Poly-regenerative agriculture, urban style

Click here for explanations of the words used in the design.

The design is a guide for practicing poly-regenerative gardening in a city. Its simpler than it looks, with a lot of overlap. It is also printed on T-shirts and other items for the purpose of spreading the word.

Poly-regeration is a the beginning of a theory justifying why you should garden in a city. It is not selfish and inward looking, but something with global and social impact.

What is poly-regenerative gardening ?

Poly regenerative gardening uses the soil regenerative principles of regenerative agriculture, but its emphasis is on maintaining a greater diversity of habitat, and on adapting to cities. It incorporates adjustment to local climates and vegetation, and creating healthy soil and habitat diversity in the urban garden as well as domestic practices that aim to preserve the earth's major habitat, its oceans and water systems.

The five principles of regenerative agriculture are:

  1. minimal disturbance (no digging, ploughing, or chemicals)
  2. permanent cover (no naked soil, even for a day)
  3. incorporate animals (for their dung and urine, trampling of the ground, and the plant growth stimulating effect of their cropping of vegetation)
  4. do not disturb roots in the ground, rather cut back plants above ground.
  5. Plant for diversity in the garden, of both plants and animals.

Poly regenerative agriculture adds another five principles :

  1. low nutrient zones: the creationg of low nutrient zones for native flowering plants, if your region is low nutrient adapted. This maintains insect and pollinator diversity and healhy populations of insects and birds. This is especially relevant for Cape plants.
  2. native plants: The planting of as many native plants as possible which are host to native insects and other animals, not just pollinators, and considering the garden's space and functionality, Our vegetables are exotic, water and nutrient heavy, but we can learn to eat the many native plants.
  3. wetlands: the creation of small wetlands for local wetland species, plants and animals, for harvesting, as wetlands are very productive, and for sinking carbon, as wetlands are more effective than dry soil at this. Wetlands are also the most endangered habitats in most cities.
  4. ocean awareness: informing oneself on the factors destroying our oceans. Using activism and domestic practices that spare the oceans. Just as an example, consuming no krill oil or endangered fish, stopping the use of plastic in local retail outlets, not polluting your own domestic waste water by the choices you make in cleaning agents and waste disposal, finding out about heavy metal and pollution of the ocean and fighting against it. The Cape is walled in by oceans, and many local people depend on them for food and livelihood.
  5. The planting or maintenance of forests: many areas of the world, perhaps our global climate, is maintained by large forests. Grazing animals on them is destroying them, and getting out of having to do this is an aim of regenerative agriculture. However it doesn't offer a 'how to' methodolgy for forest regeneration, only for grassland. Poly regeneration also teaches how to build forest.

What is the direct and immediate effect of regenerative practices ?

Regenerative gardening nurtures a thriving soil life. The microbes in the soil produce a healthy soil sponge. The soil life and soil sponge produce healthy plants and maximize photosynthesis. The plants put excess sugars in the ground to feed the microbes and further increase the soil life in a virtuous cycle of ever increasing health and fertility. The soil sponge holds water which is the beginning of a domino effect that heals the hydrology of landscapes and has benefits like decreased flooding and erosion and increased cooling of the earth's atmosphere (Walter Jehne).

The poly regenerative additions to regenerative gardening attempt to address points on diversity that regenerative farming de-emphasizes and that need to be part of sound ecological practice in the garden and home, especially in areas with fire adapted, low nutrient natural vegetation. It also focuses on the need for gardening in cities, rather than the broad scale appeal to farmers that regenerative agriculture embraces.

Why would a gardener want to pursue regenerative agriculture in the city ?

Cities are major producers of green house gas and heat islands, and are generally hydrologically broken. Cities cause disruption to local ecosystems and loss of habitat and extinctions. Poly-regenerative land management within cities could help correct this.

Regenerative agriculture practices in a city could help draw down carbon close to the source where it is produced. This is more effective than trying to draw it down in distant forests. 

Regenerative agriculture helps heal the hydrology of landscapes. The city's broken hydrology is evident in city desertification, heat islands, flooding, local drought, loss of vegetation and infertility of soils.

Poly-regenerative gardening with its emphasis on growing native plants, including food plants, could help slow the plant and animal extinctions caused by urban expansion.

