Making Your Garden Climate-friendly

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 

Creating a Garden Map

Creating a record of the plants in your garden yields several benefits. A “garden record” includes two essential components: the name, photo and basic cultivation notes for each plant, and an indication of each plant’s location in the garden.

A more elaborate plant record could include extensive plant info that reflects the gardener’s interests. Examples include purchase details (when, where, cost); native region; and landscaping ideas. The record could be extended further with notes on the plant’s development over time, including bloom times, pruning, propagation, fertilization, etc.

Such details, while relevant, are the territory of professional growers and very zealous gardeners.

The minimalist approach to a garden record involves simply inserting a plant tag in the soil next to the plant. A respectable tag from the nursery provides the plant’s botanical and common names, plus a phrase about its mature size and growth needs. Placing the tag in the soil marks its spot in the garden. This method, although popular, has notable shortcomings: sparse information, ephemeral mark of location, and plastic intrusion into the natural setting.

Plant tags are best used for temporary reference, during the preparation of a better garden record.

After considering those extreme forms, let us return to the fundamental model of the plant record.

Plant Information

Compiling information on an individual plant can be accomplished most easily and quickly with an Internet search, using the plant’s botanical name, or, if necessary, its common name. This information should be available on the plant tag.

The first search should be the website of the nursery that grew the plant. The nursery’s name could be read from the plant tag, or provided by garden center that sold the plant.

Other good sources include San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara. SMG grows many plants and supplies them to garden centers. Their website (includes a fine database of plants that they grow —or used to grow— with photos and detailed descriptions, cultivation suggestions, and notes on the plant’s discovery or hybridization.

More good online resources include Wikipedia for plant information and Wikimedia Commons for plant photographs.

Other websites with useful plant information could be discovered through a botanical name search.

After locating basic plant information, good practice involves developing a database of plants in your own garden. This could be accomplished on paper or in digital form, i.e., as a computer file. Organize the plant under discrete planting beds or areas of the garden.

Garden Map

The second component of the garden record is a map showing the location of each plant in the database. Plant locations could be documented with notes within the plant description, but a graphical map would be a more useful reference for monitoring plant growth and developing the landscape development.

The garden map need not serve as an artistic triumph or an exercise in precise engineering, but it should amount to a scale drawing of the garden area. For a garden on a standard lot with a typical complement of plants, a map of the entire garden could be sufficient. For larger gardens, or those with many plants, a series of maps representing areas of the garden would support notations indicating plant locations.

On the map, represent each plant with its name, or a numeral linked to the plant record, or a numeral linked to symbol. The symbol could be a circle of appropriate size, or, for the artistically inclined, a simple drawing that suggests the size and form of the plant.

Again, primary purpose of the garden map is to document plant locations, rather than to create a work of art.

The map must be editable, so that it could be updated to reflect additions, deletions, and relocations of plants. Working in pencil could be most appropriate.

A garden map also could be created and maintained as a digital file. This method involves the use of computer graphic software, either a general purpose or garden-mapping application. This column cannot include an overview of garden mapping software, but, generally, the garden-mapping software that is currently available is intended for edible gardens in which plants grow in rows. Such software could be helpful for planning and describing traditional vegetable gardens, but is not suitable for ornamental gardens, or for edible gardens that are designed for aesthetic effect, including those that creatively combine edibles and ornamentals.

Graphic design software with the functionality needed to represent irregularly shaped planting beds is certainly available, but tends to require significant expense and skill.

Avid gardeners can develop plant information and garden maps to create garden records of substantial value in developing and maintaining the garden. Good practice suggests adopting readily accomplished formats, rather than aspiring to high standards that are unlikely to be achieved or maintained. The first priority should be to create the garden record as a practical tool for planning, developing and maintaining your garden.

The rainy season is a good time to pursue your garden record project!