Garden

Building a Climate Victory Garden to Regenerate Soil

Let’s think for a moment about how Mother Nature manages her garden. The plants and animals intermingle and perform essential roles that support the ecosystem. Plants have different habitat preferences and essentially fit together like puzzle pieces in layers from the forest canopy to forest floor. Animals forage, fertilize and disperse seeds across the landscape, resulting in increased growth. Soil microorganisms are constantly being fed from deep root systems and decaying organic matter.

If we want to succeed in our farms and backyard gardens, we need to use this model.

chickens in apple orchard

Separating humans, plants and animals into our own separate boxes is breaking down Mother Nature’s system. (Think subdivisions, livestock feedlots and commercial mono-cropped farmland). This breakdown has detrimental effects on the health of all parties involved but most of all, on the health of our planet.

Climate Victory Gardens

During World War I and World War II, citizens rallied together to grow food in backyards, schools, business grounds and parks to feed their families and local communities. The movement included the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany.

In 1917 and 1918 there were 7.2 million new garden plots created. This led to a rise in home canning so gardeners could preserve their bounty. It’s estimated 1.45 million cans of fruit and vegetables were home-canned during this time.

victory garden poster
Victory Garden Poster, World War II, 1945

Today, we are facing a much different threat – one that transcends country, race or status. Climate change is one of the most pivotal issues of our age and if we work together, we have the chance to make a real impact for positive global change. Gardeners, farmers and conscientious consumers who grow and support climate victory gardens can:

  • Draw carbon down out of the atmosphere with our plants
  • Improve our nutrition
  • Build healthy soil
  • Save the bees, pollinators and wildlife
  • Lower emissions from food transportation
  • Contribute to local water cycles and diminish natural disasters
  • Reduce demands placed on our commercial agricultural systems
  • Reverse the effects of global warming
vegetable garden

By growing and raising our own food, we eliminate the need for transportation which, in turn, lowers emissions and prevents loss of nutrition in the produce we eat. We control the inputs our produce receives so we know it was grown sustainably. The plants we grow make a positive contribution to the water cycle and local ecosystems while drawing down our planet’s carbon load.

Gardeners and farmers across the world are joining the Climate Victory Garden movement to regenerate their soil and their health. By using plants to sequester carbon from the atmosphere safely into the earth, we can reverse global warming and prevent violent weather disasters.

For more information about just what is happening to our planet’s soil read The Bare Soil Dilemma.

climate change activists

No Till Methods for Planting

Soil is habitat for over 25% of the earth’s biodiversity. We depend on those species of insects, fungi, bacteria and nematodes to:

  • Cycle nutrients
  • Sequester carbon and other gasses
  • Decompose organic material
  • Improve and maintain soil structure
  • Regulate the water cycle
  • Detoxify soil
  • Control harmful diseases and pests
  • Manage plant growth

It is easy to get your soil tested by your state’s cooperative extension office. There are also mail in soil test kits available online that will provide details on exactly which nutrients are present in the soil and offer recommendations for improvement. This can help you determine specific amendments and solutions to start building soil health on your property.

Soil biodiversity is essential to human nutrition. The top layer of soil, known as humus, is responsible for water retention and nutrient cycling. Without this tiny 4-12 inches of humus, life on earth would not be possible. Soils that have been tilled repeatedly for planting are unable to provide proper nutrition to the produce they grow. That means loss of nutrition in our food.

Unhealthy plants are more susceptible to failure which threatens our planet’s food security. The need for us all to employ no-till methods in our gardens and fields is urgent and essential.

Raised Bed Vegetable Garden
Raised beds are perfect for small scale no-till gardens

The technology for no till planting is readily available for commercial growers as attachments and add-ons for existing equipment. It may be necessary to do some digging in the initial design implementation phase, but the long term goal should be to create a sustainable design that doesn’t employ repeated tilling.

If you are a beginner gardener, you may be interested in Gardening 101: 9 Simple Steps to a Fantastic First Season! to help you with the basics of setting up your garden space.

The foundation of your climate victory garden needs to include no-till methods such as:

  • Mulch
  • Cover crops
  • Compost
  • Crop rotation
  • Livestock integration
  • No-till tractor equipment and hand tools (ie. roller-crimper, slicer-planter, no-till seed drill, flail mower, broad fork, push garden seeder, and many more)

To learn more about how you can apply these ideals to your garden or farm check out the book: The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers.

Mulch

Gardening is so rewarding but it takes a lot of work and dedication. When I think back to my early years of rotatilling (and oh the weeds it created!) I shutter at my ignorance. Why did it take me so long to figure this out?

