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Moving to the center of a regenerative garden cycle

“[T]he goal of ecological design is a garden that is dependent only on its own resources.”

— Matt Rees-Warren, “The Ecological Gardener,” 2021

Last week, I discussed the benefits of capturing rainwater (whenever we get it), storing the water in barrels or tanks, and using it to water our garden during the dry summer months. Rainwater harvesting helps to lower our use of municipal or well water and is healthier for plants than tap water treated with chlorine.

A rainwater catchment system is one example of what author Matt Rees-Warren calls a closed-loop garden design. Essentially, this means planning and tending our garden so that, as much as possible, we use only resources generated on-site — water, sun and organic matter.

The benefits of a closed-loop garden system are fourfold: zero waste, increases the quality of the garden ecosystem, low cost (particularly over time), and less manual labor for the gardener. Importantly, a closed-loop garden system jumpstarts our thinking about ways to reduce waste, costs and labor in other areas of our life.

If you’re like me, you have become increasingly frustrated at the lack of government action related to environmental degradation. Rather than feel utterly helpless, we can utilize our garden as a place to implement environmentally sound practices.

As Mahatma Gandhi observed, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

I find great hope in Gandhi’s words, which inspires me to continue working toward the goal of closed-loop gardening. In this design, the gardener becomes part of the ecosystem and the process of regeneration.

Think of the three arrows in a recycling emblem. The arrow at the top is the garden resource, such as fallen tree leaves. The second arrow represents the actions of the gardener who works with nature to regenerate the resource; in this case to shred the leaves and speed up decomposition. The third arrow signifies the regenerated resource, the leaf mulch, which decomposes to nourish the plants so they can grow healthy, new leaves.

Here are several examples of closed-loop gardening practices. It may be useful to think about how many of your gardening activities support a garden that is dependent only on its own resources.

Last fall, I collected fallen leaves, shredded them, and mulched the garden beds for overwintering. This has kept the soil moist despite a lack of rain this winter. As the leaves have decomposed, they’ve added carbon and nutrients to the soil.

I left seed heads on plant stalks standing in the garden over winter. I enjoyed watching juncos and other birds foraging in the garden, and I was only slightly embarrassed when a lawn maintenance man rang my doorbell a few weeks ago and asked pointedly if I needed help tidying up.

Now that daytime temperatures are consistently in the 50s, I’m starting to cut back the dead foliage and pile it up loosely at the back of the garden (in consideration of overwintering pollinators and other beneficial insects). Next month, I’ll shred the debris and use it to add a fresh layer of mulch to the beds. This is all I’m using to replenish the garden soil, other than homemade soil amendments.

Last year, I began experimenting with making soil amendments from garden clippings, eggshells and leaf mold. I used the mixtures as a foliar spray and soil drench to add a boost of nutrients and minerals for the plants. I was pleased with the results, and my goal is to apply the soil amendments more consistently this year to maximize their potential.

The dry creek bed in our backyard has filled in and needs to be re-dug. We’ll use the extracted soil, along with plenty of leaf mold and some of my daughter’s rabbit’s poop, to create new garden beds instead of hauling in soil from off-site. Not only will the creek bed soil be recycled to grow plants, but the rejuvenated creek bed will work more efficiently to slow down rainwater runoff.

I saved some seeds from last year, and I’m using what I already have instead of buying new packets. This has been extremely hard for me to do because now is the time my mailbox is filled with alluring seed catalogs. I’m learning to look for seed swaps so I can share my bounty and reduce my carbon footprint by growing seeds that do not need to be transported across the country.

Of course, every time I grow new plants from seeds I’ve saved, or from parent plants I’ve propagated, I’m actively participating in the regeneration of these plant species. When I grow plants that are native to our region, I’m supporting plants that are particularly important for regenerating local habitats and wildlife.

None of these gardening practices are new; in fact, Indigenous communities practiced regenerative agriculture long before European settlers arrived in the Americas. Unfortunately, I and many other gardeners must relearn what it means to garden by shifting away from actions that prioritize consumption, such as bagging up organic matter from our garden to be hauled away and then buying bagged compost from the store to replenish our garden soil with organic matter.

Rees-Warren calls consumption-based gardening “a sort of folly or madness” because it is wasteful, expensive and often labor-intensive. Let’s practice good sense, and good land stewardship, by increasing the number of our actions that move us to the center of a regenerative garden cycle.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.