Talking About Regeneration: The Low Ways Project

You may have heard the term “regenerative” a lot recently, it’s a buzzword in relation to farming and gardening, but what exactly does it mean? And how can we apply regenerative principles in our own gardens? Caroline had an interesting chat about this topic recently (more about this in a bit), so we thought we’d explore the issue and try to demystify it!

Being regenerative is all about shifting your mindset to find ways to farm or garden in harmony with nature. The aim is to protect biodiversity, keep carbon in the soil and generally reduce your impact on the environment.

Organic farmers have been following some regenerative agriculture principles (known as regen ag for short) for years, but now a growing number of non-organic farmers are exploring the benefits of this approach. In addition to the environmental benefits, by moving away from reliance on big agri businesses for feed, products and advice, farmers are gaining better financial security and mental health, primarily by having healthier grass so less animal feed needs to be bought in.

In farming “regen ag” means doing things like focusing on soil health by replacing fertilisers with compost and muck, reducing ploughing (it’s called no-till agriculture in the US), reducing or avoiding chemical use, planting hedges and trees to provide shelter for livestock and habitat for wildlife, and moving animals to different fields frequently to allow the grass to rest and build up its roots to reduce soil run off and flooding. It’s about working with nature rather than against it.

Unlike organic farming, there is currently no certification for regenerative farmers and there are differences in methods between regen ag and organic. For example, a lot of organic farmers plough the soil to keep on top of weeds, seeing it as a lesser evil than resorting to chemical sprays. And regenerative farmers may not necessarily use organic seeds. This may change in the future as more farmers adopt a regenerative approach, but at the moment in the UK it is a grassroots movement that shares some similarities with organic farming, but involves no formal certification process.

The same principles apply to regenerative gardening – it’s all about leaving the land in a better condition than you found it and taking a holistic approach. This includes things like going no-dig, making your own compost, not using chemicals, planting for wildlife and providing habitat, mowing less, reducing waste and saving water. For more information, see our posts on Eco-Friendly Gardening and Gardening for Butterflies.

In contrast, a lot of conventional farming and gardening practices can be seen as degenerative, with the focus on production and getting as much from the land without putting anything back or looking at the bigger picture. In the longer term, this is unsustainable. We have sadly seen the effects of this in our lifetimes, with the massive decline in biodiversity in recent decades due in part to hedgerows being ripped out to make bigger fields, pesticide and herbicide use as well as soil being depleted from ploughing and artificial fertilisers, run off from farmland polluting our rivers, increased flooding and the loss of peat bogs. To learn more about the importance of soil health, we recommend watching the Kiss the Ground documentary on Netflix.

However, we feel hopeful that finally the tide might be turning as there are signs that more landowners are coming round to the idea of doing things to protect nature instead of for purely financial gain. The success of Caroline’s hedge planting group (Plant For Our Lives) at planting several miles of mixed hedgerows on agricultural land is an example of this. And the fact that grass-fed locally produced beef is sold by our local butcher is another positive sign.

Another cause for optimism is a new project that Caroline heard about in her interesting chat recently; a few people in Bottlesford and Woodborough are mapping regenerative gardens and farms in Wiltshire, and the footpaths which run between them. They are taking “regenerative” to mean managing the land to sequester carbon and increase biodiversity, as part of a low carbon-emitting life.  If you’ve got such a garden or farm, or know of any, please write to them at lowwayswiltshire@gmail.com

The map’s purpose is to indicate the number of farms and gardens following regenerative principles, maybe many more than we think, and perhaps to have an Open Day later this year, or next, when some, at least, would welcome visitors. Four have been identified so far, two in Woodborough and one each in Beechingstoke and Bottlesford. They are of different sizes and at different stages of development, which makes them all the more suitable for visiting and providing inspiration.

There’s no requirement that all the places on the map agree to being open and anyone who wants to signify they’ve got such a garden or farm will be able to do so without their names or the precise location being on the map. And most important of all, as this is at an early stage, if you think this ISN’T a good idea, the organisers are particularly eager to hear from you, with the reasons why.