When the plot garden became unruly, I switched to raised beds which I still have and love. With the clay soil on my property, it would have been a huge challenge to get started without adding layers of compost. So for a few years, I weeded and weeded and had beautiful bare-soil raised beds. Until I finally decided to add mulch (I went with cedar wood chips). Total game changer.

cabbages with mulch

I went from spending at least an hour a week weeding to about 5 minutes a week. And my plants showed me how much they enjoyed the mulch as well. When soil is left uncovered, the water it contains evaporates rapidly.

Many plants are sensitive to irregular amounts of water. That’s why you may see your tomatoes crack after a big rainstorm. They’re parched and when they get a drink, they have a big growth spurt. They crack because the fruit inside grows faster than the skin.

Mulch keeps water in the soil where plants can continue to access it long after the rain has gone. For those of you who have a watering system in place, this can save valuable resources and labor inputs. When you’re constantly battling evaporation, watering can seem like a losing battle. Mulch is the answer.

strawberries with straw mulch

Mulch can also help deter pest insects and prevent soil borne diseases. As the mulch decomposes, it feeds nutrients back into the soil for the plants and creatures living within. Because of this natural breakdown process, mulch will need to be replenished every few years.

There are mulches out there that don’t decompose, such as rocks or rubber mulch. These should be avoided when growing food. Organic, biodegradable materials available to use as mulch include:

  • Wood chips
  • Shredded leaves
  • Grass clippings
  • Straw
  • Pine needles
  • Shredded paper or cardboard
  • Compost

Cover crops or Perennials for No Bare Soil

Keeping soil covered is a key principle of regenerative agriculture. When working with annual produce that needs to be planted and harvested all in one season, cover crops are the solution.

Cover crops provide habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects while subduing pests and soil borne diseases. Cover crops act as a living mulch to suppress weeds, control erosion and retain soil moisture. The “chop and drop” method of cutting back cover crops to provide “green manure,” adds nutrients back into the soil. Cover crops can also be used for grazing livestock and feeding wildlife.

It’s easy to get all wrapped up in your vegetables and see no value in growing other plants. I admit, I started out this way as a gardener. I obsessed over my food plants and thought flowers were a completely pointless waste of time. But a garden needs pollinators in order to thrive and they love flowers!

water runoff seedling
Water runoff causes erosion of topsoil

Perennial fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs make amazing contributions to improving soil. Their deep roots can help pull up nutrients from deep below, making them accessible to plants with shallower root systems. They feed soil organisms and anchor soil structure. Self-seeding annuals can naturalize in permaculture landscapes and provide ongoing harvests with minimal labor inputs.

Incorporating berry bushes, fruit trees, and perennial herbs into the vegetable garden will provide blooms throughout the growing season. There are a great number of edible and medicinal flowers that can be planted as a border or used as cover crops.

Create bio-diversity and practice companion planting

It may seem daunting to grow many different kind of plants. Knowing how to care for each species takes research and there can be some trial and error. Companion Planting: Cracking the Code will help you understand how to arrange your plants in a mutually beneficial way.

nasturtium flower
Nasturtiums are an edible companion planting powerhouse

When you create a biodynamic system of plants, it produces an amazing ecological effect that increases soil fertility, improves plant growth and aids in plant’s resilience to pests, diseases and environmental stress.

These ecosystems provide habitat for beneficial insects and predators of pests. The influx of pollinators will improve yields on all crops. Imagine huge fruits and vegetables just packed with vitamins and minerals.

The disappearance of bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects is having a detrimental effect on our planet’s food production. By providing backyard oasis’s across the world, we can give pollinator populations the opportunity to bounce back.

bees in hive
The bee’s are going to love it!

Crop rotation

Rotating annual fruits and vegetables, so that they are not in the same location year after year, cuts down on pest insects and soil borne diseases. Since different types of plants have different nutrient requirements, this system also allows for soil nutrients to be replenished.

A typical 4 year rotation pattern may look something like this:

  • Year 1: Root Vegetables
  • Year 2: Legumes
  • Year 3: Brassicas and Leafy Greens
  • Year 4: Potatoes, Tomatoes and Fruit
4 year crop rotation cycle

As crops grow, their roots are constantly sluffing off and becoming food for soil microorganisms. By changing the plant species every year, we are actually feeding the soil a more diverse diet. All this added nutrition goes into our bodies through the produce we grow there.

Compost to Increase Soil Microbial Diversity

Have you ever looked into your garden and noticed plants that were droopy, discolored, spotty or just sad looking? That’s because they are hungry!