Climate change and soil loss could bring the hunger and death of many human beings and ruin of economies around the world. All civilizations in history which destroyed their soils, destroyed themselves. We seem to be doing it again, but now on a global level, to take out all mankind ?

Why is the individual gardener important ?

Cities are mainly composed of small parcels of private land. In many countries, such as German, there is more area under gardens than in nature reserves.

If everyone grew soil, on their small piece of land, added together it would make cities carbon neutral or carbon negative. Local droughts, floods topsoil erosion, heat islands and insect, plant and other extinctions could be greatly reduced.

If the urban gardens grew low maintenance native food plants, used food forests, perennial vegetables and practiced no dig vegetable gardening, there would be enough food for everyone while growing the soil, and food and garden products trading would constitute a grass roots baseline for wealth.

The high nutrient content of regeneratively grown food and the healthy outdoor exercise would help cities suffering with a burden of disease caused by the low nutrient, high sugar western diet and sedentary lifestyles, that is much of the world's fate.

Globally, if all cities became poly-regenerative it could slow down global warming and the death of our oceans caused by heating, acidification (due to carbon dioxide) and agricultural and industrial chemical effluent. We need healthy oceans as ocean plankton produces most of our oxygen and also feeds millions of people via the fish that feed on the plankton. Without these there will be deaths on a large scale, and perhaps the death of mankind.

So your regenerative home garden's soil sponge, and you not using chemicals, helps clean water, the plants help clean the air and thus they both clean the ocean. The individual garden really is a building block for saving the world, one of many, but totally necesssary.

What does the regenerative garden do better than current city practice ?

The healthy regenerative garden's plants sequester carbon, a green house gas, and their roots exuding sugar creates a soil sponge which makes the earth's hydrology more healthy and soils more fertile. As the regenerative agriculture folk say, the answer to our problems lies beneath our feet. Put the carbon back in the soil where it belongs, and not in the air. Literally tons of carbon per hectare can be sequestered in soil, but our industrial farming practices and our urban landscapes actually do the opposite, releasing so much carbon into the atmosphere that they are part of the global warming problem.

City green-spaces are planned for low diversity, and unintentionally for ecological disaster and anti-regeneration. They are planted with exotic trees and lawn and no shrubs (our main form of native vegetation) are allowed because they could hide criminals. They are mowed frequently and the clippings are carted off, removing organic material from the area. They are mowed frequently enough to drive the slow growing indigenous herbaceous flowering plants into extinction as they are not able to photosynthesize (being decapitated) or to seed and this favours the fast growing exotic weeds. The frequent mowing leads to the death of the stressed grass plantings as they have no time to recover. The grass is kept short exposing the soil to the hot sun. Dog feces and heaven forbid, human feces, are removed post haste by the local neighbourhood watch. No wonder our parks look like the edge of the Sahara and our city has record droughts.

The hydrologists like Jehne also beg us to put the carbon back underground. Carbon in the soil feeds the soil life that builds the soil sponge. That holds water in the soil and that is the beginning of hydrological recovery. The sponge and microbes clean water naturally, reducing water pollution, and pollution of the ocean, and we all eat fish.

The sponge holds water in soil, and that is the foundation of healthy hydrology and that brings rain, allows rivers to run again, carries away the city's heat, cooling the earth, stops droughts, flooding and erosion.

We need all the soil we have as it is being lost at a very fast rate. It will become inadquate to feed humanity by 2050.

The sponge also increases soil fertility, which means we can grow more food in regenerated soil, and its more nutrient dense. Our current vegetables may contain a small fraction of the nutrients they held in 1940 due to industrial agriculture and the soil degradation it causes. That is why we are sick with metabolic illnesss like cancer and diabetes. If we grew more of our own food, we could be much healthier, and decrease the burden carried by state health departments. It may also improve our chances of survival in epidemics, which will become more frequent as man erodes the wilderness and flies around the world in a matter of hours.

What is wrong with mainstream industrial agriculture ?

Well this is a big question with too many factors to address in a small space, so let me stick to those relevant to soil management.