We think this project is a great idea! We love visiting open gardens, especially ones belonging to “ordinary” people, where we can relate to what they are doing and take away inspiration of things we can replicate in our own gardens. To be able to visit gardens and farms with a focus on regenerative principles would be a wonderful opportunity to learn new techniques and ideas that fit in with our efforts to be more eco-friendly.

To discover local food producers that are following regenerative principles, and where we can buy their products, would also be really interesting. And to be able to walk between each farm or garden fits in with our aim of living a lower carbon lifestyle. We wish the Low Ways project every success and look forward to following its progress!

8 Responses

  1. My problem with Kiss the Ground is it’s main purpose seems to be to greenwash beef with no science to back up their tiresome claims. We wouldn’t accept “greener” fossil fuels and yet so many people are desperate to find “greener” ways of feeding the ever growing population on meat. It’s crazy their simply isn’t enough land.

  2. Thanks for your comment Darren. I know what you mean, I often find Netflix documentaries a bit one-sided, but in regards to the importance of soil health and some of the problems of industrial farming, I think Kiss the Ground is informative. As a vegan, I agree that it’s crazy that we use so much land to grow crops to feed animals (destroying the Amazon and other precious ecosystems in the process). Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet for fixing climate change. Whilst it would be great if we all ate plant-based diets, realistically there are always going to be people who want to eat meat. Farming regeneratively is surely a better alternative to industrial farming in the imperfect world we live in.

  3. As it is relatively out-of-sight and -mind very few people out there appreciate the importance of soil, it is in dire condition throughout much of the world. Of the five issues that threaten the human race, the first two are undeniably over-population and then climate change. The other three, in no particular order, are arguably soil, migration and drugs. If the worlds’ soils are not sorted out then obviously the capacity to feed an ever-growing population over the next, say, 50 years will be hugely reduced.

    I have a “regenerative” garden – no dig; no chemicals; an area of wild long grass with wild flowers; three compost heaps and four open leaf mould bins (good for slow worms); moss in the lawn for bird nesting material; dead hedges; an untidy area with a huge pile of loose branches and twigs; a big log pile; a pond; mixed blossom trees; bee/insect-friendly plants in Winter e.g. hellebores, Spring and Summer; lots of leaf litter in the autumn; hedgehog boxes and gaps in fences to allow hedgehog movement etc.

  4. Your garden sounds great, Michael. It’s my hope that there are more of us “regenerative” gardeners out there than we realise. It will be interesting to see how the Low Ways map progresses.

  5. Hi Michael, thank you for writing about your garden. As Caroline said, it sounds great and inspiring. It’s just what “low ways” would like to include on its map. Are you in Wiltshire? And if you are, could we include your garden, please? If you don’t want to have visitors, perhaps we could show some pictures of it and just give a rough indication of where it is.

    Soil is my great interest, in a completely amateur way. It’s what led me to be interested in the “low ways” project. It’s good to hear from someone with the same interest. If you were willing to contact me at the “low ways” email address, I’d be very pleased.

    Fenella
    lowwayswiltshire@gmail.com

  6. Yes, Fenella, I am in Wiltshire – in Urchfont. I can e-mail you some photos of various aspects of my garden to see if you think what I have is suitable. I am on greensand here, a great soil for general gardening. It does not need much enriching but when needed I have three brick compost heaps and timber leaf mould bins, also using straw as a mulch from the mucking out of the village pond duck-house. Straw does not possess many nutrients but it is good for the structure of the soil. Liquid plant feed is produced by steeping nettle and comfrey leaves in a bucket of water.

  7. Hi,
    You suggest that farms reducing chemical use may be included under Regenerative agriculture classification; what is the ‘ red line ‘ with this, please ?
    Sylvie

    1. Hi Sylvie, that’s a good question and I’m afraid I’m not an expert so I can’t give you an exact answer. At the moment there’s no formal certification process for regenerative agriculture classification. It’s my understanding that farms following regenerative principles are reducing chemical use as best they can (depending on their specific circumstances) as part of their efforts to increase biodiversity and sequester carbon. But as far as I know there is no exact definition of how much chemical use is or is not acceptable to be classified as a regenerative farm. Are you in Wiltshire? If you’d like more information on the criteria for inclusion on the Low Ways map, please contact Fenella at lowwayswiltshire@gmail.com.

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