As we seek to not only stop but reverse wildlife loss and the effects of climate change, going organic is helpful, but it’s not enough. We need to adopt regenerative practices that provide opportunities for nature to heal. To speak to how we can all participate in changing the world, one garden at a time, my guest this week is gardener and author Emily Murphy.
Emily is a regenerative, no-dig organic gardening consultant and designer. She holds a Bachelor of Science from Humboldt State University in California, where she studied ethnobotanical resources — the human use of plants. Her studies focused on taxonomy, plant physiology, soil science, ecology and environmental science. She later went on to study education at Sierra Nevada College in Nevada and garden design at the California School of Garden Design. Emily has penned two books, and she blogs about gardening at PassThePistil.com.
Emily’s new book is “Grow Now: How We Can Save Our Health, Communities, and Planet — One Garden at a Time.” The book is a call-to-action and a roadmap full of how-to’s and it also emphasizes the “why” behind what we choose to grow and how we grow it. The pleasures of pulling a carrot out of the ground, harvesting lettuce and seeing the transformation of your personal landscape are some of the great “whys,” but the positives go beyond our own yards.
“We’re facing some really large issues globally and in our communities, and here’s something simple we can do every day, one garden at a time, to benefit our families, our health and the planet,” Emily says.
Emily writes about many of the topics that “The joegardener Show” podcast has explored lately, like leaving the leaves, minimizing garden cleanup, regenerative gardening, and gardening in concert with nature. Collectively, these are the Best Gardening Practices 2.0.
The book is designed to provide multiple entry points to participate. Your entry point — your gift that you can share with the world — could be making your own compost, making your own food, growing plants for pollinators, and so on. We each have a gift, Emily says, and pairing our gifts with those of others is when real change begins.
If we can get people to take that entry point, wherever that may be, the road is endless, and they can go as far as they want to go.
This summation from “Grow Now” gives you a great idea of what it’s all about:
“When you look to the principles outlined in this book of going beyond organic caring for soil, fostering biodiversity, growing hyper-local food and embracing nature, you’ll discover you’re growing more than a garden. You’re growing a lifeline and a new way of seeing the world. With this lens comes a language we can share, and herein lies the power to shift the larger narrative around how we grow food, how we harness energy, and how we approach nature. Begin planting today, share what you can’t use, become a citizen scientist. Practice growing the change that you want to see and that you want to be.”
A Life-Long Love of Nature
I’ve known Emily for years and can attest it’s easy to detect that a love of nature is part of her ethos. That love was seeded at a very young age. When she was 5 years old, her mother would drop her off at her grandmother’s house in the summertime and turn her loose. Her grandmother had a homestead with a big garden and chickens, and right outside the garden gate was the wild. The only rule Emily had to follow was to watch out for rattlesnakes.
Emily hunted for mushrooms on walks with her grandmother, and they painted together. She also gardened with her mother. Those memories move her forward to this day, she says. She says she was one of the last children in the woods — like those described in the Richard Louv book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
“Running around barefoot when we were kids was the early form of earthing and getting in touch with the planet,” Emily says. “And now we know that those experiences are integral to our development — developing our immune systems and developing something I talk about in the book, which is our ‘nature quotient’ and our connectivity to self.”
Growing a garden is one of our immediate touchpoints with nature, Emily points out.
Your Nature Quotient
The intelligence quotient, or IQ, is a measure of one’s ability to reason, and the emotional quotient is one’s ability to cooperate with and understand others. And then there is the nature quotient: your understanding of nature and your place in it.
“It doesn’t mean you have to know every species’ name or know every plant name or butterfly name,” Emily explains. “It doesn’t mean that, but it might mean that you’re curious and that you’re this person who enjoys learning and you feel better when you’re in nature.”
The benefits of raising your nature quotient are vast.
“It’s really a metaphor for growth, and it’s personal growth,” Emily says. “It’s growing your family. It’s growing your life. It’s growing your health, your wellness, and they’re all interconnected. And when we approach it like that, it makes it easier to think about these large-scale issues.”
