Regenerative Gardens

We hear the phrase regenerative all the time, and it’s a concern because it’s important we don’t start using it as the next in word, like we have with the word sustainable. We spoke at an event recently where the speaker before was talking about sustainable oil fields and that’s just a contradiction in terms!!

So when we talk about regenerative gardening what do we mean? Well basically we mean gardening that gives back. That takes nothing from nature, that uses resources like seed, plants and compost responsibly, doesn’t use any chemicals, or artificial fertilisers and supports the eco system of the space we’re gardening in.

Which sounds simple doesn’t it?!? But it’s a challenge because it means being patient and waiting for nature and the ecosystem to catch up and help . The aphids will always arrive before the ladybirds, the slugs and snails before the newts, frogs, hedgehogs and thrushes, but they will come!! Patience will pay off and we have to learn to be patient!

A hoverfly lagoon at the Secret Garden in Avonmouth!!

There are some simple starting points. Dig out a wildlife pond, or make one in a container, feed the birds, create hedgehog corridors with your neighbours so the hogs can potter between gardens, create an area of dead wood where insects and amphibians can hide, and grow flowers for pollinators. Get rid of your garden chemicals. Leave some lawn to grow and become a meadow. Make a hoverfly lagoon, a big box, or a bug hotel. We’ll be sharing how to’s on all of these in the next few weeks.

But mostly grow for and with nature. The days of thinking gardening is about controlling nature are over and being regenerative is the way all gardeners can help support the climate and ecological emergencies we face. Obviously we can’t just garden our way out of these crises, but it’ll certainly help.

Let’s talk about soil

Soil. It’s the building block of life on Earth isn’t it? We rely on top soil for so much, from the nutritional value of our food, to grazing land for our livestock and for enough growth of wild flowers and natives, or weeds as you might think about them, to sustain insect and bird populations. We need soil, and yet we traditionally treat it poorly. We call it dirt. We cover it in pesticides, as if nature is a second class citizen we can just get rid of. We refuse to cherish or nurture it in many cases, and it has absolutely no formal policy to look after it. Whilst we recognise the need for healthy air and water for life, soil has been pushed aside and disguarded.

And yet soil is amazing. To start with there are more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans in the planet. The soil is an ecosystem which few of us ever see, other than the occasional earth worm. This ecosystem ensures the soil is kept at peak health, has air in it and drains. And yet we dig through and plough with no thought for this ecosystem let alone the carbon that’s emitted with each turn of the plough. For decades rather than feeding the soil, farmers have fed crops, ignoring the soils need for replenishment and we find ourselves now at the point where farmland is depleted, and so degraded that in heavy rain, empty field are seeing top soil washed away.

But there is good news. Urban soils in parks, gardens and allotments have been found to be far healthier than our traditional farmlands. There are simple reasons for this. Parks and gardens often have a layer of leaf litter that breaks down into them each year, continually adding humus, that hero of organic matter, into the soil and supporting the ecosystems to be healthy, trapping moisture and adding nutrients. Allotment gardeners generally don’t plough but use a layer of compost or manure annually to feed the soil, acknowledging the need for the soil to be regenerated after the crops of the year have been harvested. Far fewer pesticides are used. In cities the soil is treated in a far kinder way.

That brings us to thoughts around soil and the climate and ecology crises. Soil captures carbon and acts as a sink. It does that best of course when fully covered in plant material to draw the carbon down. The soil ecosystems are healthier if soil is not continually turned over, and of course there are ways to ensure that doesn’t happen!! So we are committing, across the Incredible Edible Bristol gardens, is no dig gardening where we commit to feed the soil with organic matter regularly and don’t dig, but allow the soils ecosystem to pull the nutrition into the soil. We’re also committed to ensuring earth is covered for as much of the time as possible, using green manures, perennial planting and mulches.

Using plants like squash keeps the soil covered so watering needs are reduced as they keep the soil covered and weeds struggle to grow with limited light.

And we’re committed to sharing our skills not just with our community gardeners but with the whole city through workshops and courses at our Incredible learning space, which will be launching in April…….

The fight to stop the ecological emergency is on and soil is key and we can all help. If you’d like more info on no dig practices go to the guru of no dig at where you’ll find lots of information.

A Peat Free Promise

Recently the city declared both climate and ecological emergencies. Whilst we are aware of how large scale, industrial farming can be detrimental to the environment often gardening and horticulture are seen as “green” and sustainable and sadly often they are not. In light of the crises we face both as a city and a planet we are going to unpack this in a series of posts, and in our skill sharing this year, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn how they can garden in a way that supports both the climate and ecological emergencies.

Our composting bays in the garden in the Bearpit.
Community compost heaps in the Bearpit.

