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Tools for your regenerative gardening toolkit

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens.”

— Bill Mollison, author of “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual,” 1988

I recently visited Lion Waxman, founder and owner of Good Earth Gardens in Grants Pass. A native of New York, Lion transplanted himself with his partner, Corrine, to Southern Oregon three years ago. Since then, he’s become an educator, consultant and edible landscape designer for people who not only love to grow plants, but who also want to grow their understanding of how their gardens, homesteads and commercial farms can become more productive and environmentally sustainable.

During my visit, I got a sneak peek at some of the practices Lion will teach during his spring course, “Grow Regenerative!” The class will address six topics: regenerative farm/garden design; natural farming and regenerative agriculture techniques; soil health and restoration via biological soil amendments; polycultures and planting for biodiversity; water cycles and water retention landscaping; and holistic and nontoxic weed/pest management.

Lion will address each weekly topic by introducing concepts of regenerative gardening and permaculture design in the morning, followed by hands-on activities to apply those concepts during the afternoon. He’ll also walk participants through an activity to analyze and map out their growing sites; a culminating activity will allow participants to present a plan for using site-specific regenerative and permaculture strategies.

Each technique learned becomes another tool in a gardener’s toolkit, Lion told me. Whether a tool is used depends on the purpose for the land and the unique growing conditions of a particular place.

“My mission is to empower people by helping them realize that growing regeneratively isn’t insanely hard,” Lion said.

As I walked around Good Earth Gardens, I was reminded there is a lot to be said for allowing nature to do much of the gardening work for us.

Lion’s growing practices and his teaching have been influenced by Cho Han-Kyu, founder of Korean Natural Farming, who said, “What you have is what you need.”

One important way gardeners can apply this simple maxim is to avoid using store-bought fertilizers.

“By tilling and applying fertilizers over and over, we’re creating addicted soils that need more inputs every year,” Lion said.

Instead of applying purchased fertilizers, he recommends replenishing our garden soil with resources we already have onsite: excess produce, plant debris, clippings, even weeds. Lion showed me four different ways of making soil amendments that mimic the way nature re-energizes through the cycles of life and death.

For starters, he uses a form of trench composting by tossing weeds and plant debris into his garden pathways, tamping down the debris, and then covering it up with burlap sacks so he can walk on top. The pathways become compost bins located exactly where he needs them — right next to his vegetable beds. The biomass breaks down quickly as fungi and microorganisms colonize the pile, and the fungi’s expansive hyphae create underground networks that transport nutrients to nearby vegetable plants.

Another method Lion uses to make soil amendments is to gather weeds and fallen leaves, soak them in a bucket of water for a few days, and then add the nutrient-rich biota to the soil.

He also grows cover crops in his garden area, then cuts back the crop with a hand sickle and allows the grass/legumes to decompose in place, thus adding organic matter to the soil and making nitrogen available to plants.

A fourth method for making fertilizer is by burning branches and other dried biomass in an extremely hot fire that won’t allow volatile gases to escape into the atmosphere. What’s left from the fire is biochar, composed of layers of carbon graphite that provide a place for microorganisms to live — “like a microscopic biology hotel,” Lion said. The biochar also acts like a sponge that soaks up nutrients from other organic matter mixed with it: woodchips, animal manure, even human urine.

All of these methods for making soil amendments are more useful than traditional hot composting, which permits nitrogen to be off-gassed into the atmosphere or leached into the soil. Also, none of the strategies require the labor of turning compost piles or hauling compost from the bin to the garden.

“If you use a green yard bin, you’re throwing away money because you’re going to have to buy compost and fertilizer to replenish your soil,” Lion said. “And if you burn all your wood in a burn pile, you’re getting rid of useful carbon that you’ll have to bring back in.”

Making our soil amendments from onsite organic matter allows gardeners to decrease consumption and increase production, as suggested by Bill Mollison, a practitioner of permaculture theory and practice. Lion told me something else Mollison said that has influenced the way he farms and teaches: “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

Lion’s six-week “Grow Regenerative!” class will take place from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every other Saturday from March 28 through June 3, at Good Earth Gardens, 1407 Fruitdale Drive. Cost is $240 for people who register until March 7 and $275 after. To register, call 631-836-9907 or see www.goodearthgardens1.com.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener, and her website at www.literarygardener.com.