Traditionally, we make our New Year’s Resolutions on New Year’s Eve, or perhaps on the morning after, when we are inspired to change our ways for the better.
From another perspective, we can at any time commit ourselves to self-improvement or even higher goals. This column invites gardeners to create climate-friendly gardens in 2019, as their individual contribution to efforts to combat global warming.
Essentially, global warming results from the imbalances of the normal carbon cycle, which begins when plants capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and convert it into plant tissues. As the plants are eaten and digested by animals, or die and decompose, CO2 is formed again and returned to the atmosphere. At the same time, vast quantities of carbon have been stored in the ground in the soil and what we have regarded as fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas.
This natural cycle, which has continued for a very long time, has been disrupted as humankind has burned the fossilized materials and released their stored carbon into the atmosphere, disrupting the carbon cycle.
The challenge that humankind now faces is to reduce and eventually eliminate burning of oil, coal, and natural gas, and to produce energy through other means, notably by capturing the suns energy. This is the existential mission, i.e., its purpose is to sustain the existence of human life on the planet.
From the gardening perspective, gardeners can participate in this mission in two ways.
Reducing the Use of Fossil Fuels
This strategy involves reducing the direct and indirect consumption of fossil fuels in the garden. The direct consumption of these fuels involves using gasoline-powered equipment, notably lawn mowers, and other devices, including trimmers, edgers, chain saws, tillers, sod cutters, and the like. While occasional use of such devices might be unavoidable, whenever possible gardeners should use electrically powered devices or, ideally, hand-powered equipment.
For the record, the generation of electricity often involves burning fossil fuels, but the shift to renewable energy production is in progress, and deserves support.
The indirect consumption of fossil fuels occurs when we use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides), all of which require significant amounts of fossil fuel energy for their manufacture and transport. The clear option is to discontinue uses of these materials and to identify and use organic alternatives.
This transition can require finding sources of organic fertilizers and learning about natural, organic approaches to the control of pests and weeds. If you already know about these options, you are ready to commit to their use.
Capturing Carbon in the Garden
The gardener’s second strategy for combatting global warming is to support the ways that the garden stores (sequesters) carbon. Again, this is a natural process, so it is not difficult to incorporate in the garden. Here are the principal methods:
- Keep the Soil Covered. Bare soil releases carbon into the atmosphere, so when areas of your garden are not inactive use, plant cover crops (grasses, cereal grains or legumes) to protect the soil and add nutrients. This approach is particularly relevant for vegetable gardening, which can leave soil bare between crops.
- Avoid Tilling the Soil. Turning the soil with a tiller, garden fork, or shovel might seem be help plants to root, but it also moves dormant weed seeds into growing position, and releases carbon into the air. The roots will do fine on their own!
- Plant Trees and Shrubs Densely. A full complement of trees and shrubs helps to draws carbon from the atmosphere, and also provides a natural, attractive landscape. The basic design concept is to emulate the natural environment.
- Recycle Organic Matter. Your green bin is still a good place for roots, twigs and branches that decompose slowly, but dead leaves and green clippings should be composted and returned to the soil. But leave weed seeds out of the compost bin.
- Grow “Greener” Grass. If you have a lawn area, you might be concerned about its environmental impacts but pleased to know that lawns absorb and store CO2 rather well. Lawns have the potential, however, to emit harmful nitrous oxide, particularly when fertilized and watered generously. The best practice is to select grasses that do not require such treatment, mow the grass at a height of about three inches, and leave the clippings to decompose into the soil.
In addition to helping to save the planet, climate-friendly gardening is compatible with environment-friendly practices, and with your gardening success. It’s still a good time to commit to climate-friendly gardening as your resolution for 2019.
For more information on this topic, see “The Climate-Friendly Gardener: A guide to Combating Climate Warming From the Ground Up.” This is a free download from the Union of Concerned Scientists.