Soil is the foundation of life. And there has been much talk and research into soils and where they are and are not healthy over the last decade. What we know is that urban soils, in parks, allotments and gardens, is generally healthier than our traditional farmlands and this is often down to traditional techniques of gardening and growing, of leaves being left to mulch borders in parks and to traditional mulching techniques on allotments. The first thing many people do when taking on allotments or gardens is create a compost bin and we will be talking more about composting as the year goes on, but composting is really the ultimate circular economy, taking waste and creating compost to put nutrients back into the soil the waste came from. Unfortunately as a city we don’t compost green waste and make it available to gardeners, although the green waste is composted and can be purchased in large quantities of 15 tonnes and more if you can take that quantity!!

Of course healthy soils are important for more than just growing. Soils have their own ecosystem, full of life, and once we appreciate that there are more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than people on the planet, suddenly keeping it well and supporting those organisms becomes a vital part of the way we look after the land we steward. And the best way to do this is to add organic matter on a regular basis, which of course ideally we would make. However, it’s very difficult to make the amount of compost that the garden needs and it’s almost inevitable that we will all need, at points, to buy compost to make up the shortfall.

Our aim at Incredible Edible Bristol is to create spaces that are healthier in the city, but also to ensure that in doing so we are not harming other areas of the planet. Creating healthy soils and buying in compost can be a minefield as the majority of compost contains peat, extracted from rare and important peat bogs that are vital in the fight against the climate emergency as they are important carbon sinks. They also are home to important flora and fauna found nowhere else and mitigate against flooding by holding onto flood water and slowing the flow of it as it goes downhill, meaning drains and culverts are more likely to cope with the quantity of water. They are known to be as environmentally important as rainforests are to the tropics and yet each year more than 7,000 hectares are dug for gardening and horticulture. Many people assume that this has always been the way, but in fact it was only begun on the mid 20th century, and just is not necessary for good growing.

With this in mind we have always used peat free products and whilst it can be more expensive, there are peat free options at the DIY superstores that are fine for mulching and soil improvements and are pretty much the same price as peat composts. We are thrilled to hear that Riverside Garden Centre, our local, independent garden shop in Southville, is now only selling peat free bagged compost and is working with it’s supplier of plants to go peat free and so soon it will be easy in the city to be peat free. In the meantime if you do go to a garden centre or nursery that doesn’t stock peat free, ask them why, and refuse to buy peat.

We are also supporting Peat Free April, a campaign calling for the end of peat extraction for horticulture, which you can follow across the social media channels.

So if you want to look at how you garden in light of the ecological emergency, the first step is to go peat free, and call for peat free growing across the city. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Bristol was the first peat free city in the UK?

Response to the Declaration Of An Ecological Emergency in Bristol

Firstly we applaud the bravery of this declaration. It’s never going to be the right time, the appropriate time, to call an emergency, and there will always be what can be seen as hypocrisies, but the declaration itself shows a will for change and an understanding that that change is vital and needs to happen today.

Over the 6 years that Incredible Edible Bristol has been working, across the 50 sites we have supported there has always been conversation around growing food with nature and providing food for pollinators, birds and other creatures who are an important part of the city’s ecosystem. Sometimes this looks like leaving certain weeds in place, knowing that they are important for a certain individual at that point in the year, sometimes it’s about leaving crops to flower and go to seed, and sometimes this looks like using ornamental plants and herbs as important parts of the planting scheme and acknowledging that they are as important as the crops we are growing.

Planting fruit trees which flower over a long period, utilising perennial crops that offer food and habitat, creating habitats within the gardens and having an ongoing conversation around the importance of looking after wildlife have always been key to our work, along with sharing the skills so that individuals and communities can create their own spaces for food and wildlife.

However, it also means looking at how we grow and ensuring that we are not harming nature in order to create these spaces. Ensuring all our spaces are peat free and pesticide free is a vital part of what we do, and we would call on gardeners and growers across the city to go peat free and stop any pesticide use. We would also call for all organisations that manage land to do the same, to utilise biological controls where there is a need, but also to concentrate on creating and supporting ecosystems that support themselves, as we do. After all, once aphids appear so will the ladybirds and other natural predators!

We also think it’s an important point to say that whilst the ecological and climate emergencies are very similar they are also different and whilst there appears to be an emphasis on carbon, and planting trees, these emergencies are far more complex than just that. Of course we need to address carbon and carbon capture but we also need to create safe spaces for wildlife that are pesticide free and understand that as humans we have created these crises and it is up to us to make reparations for wildlife. Bringing ecology and good horticultural practice together to achieve this is vital.

We look forward to working towards a future where all of Bristol’s populations are healthy and thriving and to supporting these changes in the city.