I love the idea of the nature quotient. We can increase our nature quotient by being a little more aware of our own environments and the actions we can take to improve them. I talked about using the power of observation in Part I and Part II of my recent discussion with Rebecca McMackin, the director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, and that conversation really struck a chord with Emily.
“We can all be our own Rebecca McMackin,” Emily says. “We can all be our own experts or specialists in our own space, in our community, or in our gardens, or on the paths that we walk every day because those are the places we can watch and listen and pay attention and really get to know in a deeply meaningful and personal way.”
By observing the lifecycle of plants and what insect and bird species visit those plants, and when, we gain a better understanding of how our landscapes can sustain wildlife. As Rebecca and her team experienced at Brooklyn Bridge Park, species that were thought to be long gone from the area returned once the plants that host them were in place.
“You plant it, they will come,” Emily says. “You care for soil, they will come.”
In “Grow Now,” Emily provides 15 ways to increase your NQ, and three really stuck out to me: replacing a section of your lawn with regionally appropriate plants and wildflowers, keeping a bird book and binoculars by the window and creating a comfortable spot to sit under a tree to enjoy some at-home “forest bathing.”
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term “shinrin-yoku” (“forest bathing”) in 1982. It means to take in the atmosphere of the forest. If you have ever sat in the woods and just stayed quiet for a minute, you know the feeling. It really is transformational.
I keep binoculars by my window and a notebook, just like Emily does. I use the app BirdNET from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to identify the birds by their sounds. For identifying plants, Emily recommends the app iNaturalist.
Change Your Language to Change Your Thinking
Early in “Grow Now,” Emily references Dr. Claudia Gross, the founder of the speakGreen blog and author of “Words Create Worlds.” Dr. Gross asks us to consider language as a tool for changing the world.
Emily says that through the language that we speak, we’re co-creating our futures: “The moment we are transforming our language, we can transform the world. This is why words like rewild, restore, revive, resilient and regenerative are so important. Words like these allow you to rewire your approach to the landscape and yourself through language while acquiring the tools for making these words reality.”
The words we speak affect our thinking. When we use words with intention, Emily says, we move the ball in a direction that improves our daily lives. The idea is to “re-story” our narrative.
Global issues such as climate change and extinction are big scary topics, Emily says, but when we break them down into their component parts, they become easier for us to comprehend and confront. The mess we find ourselves in now is part of a narrative that we got wrong, such as our approach to growing food and large-scale agriculture and the way we till and use chemicals in our gardens. But regenerative gardening helps us redefine that story through our actions.
Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you always get what you’ve always got.”
“Eco-anxious” is a term for a feeling many of us have, even if we don’t realize it. It’s the underlying white noise when you turn on the news and immediately want to turn it off because it’s another story of a major weather event affecting the planet, Emily says. Relief for eco-anxiety can come in small actions: planting a small vegetable garden, starting a container garden of plants for pollinators, participating in a community garden, volunteering or donating to good causes.
The Western Monarch: Evidence We Are Making a Difference
The need to go beyond sustainability and into regenerative practices can’t be emphasized enough. Still, there are people who will say, “Who are we to think we can change what Mother Nature has intended for our future?” Well, those people should learn about the reversal of fortunes of the western monarch.
In North America, there is both a western strand of monarch butterflies, which overwinters on the coast of California, and an eastern strand, which overwinters in Mexico.
“The western strand once numbered in the millions in the 1980s, and in recent years, those numbers dropped to hundreds of thousands,” Emily says. Between 2018 and 2019, the numbers dropped to about 30,000 individuals, and in 2020, the numbers plummeted to fewer than 2,000 individuals.
Fortunately, the Xerces Society’s 2021 Thanksgiving count found that the western monarch population was up to about 200,000 individuals. This gives us the opportunity to take a deep breath for a moment and remember that nature is resilient. It also shows that the efforts gardeners have made to grow regeneratively, to practice no-dig techniques, to skip pesticides and to create biodiversity have made a difference. “All of those things combined can help uplift and support populations of insects and other and other forms of wildlife,” Emily says.