Ploughing, mineral fertilizers, biocides and heavy machinery degrade and compact soil, and overgrazing turns it into desert eventually, by cropping vegetation so frequently that the plants die, destroying the soil sponge sustained by root sugars poured into the soil.

Man has created many deserts in China, the middle east and Africa. We started thousands of years ago, when the plough was created, with a degenerative concept of soil. This means we expect it to degrade with use instead of expecting it to improve, which is the goal of regeneration.

What is the idea behind regenerative agriculture and how does it work ?

Regenerative agriculture has much in common with permaculture, organic farming and other 'natural' methods. However, you can be an organic grower and not use any pesticides and still deplete your soil.

Regeneration focuses on soil health with a clarity the others lack. It is based on the idea that we have a degenerative farming model. We need to build not degrade soil with our agriculture. It teaches building soil with the liquid carbon pathway, in which sugars exuded by plants into the soil start a virtuous cycle of regeneration. Sugar is built around the carbon molecule, and is the source or raw material of much of the soil carbon. Unlike the other two natural farming methods, in regenerative agriculture the soil is built and plant growth encouraged by the judicious use of large herds of grazing animals.

Central to the ecological dynamics, for regeneration is a step towards recreation of past ecological balances, is the sad fact that top predators like wolves and lions have been removed from our landscapes. Once, these predators kept the herds of grazing animals moving, so that they did not overgraze certain areas.

Starting with Alan Savory, farmers around the world have found that they can increase their load of cows on the pasture, but by keeping them moving with a electric fences and a grazing plan (to substitute for the predators' effect on keeping herds moving) the fertility of their soil and the depth of topsoil and the soil sponge increases. The animals bring the advantages of grazing, fertilizing and trampling the soil, without the harm done by overgrazing. Without any animals it would degrade even more rapidly than under overgrazing.

The animal's input boosts soil life and that is the foundation of all the benefits of regeneration. We need to nurture diverse soil microbes any way we can. They are destroyed by chemicals and fertilizers, so it is necessary to stop using these.

Advantages of regenerative agriculture

As the soil sponge develops and topsoil deepens year by year, biomass production increases, vanished native plants (if this is natural grassland) re-emerge, and soil becomes more fertile, with larger herds of cattle.

This is good news for the dairy and meat industry, as farmers can adapt to regenerative agriculture and increase herd sizes and profits. It also draws down a lot of carbon, and this is perhaps the main the reason for its global popularity. It is claimed that regenerative farming added to stopping emissions, could undo global warming over time, and rehabilitate our wrecked watersheds.

The importance of hydrology
and water cycles

Walter Jehne claims that atmospheric carbon dioxide has only a marginal effect on global warming. It is deforestation, destruction of the soil sponge, denuding of land and creation of consequent dust and pollution hazes with gaseous water and heat islands above cities that is the biggest warming problem.

In other words hydrological destruction is the invisible elephant in the room. He explains very articulately and scientifically how we have wrecked the hydrological cycles of the earth. Once again, regenerative agriculture is the cure. It creates a soil sponge that holds water, and this creates the basis for a hyrdrological pump from soil to plants to atmosphere that cools the surface of the earth. The gaseous water then carries the heat off to be radiated back into space, when the condensing droplets which appear as clouds gather to produce rain.The core of condensing water droplets in rain is often formed by bacteria and chemical compounds produced by trees in forests.

The dirty (black carbon) particles above cities, on the other hand, form gaseous hazes of invisible water which trap heat.

So there are multiple reasons and lines of argument for regenerative agriculture and reforestation.

What is different about poly-regenerative compared to mainstream regenerative ?

Poly-regenerative agriculture and gardening addresses some of the areas de-emphasized by regenerative agriculture. Proponents of regenerative agriculture do not ignore these things, its just that their followers may not get to hear about them enough, and apply a cookie cutter set of practices that could be destructive. Any new system will not be flawless and perfect, and it is impossible to do everything and emphasize everything.  This is not to say that regenerative agriculture is not the most wonderful thing the earth has seen in the thousands of years since Babylon began creating a desert out of the fertile crescent.

During the process of adapting the regenerative idea to cities and to our locality at the Cape, I discovered some things that when taken to their conclusion, undermine some of the basic principles of regnerative agriculture, and even explode its core principle of controlled grazing as a universal solution.

