How Gardeners Can Help Mitigate Climate Change
A new year lies open before us, its pages largely unwritten. Oh sure, many of us have calendars already jammed with work and play, events and appointments, vacations and expectations. Some of us may have written out lists of resolutions as well, things we hope to accomplish or bring into clearer focus. I most sincerely hope that an intention to actually do something about climate change appears at the very top of all of our lists.
Climate change is not a vague future threat anymore. It’s here and it’s past time to act. In 2018, international climate change summits all called for immediate action from governments, corporations and citizens alike. That last bit raised some eyebrows around here, since it’s far less uncomfortable to assume that big problems can only be “fixed” by big, government legislated and funded solutions. In my small and largely wealthy community, many people have been assiduously recycling and composting, cleaning up beaches and streams, moderating resource use and so on for years. Surely we are doing all we can? However, a common defensiveness makes the assumption clear that certain habits, from daily Amazon deliveries to jet fueled vacations, don’t really count. When it’s so difficult to let go of our acquisitive and entitled behaviors, how can any of us as individuals really make a difference?
Helping By Healing
Those of us who own land or work as gardeners can most definitely make a powerful difference. Over 90 million Americans are gardeners and together we have the power to create significant change yard by yard, town by town, state by state. Fortunately, relatively minor changes, repeated year after year, can have a large cumulative effect. Indeed, many of them may already be part of our accustomed practices. For starters, we can switch from chemical lawn care to natural care. Americans spend over three billion dollars a year on fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides that damage soil life and reduce soil quality.
As soils degrade, struggling lawns need more food, water, and weed suppression than ever. Natural care products and techniques nurture soil life, improve soil quality, and promote vigorous root growth, reducing those same needs naturally and fast. Next, we can reduce the amount of lawn, replacing unused turf areas with woody plants, perennials, and ornamental grasses. Where space is limited, even small trees and shrubs will capture and hold more carbon than shallow-rooted, closely mown turf. Low growing evergreen ground covers can replace turf attractively and require far less maintenance than lawns once established.
Planting For A New Climate
Plant choices are especially important now, since climate change has already shifted Northern hemisphere regional climates southward. In some areas, scientists have tracked changes of as much as one degree of latitude each decade since the 1970’s. As each degree covers nearly 70 miles, that shift is effectively moving us into different USDA climate zones than we and our plants are used to. Increasing seasonal heat and drought are causing massive die-off of native plants around the country and the world, including iconic ones like Douglas firs in the maritime Northwest and dogwoods throughout the American South. When garden plants fail to thrive in changing conditions, we must select replacements that are better able to handle significant stresses. Here too, soil improvement and deeper-than-usual mulches will be increasingly important to garden health, resilience, and good looks.
Who Needs The Gym?
Since gas powered tools are major sources of CO2 emissions, we can replace them with updated, efficient push mowers or energy-saving electric models. When we use rakes and brooms instead of leaf blowers (which harm plants and soil life), we save money, help our planet, and get some healthy exercise at the same time! Just as we’ve done indoors, we can switch garden lighting to LED bulbs and solar fuel. While we’re at it, let’s reserve night lighting for safety purposes only, since it’s disruptive for woody plants as well as birds and other wildlife.
Our greatest contribution may be in creating and maintaining healthy soil. Since all soils need adequate carbon levels to function well, soil is an ideal place to store carbon. Sadly, we too often do a terrible job of protecting our soils. In gardens and landscapes as on farms, bare soil is easily eroded or blown away. Research shows that tilling and other invasive practices release sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, leaving soil levels too low to support plant growth.
That pushes the use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, which further damage soil life, and a costly cycle of increasing use of both substances is perpetuated. Instead of tilling and chemical solutions, the combination of humus-building mulches and seasonal cover crops begin healing soil very quickly. Recent research shows that even a quarter-inch layer of compost can re-start the carbon sequestration process almost immediately, also improving soil health and the nutritive quality of food crops.
Compost For Soil Health
For home gardeners, planting ornamental beds fully, mulching with mature compost, and keeping vegetable beds under cover crops when not in production will build soil quality even faster. Even small gardens have room for a worm bin for plant-based food scraps (some bins even double as benches). A yard-square compost bin can transform those same food scraps and yard waste into humus-rich compost. As well, recycled yard waste gets turned into commercial compost in many communities today.
Where seasonal runoff and erosion are common problems, a rain garden can capture that runaway water and store it in the soil, where woody plants can access it. Many communities offer online plans for rain gardens and swales, suited to specific site conditions. In cities and towns, green roofs can capture both rain water and carbon while helping to mitigate seasonal temperature swings, reducing power needs.
Step Up And Speak Out
Next, get political. Just as important as the changes we make in our own backyards are those we foster in our communities. Urge local schools, parks, and golf courses to use natural care practices (the Audubon Society offers excellent and practical programs on their website). Request that your town or city maintenance crews replace chemicals with natural care programs. Call local, state and national elected officials on every level and ask that natural care programs be adopted everywhere, starting now. Then call again. And again.
Education is critical to the success of all of these missions. Urge local governments and service groups, businesses and corporations, Senior Centers and schools to offer programs on practical ways communities can work to mitigate climate change. Harness the amazing energy and power of school kids to participate in climate change education and action. After all, they will inherit the problems we don’t work to fix. If kids see us doing all we can, they’ll find the heart and courage to work alongside us and help create a healthier future for the planet and every living thing on it. Onward!