.
* With good plant diversity (7+ types recommended!), pests can’t get established or can’t do as much damage.
* Roots + other organics in the ground improve both water retention and water infiltration; heavy rains get soaked in and stay, light rains soak in and stay also.
* The animals will partially eat the crops and trample some more, adding armor to the soil to keep evaporation at a minimum and helping the plants decompose. They also push, pug and otherwise disturb the soil and push seeds into the ground, and basically do a few inches of light tilling for you.
* Animals poop, and poop is gold. After big animals poop, send little animals like chickens through to pick through the cow pats/etc and act as manure spreaders, including for their own manure.
* Through all of the above, it builds real top soil, injects carbon and nitrogen, and brings it to life. The claim is you can take barren, stripped dirt and transform it into deeply productive soil.
Sounds awesome, right? Is it too good to be true? Applying it to the garden on a smaller scale is not super straightforward, and nothing is guaranteed anyway, but off I went.
Applying Regenenerative Agriculture to the Home Garden
I reshaped my main garden beds to be one long bed, about 6 feet wide (don’t laugh at me, David) and about 70 feet long, trying to minimize soil disturbance as I went. We took our chickens’ deep bedding from the winter with all the semi-composted manure and cover crop seed, and spread it on the top and raked it in a bit. We used a “chicken blend” cover crop mix from Urban Farmer, which has annual ryegrass, perennial ryegrass, buckwheat, flax, millet, forage peas, red clover and alfalfa. As it was growing, we planted our main garden crops somewhat randomized into the middle of it, such as potatoes, squashes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. It produced a chaotic mess. Or a glorious mess? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly messy.
Note the construction netting zip-tied to T-posts. We get awful wind here spring and fall, so those are designed to be a wind break especially for new seedlings in the spring.
For the livestock component, I couldn’t just let my hens roam or the little punks would absolutely go eat the stuff I didn’t want them to, while ignoring the stuff I did want them to eat.
As the cover crop gets tall I go out there with little shears and I cut it by hand so I don’t damage the garden crops I want. I toss all the stuff I cut into the chicken run, sometimes leaving some of it on the ground in the garden. I guess that means I’m the livestock in this scenario, but I’ll be darned if I’ll let those chickens touch my tomatoes and peppers.
The cover crop has gone gangbusters. I’ve had to cut it four times since May, and it’s still a ridiculous overgrown mess and swallows my regular garden plants in some cases. The cucumbers, melons and peppers have kinda struggled to get enough sun, so I need to find a way to reduce the competition from the cover crops. The squash vines have been running and they’re happy as clams. The potatoes have been, frankly, nuts in their vegetative growth. They’re also putting out loads of potato fruit/berries/whatever the heck those are, which I’ve never seen them do before.
Regarding water, I would rate the water infiltration and retention as good as one ever seen it in my yard, but I don’t have numbers to back that up. The chicken manure I initially spread combined with our extra rain in May/June has caused everything to grow **fantastically** well. It’s hard to keep up with the cover crop and keep it from taking over. If I were growing pasture and that were my mix, I would be downright giddy about the growth. I could rotate livestock back around onto the same pasture paddock way faster than I ever imagined possible here in arid Utah. I would still need irrigation of some sort, but I suspect I wouldn’t need as much as my neighbors would for their mudblood monocropping. So far so good.
For this experiment my big litmus test was whether and how much it helped with the pests. Here in Utah we commercially grow lots of melons, squashes, pumpkins. So much so that the squash bugs have made this one of their favorite places to be. If you grow squashes and they find your garden, and they will, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of them. On top of that, as of this last year according to the Utah State University ag researchers the squash bugs here are now carrying a disease that will take down a squash plant very quickly after they sink their grubby bug mitts into it. If doing things the regenerative ag way can reduce or eliminate the threat from squash bugs, for me that would be a fantastic win. Last year my family almost didn’t get any squashes; only a few plants survived, and the ones that did struggled a lot even with a huge amount of manual labor picking off the bugs and eggs.
The Results Thus Far
I had two squashes planted outside the main garden on their own little lonesome this spring. They’re both dead. One day they were happy, the next day they were deflated and there was evidence of squash bugs, and the next day they’re crunchy and gone. I have four winter squash plants in the main garden that have sent vines out beyond the cover crop area, and all of them have now shown squash bugs and eggs on them. But here’s the kicker: the bugs and the eggs are **only on the parts of the vines sticking out from the main garden, where there’s no cover crop.** I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve been picking off the relatively few squash eggs and destroying them, and picking off the few squash bugs and giving them to my chickens. (Why compost your enemies when you can turn them into eggs?) The vines sticking out have acted like a trap crop for the squash bugs so it’s easy to find them and get rid of them. I’m okay with how this is turning out. I keep going back and checking squash leaves among the cover crop and finding zero, and I mean **zero** evidence of squash bugs. I still can’t believe how stark that transition is in bug behavior over mere inches.
The season moves ever onward, but so far I’d say this regenerative ag thing is pretty spiffy even in the garden. It has generated some extra work for me to do, but the results appear worth it and there’s plenty of room for the system can be tuned to reduce the downsides. I’ve got some ideas to try for next year. I’m also going to take my big long garden bed and move it a little further towards being a single grocery row garden on top, so I can get closer to gardening nirvana.