The problem with conservation policy

Conservation policy, painted with a broad sweeping brush, seems to be as follows: an impact study is done of an area. If it is not pristine enough and cannot be 'rehabilitated' or returned to a pristine like state with all aliens removed, it can just go to the dogs, there is no point in trying to hold onto the remnants, and it can be used for urban expansion.

Considering the high impact of humans in the area of a city, and that all bits of land will become a hybrid of introduced and native plants, showing a lot of degradation due to the presence of humans, it seems crazy and not very good for the maintenance of biodiversity to just let go of anything hybrid. To maintain the maximum biodiversity we have to make the most of what is, and that is mostly degraded, reduced in diversity and will never be what it once was.

Conservation is also notoriously human unfriendly. Humans must be removed from nature in the ideal situation for an area to be conserved. In the middle of a city that also seems counter productive. Humans are a given. Because parks are for humans they are not conservation areas. They are treated with other rules, and are ecological nightmares. So thousands of acres of park around the city in which some biodiversity could be maintained are jettisoned and thrown beneath the churning wheels of the city's mowing tractors, or just left to become dumps. There must be another way. Parks could be for humans and for plant diversity. Imagine walking through a city park that was edge to edge with native herbs and flowering bulbs, and included some edible indigenous foods and special areas with exotic food plants. Food plants are so much less likely to become 'invasive' as they need high levels of life support. The city will not, or cannot afford to do this planting for diversity and regeneration so the citizenry will have to revolt and show them the way.

The problem with the dominant regenerative agriculture lore

point one: global diversity

Firstly, regenerative agriculture is based on moving herds of grazing animals, which would be difficult to manage in an urban situation, or in dense forest. Secondly, the regeneration idea is good, but the techniques and practice need to be more adapted to climate and vegetation type, and the preservation of much greater diversity.

The dominant regenerative model was created in areas where grassland occurred naturally without human interference, and the native vegetation is adapted to and thrives in the presence of grazing animals. It was developed by Savory in the savanna of Zimbabwe, and evolved further in places where the North American prairie once was. It is brilliant in such situations.

But what about the need for forests to drive the hydrological cycles and cool the atmosphere in areas like the Amazon, as Jehne explains. What about the importance of old growth forests in locking down carbon and maintaining diverse habitats around the world. It can't all be cow driven. Someone will need to replant trees and be taught how.

What about the Cape's uniquely and prodigiously diverse native vegetation which is adapted to low nutrient soils and actually dies when there is too much nutrient ?

I think the problem is that the regenerative idea needs to diversify, and I'm willing to be part of that.

There is the necessity for a lot more differentiation in the regenerative model, to find ways of regenerating soil that work for forests, and our very diverse flora at the Cape, for wild flowers in Europe, which would be lost by over fertilizing the soil with large herds of animals. I think the Cape is not alone in this special need, and time will reveal the diverse practices needed to be regenerative everywhere.

However, all these areas need regeneration of some kind. It is patently visible at the Cape that we are experiencing degeneration of the soil and desertification, both the city scape and surrounding rural areas.

Point two: local diversity

On some regenerative farms, exotic grassland species are brought in which are more productive. This is a short sighted strategy in areas where exotic grasses do harm by invading space and pressing out native species, or because they cannot sustain native insects.

Regenerative agriculture can be rather vague on the native versus exotic plant issue, and the belief among ecologists of the danger represented by 'invasive' species is dismissed by some. This is also a fault in permaculture circles generally. The regenerative angle seems to be, from my interpretation, that species only invade where the soil is broken, and the invaders will 'fix' the soil and a new balance will establish in a few thousand years !

Anyone interested in the Cape flora who has watched it over five decades or more will have seen with their own eyes that it is not only degraded broken soil which is invaded by alien vegetation. Pristine healthy areas can be degraded by invasive vegetation. Anyone who has read research on our flora will know that invasive legumes have bacteria that destroy our very diverse nitrogen fixing, plant specific local nitrogen fixing bacteria, and this leads to the death of local plants.

