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Rewilding a Northern California Garden

April 08, 2022

Learn more about the gardening movements of rewilding and regenerative gardening — and see them in action — in this year-long garden makeover from expert, author and homeowner Emily Murphy.

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Photo: Emily Murphy

First, What Do I Mean by Rewilding?

Gardening trends are moving toward a deeper, more holistic approach to growing. Two such movements are rewilding and regenerative gardening, but what exactly do these words mean? Rewilding is a form of ecological restoration. It asks us to consider how nature grows itself and how we can mimic and encourage natural systems, create habitat and support biodiversity in our home gardens and communities. Rewilding involves regenerative practices, a set of common-sense principles for regrowing and supporting nature. Some of the core tenants of regenerative gardening are caring for soil, feeding soil organic matter such as compost, planting a diverse range of plants and considering how we can “grow more good.” It’s a step beyond organic. A no-dig practice called sheet mulching (which I’ll show and explain later), and native plantings are two regenerative practices I rely on for rewilding — they create habitat for people and wildlife.

Collectively, my garden, your garden, your neighbor’s garden and so on have the power to make a difference. Together, we have the opportunity to support biodiversity, mitigate the climate crisis and grow resilient communities — places that are good for us too. Considering that 139 million acres in the United States are dedicated to urban and suburban living, the possibilities are profound.

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Photo: Emily Murphy

After: My Beautiful and Resilient Garden Makeover

January of 2021 marked a new beginning for my family and me. We moved into a new home, a property best described as a garden with a house attached (thanks to its oversized yard), and we couldn’t have felt more fortunate. Here was a place where we could put down roots after renting for nearly 10 years — a place to call home, and a place to restore and rewild. While the house was move-in ready, aside from some interior painting, the yard needed a thorough renovation. Much of it was abandoned lawn with rock-hard soil littered with unruly weeds. For me, the expanse of deferred maintenance (weeds and all) was a blank slate and the perfect opportunity to bring the landscape back to life with the regenerative principles outlined in my new book, GROW NOW: How to Save Our Health, Communities, and Planet — One Garden at a Time. This image is the front garden six months after I began transforming the area with a no-dig, beyond organic approach and with plantings to support biodiversity.

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Photo: Emily Murphy

Before: The Bare Garden Is Ready for Rewilding

Every garden has a story to tell. We picked up the story of our new garden here, as you see it in this image taken from above. Wood chips edged a recently compacted entryway path comprised of road base, and the weeds were cut short to tidy up the property before going on the housing market. Now that it was ours, the big question was, what story would we tell? Between the fence lines was an opportunity for Growth — what I like to call Growth with a capital 'G.' As we grew the garden to create habitat, wildlife corridors and nectar paths, so too would we grow. This image is from January 2021 when we bought the property.

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Photo: Emily Murphy

Late Winter 2021: Layering Up Rather Than Breaking Ground

An important, alternate perspective of the property before the makeover is from the ground. This image is from early March of 2021. If you look carefully, you'll see I began sheet mulching the far part of the front yard by layering organic materials over the soil surface, existing grasses and weeds. Sheet mulching is the practice of layer organic matter over existing lawn or weeds to build up soil rather than removing or tilling in the existing plants.

Perhaps this seems counterintuitive? You may be wondering why not turn the soil over or till it to prepare the planting area? The easy answer is weeds. Tilling and digging soil unearths weed seeds, bringing them to the soil surface where they have the perfect opportunity to germinate and grow. Some studies have found as many as 130 million weed seeds per acre! The no-dig approach of layering up rather than digging down ensures weed seeds stay underground.

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