Gardeners Can Help Combat the Climate Crisis

Hermit warbler

The man with a pained expression said that he was worried about the birds.
And all I could do was nod.

During the Q&A following a presentation I recently gave in Portland, many attendees expressed concern about climate chaos. One mentioned the change in hardiness zones, while another mentioned driving north into Washington State and seeing countless trees apparently near death. Others wondered if they should consider modifying their plant selections since studies show that native plants are on the move, northward or to higher or lower elevations. But of course their populations can’t shift fast enough, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, they’ll run out of places to go. Ecosystems will collapse, especially in extreme environments, and their innocent members will suffer.

I cringe whenever the subject of dealing with anthropogenic climate change comes up because I believe we ought to be fighting it in any and every way we can, not giving in. I have to hold back tears when I read news accounts that document the devastating and irreversible changes that are already taking place. Climate change is the most pressing environmental problem of our time (besides its close cousin, overpopulation) and every human ought to be troubled by it, especially because it could have been remedied 30+ years ago.

Needless to say, we must drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions if we’re going to keep climate warming at a safe level (below 1 degrees celsius), and we need to do it quickly if we want to avoid catastrophic change. As individuals, we can drive and fly much less (walk or grab a bike or bus or train) and eliminate or at least cut our use of meat and other animal products, toward a much healthier plant-based diet.

We also need to plant trees, price carbon emissions, subsidize clean energy and close coal plants and stop drilling, avoid plastics and palm oil, and require “zero-deforestation” supply chains, among other things. 

Removing carbon dioxide, the primary warming gas, from the atmosphere is as essential as curtailing emissions; the National Academy of Sciences estimated that ten gigatons (one gigaton is a billion tons) of CO2—about one fifth of all emissions—could be taken from the air each year, simply by growing more trees. In addition, taking much better care of the soil could have an immense impact, since the planet’s soils were once a gigantic carbon sink that have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock. It can be put it back where it belongs if we restore degraded and eroded land and curtail deforestation as well as destruction of peatlands.

Try it at home

One of the most immediate and tangible ways we can help fight climate change as individuals is to conserve native habitat—by keeping it intact and healthy—and restore native habitat. It makes climate sense and anyone with a yard can do their part at home. It will also build a greater buffer for plants and animals to survive changing conditions. Here are a few tips:

♦ Lose the lawn (or at least most of it). Of the 42 million acres of lawn in the U.S., a massive chunk could be replaced with regional native plants. Besides lawn being a wasteland where other, more positive things could grow, lawns are maintained annually with 300 million tons of synthetic, fossil fuel-based fertilizers that, besides polluting waterways, add to air pollution as they break down. The same goes for fossil fuel-based pesticides. And two-stroke gasoline-powered lawn equipment burns more than 800 million gallons of gasoline (and spills, literally, 17 million gallons) each year while their products of combustion cause high levels of hazardous air pollutants and CO2. If you must have lawn, mow high, don’t water, and leave grass clippings to fertilize the soil and add carbon.

Use push mowers, rakes, brooms and other no-emission tools. They take a little more effort than motorized tools, but can’t we all use a little more exercise?

♦ Plant more native trees and shrubs. Due to their size and typically long life spans, trees and large shrubs—particularly those that are long-lived—remove more heat-trapping CO2 from the atmosphere than other plants. Whenever possible, choose plants from the native plant community local to your area to help them thrive in changing times. Plant communities are, essentially, loose associations of interdependent species that belong together because they’ve adapted, over thousands of years, to have similar needs and tolerance for the existing soil type, topography, precipitation, humidity, sunlight, and wildlife of an area. They are defined by the species that are most obvious (largest or the most abundant) in a given environment. Besides looking good together above ground, the plants often have symbiotic relationships, such as by sharing moisture and nutrients underground, with the help of mychorrizae. They communicate with chemicals through the soil and above ground and interact through competition and other ecological relations. To achieve summer shade and reduce or eliminate the need for air conditioning, grow large trees on the southwest or west side of your house (10 to 30 feet away) to block hot afternoon rays (second best place is the southeast or east side). Appropriately placed trees also offer protection from winter winds, which can help with home heating._MG_1052 Big-leaf maple branch

♦ Grow your own fruits and vegetables organically. Besides being incredibly healthful, fresh, and tasty, home edible gardening eliminates the fuel used to transport food. If you can’t grow your own, buy certified organic foods whenever possible. No-till organic farming is the best agricultural practice for wildlife and for sustainable land management, particularly through the enrichment of soil microbial activity that increases mineral exchange between plants and soil, which promotes carbon fixation. Since soils are the basis of food production, preserving their quality is critical, even if organic farming is not the most productive.

♦ Compost at home. Organic waste that decomposes in anaerobic landfills creates methane, a heat-trapping gas that is 23 times more potent than CO2. But when we compost in the presence of oxygen, methane production is minimized. Composting yard clippings (without weed seeds), leaves and vegan food scraps (roughly a 1:1 ratio of “greens” and “browns”) produces a nutrient-rich soil amendment that reduces the need for fertilizers while helping the soil store more carbon. Compost made with only fallen leaves also produces a nice soil amendment that’s good at improving soil structure and microbial activity.

Keep your soil healthy. Allow fallen leaves, bark, twigs, lichen, and downed wood to remain on soil to protect it and add nutrients.


© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

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