The regeneratives are experts on their own land, but we at the Cape need a different overall strategy. We also need to maintain present diversity and not possible future diversity. In the context of the regnerative project and what it is trying to 'save' that idea of letting things right themselves in thousands of years seems absurdly undermining of their agenda. It will right itself in thousands of years anyway, even if it does so without us.

The need for an opened up , more diverse and flexible 'regenerative'

The world really needs regenerative agriculture, but  with more local adaption (one of the principles of permaculture that is often also neglected within permaculture too).

Regenerative agriculture needs practice friendly to urban situations and to areas with low nutrient soil adapted vegetation. It needs help with forest building. In short it needs to be a bit less of a one size fits all solution, and more open to other fields of knowledge as input, such as conservation and mainstream ecology.

To bring this to the attention of everyone I felt the urgent need for activism. I feel that indiscriminate use of mainstream regenerative practice on every area of the world will reduce diversity and bring ecological destruction. The drivers of regenerative agriculture know all this stuff, and think about it a lot. But as with permaculture, it is the followers, who perhaps do not have time for deep dives into ecology, who like the good in it, but copy the surface, and that is the problem. Otherwise busy people, city dwellers, are who I care about. I want to help them with the fine points the regenerative mainstream glosses over.

Hence the prefix 'poly' which screams diversity, multiplicity, more, alternatives, expansion of paradigms.

Poly-regen for short, the expanded concept is full of beauty. Poly points to polli-nators, and regen - the german for rain, to hydrology, and global hydrological health includes forests and oceans. 

The poly-regen adaption leans heavily on regenerative agriculture and the science that forms its body of knowledge, but adds to it. My observation of the Cape as a problematic area for mainstream regnerative agriculture is not globally unique. Our incredibly diverse flora doesn't thrive, can even die in high nutrient soil. Markus Gastl in Germany found that most flowering species there prefer low nutrient soils, and he purposely de-nutrified his garden to cater for wild flowers, to create a sanctuary for preserving insect diversity. Diversity is supported only by native plants, and pollinator diversity is a subset of that, hence our food security. In so doing he flew in the face of permaculture and had to create a new permaculture zone system.

Archaeology shows that during the Cape's present climate regime, it did not sustain vast herds of grazers that one finds in other areas of South Africa and Africa. The archaeology of nomads in the region (Khoekhoe) also shows that one reason they migrated yearly was in order to keep their cattle healthy. They did not stay too long in the low nutrient sandy zones or their cattle became diseased. The nutrient levels in the vegetation were too low to produce maximum health and fertility of both the Khoekhoe animals and wild animals in large numbers. You could sustain big herds by turning our sandy soil high nutrient but you would lose the plant and pollinator diversity and much of the vegetable side of the food supply.

This low nutrient problem has to be considered. I believe in areas with low nutrient adapted vegetation we must keep low nutrient zones in every garden to reach peak diversity, and we should plant them with native wildflowers. We can do this and still draw down carbon, and create a soil sponge.

There must be more ways the soil locks down carbon, than with cows

I put forward that a form of alternative carbon sequestration happened at the Cape naturally. Though our geology and pedology is the reason for 'lack' of soil nutrients, nutrient availabilty for plants was created by the presence of a rich, specially adapted soil microbioime. This is evidenced in recent research on our soil microbiome and unique local nitrogen fixers.

The soil was also rich with the remnants of old fires, locking down carbon. Anoxic combustion of buried roots naturally created biochar. Biochar lasts for thousands of years, and provides residence for the microbes small enough. Biochar is responsible for perennially fertile soils called Terra preta in the Amazon.

The incredibly slow growing woody plants in the low shrubby vegetation also sequester through their slow growth. They reached ages of 40 or more years before having their tops burned off, while their roots survived, or got burned. Veld fires smouldered for months, being reignited from burning underground roots ! This is an ideal situation for natural biochar formation.

While the nomads burned to create pasture, creating small regnerative patches on the low lying land, one of the first things the settlers did was to completely denude the mountain forests and then the Cape Flats for firewood in the town. When there were no more trees they used the vegetationof the sandy flats, the bushes, for fuel. Old diaries record the digging up of roots as fuel when the above ground wood ran out. They must have majorly disturbed any kind of carbon storage effect that occurred naturally.

