Gardeners are very much aware of climate change.
The act of gardening draws our attention to it every day.
As Canadians march uneasily towards our 2030 deadline for carbon neutrality, land stewardship is becoming more central to the discussion. Gardening is land stewardship on an intimate scale. Farmers are like gardeners in this way. You are likely to see the term “regenerative agriculture” more frequently at the grocery store. We think this is a good idea as it reflects an approach to farming which encourages healthier soils where carbon is efficiently stored underground.
Here are some regenerative practices we recommend for your garden:
- Minimum tillage, or “no-till”. Disturb the soil as little as possible. Some gardeners refer to this as “no-dig gardening”. The main benefit is that, when left in the hands of microscopic bacteria and mycorrhizae, soils develop complex structures that store and transport nutrients and water and that helps all plants, as well as microbial life in the soil. When tilled by plow, rototiller or hoe, these structures are torn apart leaving nutrients such as carbon to escape into the atmosphere. We recommend that you control weeds by mulching rather than cultivating and try to dig only enough to get your plants into the ground.
- Cover cropping and inter-cropping are climate-friendly tactics that improve the fertility of your soil. They increase the time that your soils are “productive” photosynthesizing carbon out of the atmosphere, converting it to organic matter and sequestering the carbon into the soil for future crops. Cover crops also help minimize soil erosion, retain water, and minimize weeds and pests.
- Mark sowed white clover and alyssum in his new orchard with great results including 100% elimination of weeds and dramatic soil quality improvement.
- Avoid synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizer, including the kind gardeners use, are a massive contributor to climate change. The production of them demands a tremendous amount of natural gas and the application of nitrogen fertilizer is also known to produce N2O which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. N2O emissions have grown 30% in the last four decades, 87% of which was driven by agriculture (anthropocenemagazine.org/2020/10/the-fertilizer-solution-has-become-a-major-climate-problem/). Organic farmers have proven that you can maintain healthy soils without the use of synthetic fertilizers by cover cropping, composting, and crop rotation.
- Plant perennial flowers such as native rudbeckias and echinacea in your flower garden to attract pollinators and consider perennial food crops such as berries and tree fruits. Perennial food crops are the backbone of “permaculture”, which is an aspect of regenerative agriculture that focuses on nurturing productive ecosystems with minimum disturbance. The ecological benefits are huge, as perennial plants develop deeper root systems which enhance soil health. Most often they are effective attractants to pollinators (another subject).
- Compost makes a great alternative to synthetic fertilizers which can be produced using waste products in your own backyard. This avoids another stop for the diesel-spewing yard waste truck rolling down your street. A compost pile or bin will also decompose otherwise landfill-bound materials aerobically, which produces less methane – another dangerous greenhouse gas. One study found that food waste bound for compost produced only 14% of the greenhouse gas emissions as those bound for landfill (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200224-how-cutting-your-food-waste-can-help-the-climate). Soils rich in compost are capable of storing more carbon out of the atmosphere, as they contain more active soil life and healthier soil structure.
Climate change can feel overwhelming but taking direct action in your own garden is one way to make a positive contribution to the issue of our time while enjoying the vast personal benefits of gardening.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.