Fertilizer is so popular and widely used that it may seem like a good idea. Unfortunately, fertilizer doesn’t do anything to improve the soil, it just masks nutrient deficiencies in the short term. The soil problems will just come back and meanwhile, leeching occurs and pollutes our drinking water (not to mention waterways and oceans!). In large quantities, it can have detrimental effects on both soil and human health.

Compost bin

Enter compost. Compost can be added right on top of the existing soil so microorganisms or insects living down there don’t get disturbed.

You can create your own composting system at home or purchase compost from most garden supply stores. Not all compost is the same quality however, so be sure to read labels and know where your product came from. The best part about making your own compost is that you know it is safe and chemical free.

Compost is typically comprised of a combination of the following:

  • Food scraps from fresh produce, grains or coffee
  • Broken down wood chips, twigs, paper or cardboard
  • Manure and bio solids
  • Leaves, grass clippings, or other lawn debris
  • Cotton, wool, or other natural materials

These items comprise about 30% of all household waste, so double bonus here!

Animal Integration and Stacking Functions

The main principle behind techniques such as permaculture, agroforestry and silvopasture is the idea of creating a working ecosystem in which to grow food. Integrating diverse species of plants and animals allows stacking functions for the most output with the least amount of input.

vegetables growing under solar panels
Stacking functions!

Integrating livestock, large or small, with crops can:

  • Provide natural fertilizer
  • Minimize labor
  • Control pests
  • Manage weeds
  • Provide a healthy diet for livestock
  • Eliminate animal feed costs
  • Reduce soil erosion and respiration
  • Produce more robust plant re-growth

Livestock production is the leading cause of environmental degradation – it is responsible for 51% of annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide according to a 2009 world watch report (transportation contributes only 13%). We simply don’t have enough space on this planet for our growing population’s demand for meat.

pasture raised cows

By integrating livestock with produce, we can make our land more efficient while improving the health of our plants and animals. We can also make planet-friendly choices to eat more plant protein and reduce the negative environmental effects of animal agriculture.

Organic pest control solutions over chemical additives

Insects are an essential part of the ecosystem plants rely upon. Insects benefit the soil, pollinate crops and keep pest insects under control.

The problem arises when we alter the ecosystem. Farming large patches of land with one crop (mono cropping) invites large amounts insects that feed upon that particular crop. Commercial pest control chemicals are then dumped to kill the pests.

chickens in vegetable garden
Chickens on pest patrol!

In a biodynamic system, plants are intermixed to create ecological harmony. Predatory insects are present to keep pest species in check. Biodiversity of plants confuses pest populations, they have to search to find the snack they are looking for. Chickens or ducks can also be used as part of the system to clean up pest populations.

For advice on how to specifically target pest species organically read The Gardener’s Guide to Pest Insects.

Direct Water Where it’s Needed

Rainstorms are an inevitable force of nature. But if the landscape has been poorly designed, runoff can create huge problems. Floods can wash away valuable topsoil and destroy crops.

swale in farm field

Using permaculture concepts such as berms (hills) and swales (drainage ditches) can allow farmers to collect, store and distribute excess loads of water while protecting plants and soil. These techniques can be applied in backyards on a smaller scale for irrigation or rain gardens.

Planting on contour is a technique used to capture the most amount of rainwater possible. Imagine a topographical map of your property, those contour lines serve as your planting guide. Berms can be created on contour to create a slight terrace effect. Each row of trees or crops captures water as it runs downhill and helps to store it underground for later use.

Apricot Lane Farms
Fruit trees planted on contour at Apricot Lane Farms, a leader in regenerative agriculture.

Welcome wildlife to your ecosystem

My children are constantly asking me “Mommy, why are you planting that in the woods?” I tell them it’s a gift for the animals. If my property is filled with wildlife, then I know I’m doing something right.

Instead of cutting wildlife out of the agriculture equation, we need to plan for the whole ecosystem. It’s still alright to protect your crops from critters using organic methods, but we all still need to live on the same planet.

Here in Michigan, we have a lot of orchards, wineries and fruit farms. I smile when I see handfuls of trees planted outside the fence. They’re pruned and cared for just the same as the rest of the orchard even though they were planted for the wildlife. I always plant carrots on the edges of my woods to feed the rabbits, it keeps them happy and away from my other crops.

Just Grow Already!

You don’t have to be an expert gardener to grow food for your family. It takes time and practice to master all the techniques we’ve discussed here. Any amount of food you grow, from a single tomato plant, to an entire farm field, is making a positive contribution.

If you feel called to care for our planet, as I do, I hope you’ll join me in building your own Climate Victory Garden this year!

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