This crystalized carbon in biochar and the microbiome it supported may have locked down carbon for longer than north American grassland vegetation does in the soil microbiome around grass roots, the main drivers of carbon drawdown, and that driven by grazing animals.

We do not have many native grasses at the Cape, but the soil was rich with mychorrhizal life and nitrogen fixing bacteria unique to the Cape, as research is beginning to reveal. As I said, exotic nitrogen fixers kill off our indigenous ones, and that kills off our indigneous vegetation more effectively than the overstory of wattles. You can't just slap other biota on our soils without killing what was once there. The native nitrogen fixers are so unique that each plant has a different node forming bacteria that can be recognized with the naked eye.

Wetlands are the most effect carbon sequestration mechanism on dry land. The Cape was a network of wetlands in winter.

Cape soils locked down carbon and had a rich, living soil sponge, but in their own way, and a way so unique, that the application of mainstream or dominant regenerative practice is actually destructive in our situation. Our soils may not have been nutrient rich, but our peculiar soil microbiome made sure the nutrients were available in the right quantities for the plants evolved to cope, and our flora is far more ancient than the north Amercian prairie, so its had the time. Let's honour that innate plant wisdom.

What will poly-regenerative gardening and agriculture do that is a step forward ?

The need for a new adaption of regenerative agriculture I hope is now clear. The the prefix 'poly' denoting multiplicity and adaptation to all kinds of situations seemed perfect, as it connotes not the destruction of the old dominant agenda, just its opening up into different situations.

Poly regenerative gardening and agriculture will be more sensitive to local diversity and the maintenance of diversity in native species wherever possible.

Poly regenerative agriculture will supply forest growing practices in addition to animal integration, and low nutrient and wetland zone creation. There are many brilliant forest planters like Shubhendu Sharma and Akira Miyawaki and their practice, adapted for Africa, can be taught.

Many insect species can only feed off native plants they have co-evolved with. Poly regenerative agriculture will attempt to ensure insect survival by encouraging the planting of natives, including indigenous food plants. If appropriate, they will not turn all land into deep fertile topsoil, but for the sake of insect diversity, pollinator diverstiy and thus food security, will leave some areas more low nutrient and rocky, and some open sand. These will carry a higher proportion of the native flowering plants in many areas of the world, like Germany and the Cape of South Africa, and any areas with low nutrient adapted vegetation.The sand will be for ground bees.

Dry sand pits are important for nesting ground bees which make up the majority of bee species. We cannot have all the soil rich and black and maintain bee diversity.

Poly regeneration will teach how to build wetlands for conserving local biodiversity and growing food. Many of our wetlands have been drained, so the regenerative gardener will attempt to create small wetlands that support native aquatic fauna and flora. Wetlands are also extremely productive and a good place for growing food, and better carbon sinks than dry land. The Cape was once rich with wetland, and it must have maintained our healthy hydrology and local weather patterns.

Poly regenerative agriculture will emphasize constantly that the ocean is the biggest heat and carbon sink by far, and is being exploited with lawlessness by some countries. Regenerative gardeners and farmers will avoid ocean products that are dangerously over exploitative of the oceans, even if they are called organic. Massive harvesting of Arctic krill and fish and the pollution of the oceans with heavy metals, mineral fertilizers and plastic must be fought and lobbied against, so that every regenerative gardener not only needs to take care of their own little piece of private land, but to keep pressing for cleaner and healthier oceans. They need to support those who are engaging in these battles, or engage themselves. We need healthy oceans more than any other ecosystem on earth. Our private gardens and thick, living topsoil can help a lot with keeping pollutants out of the oceans too.

In conclusion

Thank you for reading thus far. I acknowledge my debt to permaculture, regenerative agriculture and a little conservation learned third hand, and feel there is a path in between these sometimes warring factions. I don't  Let me sum up by repeating the 10 poly-regenerative principles, especially adapted for the Cape, now that you know the reasons behind them:

  1. minimal disturbance
  2. permanent cover
  3. incorporate animals with caveats
  4. undisturbed roots
  5. plant for diversity
  6. maintain some low nutrient zones
  7. maximize native plants
  8. create wetlands
  9. ocean awareness
  10. forest planting

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