Developing a full regenerative design can be quite a long and involved process. Looking deeply into your holistic context and trying to understand both the nuances of the ecosystem and community you’re working in doesn’t get done overnight.
Many of you are like me however and just want to get started doing something as soon as possible. The problem comes when you realise that if you start to implement big and costly projects too early or before you’ve finished your design, you could end up having to undo them or your design could suffer from them being poorly placed. So what can you do if you’re itching to get started but still want to take your time to get your design right and fully completed?
In my years of working with clients and organizations on regenerative projects around the world, I’ve found some great projects that you can start working on right away. These come without any risk of causing problems for your design later down the line and they’ll actually help you to develop your design when its finished and save you money and time once you’re ready. These techniques are low impact and low investment, and you can adapt them to any context. Whether you’re re-greening the desert or re-establishing a wetland, you’ll be glad you got started with these sooner than later.
The first four projects will not only help you get to know your local ecology better, they’ll get you started interacting with and improving it too.
Projects 5 and 6 are aimed to help you establish strong community interactions and build a desirable reputation that will help open doors for you immediately.
The last two projects are for those of you who plan to build a home or other structure on your site and will help save you money and make things simpler.
So let’s get to work
Build a local plant database. Though you might consider this part of the design process, it’s one of my favorite ways to familiarize myself with the plants and wildlife on my site and in my area. It’s also an incredibly useful document to have as reference during the entire lifespan of your regenerative project. I’m always making new plant lists wherever I go and referencing back to them when making a design or gathering ideas of what plants might help to advance a client’s goals. This doesn’t have to be a purely academic process either if you pair it with the more active project that comes next. There are a lot of plant identification apps out there to make this process much easier such as Google Lens, PlantNet, PlantSnap, and Seek from iNaturalist, but I still recommend getting a book of your local flora and fauna if you can find one, because it’ll help you shortcut the process and won’t fail you if you happen to have bad service. If you’re looking to get a jump start, check out the plant database template that I use myself. It’s got a lot of useful categories for adding information and you can edit it however you see fit.
Build a seed library. Why not figure out how to plant and propagate the cool new plants that you find and identify while you’re building your plant database? It might be as easy as looking for ripe fruit or seed pods on the plant you just found, or, if it’s not a plant that gives viable seed, then doing a little research to see if it can be propagated by root division or cuttings. I always carry some small sealable bags with me and pens or permanent markers to label the seeds or cutting that I gather. Be sure to put the plant name, the place where you found it, the date that you collected your sample, and any other relevant information so you don’t forget later. I’ve built up a small seed library this way, and it’s always growing (literally) since I make sure to plant the seeds or share them with others as soon as I can. This will help you jump start your design later on if you plan on restoring native plant populations or if you’re looking to grow a local or wild food garden. Instead of buying the seeds or cuttings, it’s free to go and source them yourself.
Start a plant nursery. This is the next logical step after seed saving, and will help you expand your propagation skills. Since you’ll now have a lot of knowledge around local plants and a library of seeds and cuttings to plant, you can start breeding the species that you know you’ll want for your garden, crop production, orchard, or native species restoration. The common saying is that the best time to plant a tree is 15 years ago, but the second best time is now. Get those babies growing! Not only will you get a jump start on having seedlings ready when you’re finished with your design and know where you want to plant them, you’ll also save a lot of money for not having to buy trees from a nursery. Having a nursery on site can be a huge asset to any regeneration project and building a greenhouse or propagation area can often be done with scrap and recycled materials in the beginning. You can always renovate and expand it as you get more money and resources. If you get really good at plant propagation, selling trees and plants can also become a great business venture in its own right.
Start a veggie garden. The next obvious step once you’ve got your nursery up and running (or even before) is to start a small garden with all those seeds and cuttings that you’ve been gathering. Starting a garden doesn’t have to be a big endeavor. It doesn’t even have to be permanent. You can start by growing in pots and bags or by making small garden beds around the entrance at your house. As you go through a season or two, you’ll quickly learn what certain plants need to grow well on your site and in your soils. From there you can start to narrow down what you want to grow for yourself or for market if regenerative farming is part of your final design. The possibilities are endless, but they all require knowledge and experience to be successful, so get started building those right away.
Create connections in your community. Another great active project you can work on that will help your final design in big ways down the line is getting out into your community to create connections and make new contacts. Though sometimes it can just seem like socializing (which can be the most fun part!), if you set out with a loose objective such as, reach out to 3 local business owners today, or, meet a builder or crafts-person in my neighborhood, you can gain useful connections to help advance your design. Attending town hall meetings, local fairs and festivals, connecting with clubs and activity groups, and more are all fun and active ways to learn more about the community where you live. You’ll quickly meet the people who could be a major help to you when it comes time to implementing your design later on. You could even take on a leadership role in some local activities or become an organizer or facilitator for groups in your area. I’ve always found that these connections end up being essential in ways that are hard to imagine in the beginning and are always worth investing in. You could end up making lifelong friends too!
Volunteer in your community. Now that you’ve made a bunch of new friends and contacts in your community, it will be easy to take another active step forward and volunteer your time to help some of them out. When you’re planning a big project and you know you’re going to need help and favors to make it happen as it unfolds, being proactive and starting an amicable exchange can ensure you’ll have the support you need when it comes time. Volunteering is also an amazing way to actively build skills and experience and can help you build a strong reputation among your community that will make everything you do easier in the future. As you become known for giving back and investing in other people’s projects it will be so much easier to call in favors if you need some extra help on your own projects later on.
Gather materials and tools. If you’re planning on doing any construction projects on your site or as part of your design for your project, I would highly recommend getting started gathering materials as soon as possible. There are often tons of building supplies available either recycled from the waste stream, salvaged from other people’s projects, or for sale at low cost if you find them second hand. There are lots of benefits to getting you materials this way and starting to stockpile them before you even begin designing your buildings. For one, it can inform your design for the building by opening up possibilities you wouldn’t have considered (If you’ve salvaged 6 port hole windows from an old boat, can you adapt your home design to make creative use of them?). It can save you a lot of money and scrambling to gather materials when you need them later too. Of course, if you don’t end up using them, you can always refurbish and clean them a little and resell them or give them away as gifts. Having extra materials and tools around is never a bad idea, just make sure you have enough space and a way to store them safely and in an organized way or you’ll end up with a rotting junk pile where you don’t even know what you’ve got (this might sound silly but I’ve seen it more than once).
Test your soil for building potential. Along the same lines of gathering materials for building and infrastructure projects, think about what natural resources you have that can be used for construction. I specialized in earthen building for the first few years of my career and I’ve always been able to find building materials on any site that I’ve been to around the world. There are a lot of different tests that you can do to determine the suitability of your subsoil for building. Even if your soil isn’t ideal for construction, perhaps it’s too sandy or too gravely, it can likely still make up the bulk of a building mix and save you a lot of time and money compared to bringing it in off site or buying industrial materials for your buildings. Natural and earthen buildings have a long and established history. Why not tap into those vernacular forms of wisdom to help you make your structures more environmentally friendly, cost effective, and long lasting?
Do you know of any other actions that people can start taking right away that should be included in this list?
Did you start doing things on your land right away before your design was complete?
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