Going Beyond Sustainability
Sustainability is, essentially, maintaining the status quo. It requires us to refrain from further damaging the ecosystem. Regenerative gardening and regenerative agriculture take it further by having a net positive effect on the environment.
Regenerate brings to mind a number of related words: regrow, restore, revive, repair. As Dr. Claudia Gross teaches, those words are powerful and change how we think.
Architect William McDonough, who co-authored “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” and “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance,” tells us that in today’s society we are taught to do less bad, which Emily says unfairly puts the guilt and responsibility of the climate crisis and extinction on the individual.
“We’re asked to waste less. We’re asked to drive less. We’re asked to use less energy, which inherently says we’re bad — what we’re doing is bad,” Emily says. She says to flip this and ask ourselves, how can we do more good?
E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and writer who died just last month at age 92, long warned us that if we continue to extract resources from the planet the way that we have been, the world’s species will be put into cataclysmic decline.
Through the Industrial Revolution and mass agriculture, we have been disassembling nature, Emily says. The good news is, we can put nature back together.
When we create biodiversity in our landscapes through our plant choices, we create an opportunity for even more biodiversity to move in. Insects and other wildlife will fill the ecological niches in the biodiverse spaces that we create.
“When you grow a diversity of plants, you automatically, inherently are fostering a diversity of wildlife because you’re providing these entry points for wildlife to come and visit,” Emily says.
So when we replace conventional agricultural and gardening practices with organic or — better yet — regenerative practices, we help landscapes to regenerate and can hold off the rate of species extinction, she says. “That’s where stewardship comes in. And it’s not dominion over, it’s co-creating, co-habiting with.”
My garden, plus your garden, plus your neighbor’s garden will save the planet one garden at a time.
Going Beyond Organic
Regenerative organics includes several of the practices that you have heard me discuss on this podcast many times, such as feeding the soil with organic matter and compost, disturbing the soil as little as possible and planting with biodiversity rather than monoculture.
“The soil ecosystem is the foundation of health for the aboveground ecosystem,” Emily says. “There’s this fabulous push and pull that happens between the soil, the soil life, the soil ecology and the ecology above ground.”
Another regenerative organics practice is to swap out low-performing ornamentals for native plants that wildlife is much more likely to visit. Because native plants co-evolved with the native insects and animals in your region, native plants are so much more valuable to the local ecosystem.
Emily notes that the same is true of soil microbes. When we continue to feed the soil with organic matter and skip pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, we foster those native organisms in soil. And planting more perennials keeps living roots in the soil year-round, which encourages beneficial microbes to flourish. “It’s our Hippocratic oath as gardeners to do more good — or grow more good — and do less us harm,” she says.
By virtue of urban sprawl, humans continue to build over previously natural landscapes, but Emily says there is room for both humans and nature to co-exist. “We’re not separate from nature,” she says. “We are nature inherently.”
Rewilding is a conservation and ecological restoration approach that is designed to return wilderness to its original state, before real estate development and other human intervention created disturbances.
Even in heavily developed areas, small pockets of wilderness can often be found. However, those pockets are unconnected to each other. By creating corridors to connect those pockets, we invite in biodiversity. Giving nature room to breathe in our yards and landscapes — by using more native plants, by refraining from using pesticides and by allowing our gardens to be less than tidy — had a cascading positive effect on wildlife.
During the early days of the pandemic, the positive effect on nature was apparent. In just a short period of time when no one was traveling and fewer people were commuting to work, nature had the opportunity to rewild itself and our air and water was cleaner. For example, sea turtles returned to beaches they hadn’t visited in many years, and there were blue skies over Mumbai, India.
“When we stop moving, we can see the benefits that happen,” Emily says.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Emily Murphy. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
How have you helped your landscape to rewild? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Grow What You Love: 12 Food Plant Families To Change Your Life” by Emily Murphy
“Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
“The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.