You may have heard the terms organic, regenerative or ecological gardening. What do they mean and how can we move towards regenerative practices in our own gardens? This week, Astrid Muschalla reviewed some principles and guidelines for working sustainably with and caring for the land that we share with plant, insect, microbe, and animal species.

Image credit: Society for Organic Urban Land Care

The term “organic” is sometimes applied to horticulture, and there are various definitions, and varying standards provincially, nationally and internationally. The Society for Organic Urban Landcare (SOUL) defines it broadly as:

A holistic approach which emphasizes the importance of relationships between living organisms and their environment

So, organic in this sense is more than simply restricting use of synthetic chemicals (as we sometimes believe) but is a way of working with natural systems to create healthy and resilient landscapes.

The world around us, including gardens, is built on relationships between biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living e.g. air, water, light, etc.) components. Ecological gardeners strive to design, build and maintain landscapes that consider the relationship of all these factors – that is, the ecology of a site.

Geum rooftop. Image credit organiclandcare.org

Organic land care or regenerative design practitioners:

  • Work with natural systems and processes to encourage and enhance biological diversity and native habitats;
  • Optimize and maintain the life supporting properties of soil, air and water;
  • Utilize renewable, biodegradable and recycled materials from local sources and minimize waste;
  • Consider the wider social and ecological impacts of landscapes and the practices and products used to create and maintain them

How is this achieved? 

Regenerative practices include preservation of carbon in the soil (sequestration), rather than releasing into the atmosphere. To achieve this, a few of Astrid’s tips include:

  • Reduced tillage – no need to dig up the garden each year
  • Protect and feed the soil sustainably – with compost
  • Increase biodiversity above and below ground – consider permanent or perennial plantings
  • Maintaining living roots in soil – chop and drop spent plants rather than pulling
Image credit: Planting in a Post Wild World

Garden Perfection?

Astrid reminded us that our gardens need not be “perfect” but instead that they be healthy and resilient, able to adapt to change in the environment.  A more diverse garden is a healthier garden. She suggested aiming for up to 70% native plants, which have adapted over time to grow in our area. And, to consider a layered approach, mimicking that found in nature. In her example, sedges formed a ground cover layer, thus avoiding bare soil, with perennial hostas, and with native trees as a structural layer.  Check out our previous blog on Designing with Plant Communities for more information.

Where to Start

For some excellent reading on restoring nature and native species to our gardens, Astrid suggests books by Douglas Tallamy to get you started.