Using my backyard to fight global warming
Have you been feeling so hopeless about the state of our globe you want to yell,
“I NEED TO START A GARDEN!”
(Uph. If this resonates, take a deep breath, and then listen to “Oom Sha La La” by Haley Heynderickx, and sing/shout along in solidarity.)
I think we all share the dilemma of wanting to help our planet, but feeling our actions alone are too miniscule to matter. Still, we have to do something. The United Nations has stated we need to reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent over the next 10 years, otherwise atmospheric temperature is predicted to rise 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, “resulting in worsening risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”
Answering the U.N.’s call to action will require a WWII-esque global effort, according to David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth. He says we can’t really achieve the goal of slowing down global warming without massive government programs being put in place the world over.
Another way to look at it, however, is this: the crisis is a giant threat, but we are many. Which brings us back to WWII.
American families were once encouraged to plant food at home to support the war effort. By 1944, more than 20 million Victory Gardens were growing strong, producing over 40 percent of the fruits and veggies consumed in the United States. Now our common enemy is global warming, says Acadia Tucker author of Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Carbon Farming. In her book she appeals to all of us to plant our own Climate Victory Gardens, this time for the good of the planet. About a tenth of planted, organically rich acre, can offset the carbon emissions of one American adult per year, she writes. In 1944, when roughly 42 percent of American families were growing their own food, they were also, not incidentally, lowering the national carbon footprint.
Is that a glimmer of hope I see in your eye?
I am an on-farm chef and growing apprentice who, until recently, has not lived in one place long enough to have my own garden. After six years of working on and around farms, I had a pretty good idea of how to get started. I had also learned to view growing food as an act in keeping with my own commitment to the environment. So last summer, I planted my first Climate Victory Garden.
A Climate Victory Garden is grounded in the carbon-sucking principles of regenerative agriculture, which uses practices that mimic nature. Plants naturally pull carbon from the air through photosynthesis, then release it in the form of sugar, into the soil. This feeds the mighty microorganisms that supply plants with the nutrients they need to grow. The process also deepens the reservoir of carbon stored in the soil. The more carbon in the ground, the better able it is to absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, like methane and nitrous oxide.
Regenerative farmers basically allow plants to work their magic, and keep more carbon in the ground, by practicing minimal tilling, planting a mix of crops, keeping roots in the ground year round, and shoveling on lots of organic material.
So what does this mean for the backyard gardener? It boils down to this: make soil-building the priority before you plant your garden, and afterwards.
So, want to do something, anything, for the planet? Here are a few tips for starting your own Climate Victory Garden—all of which you can find in Acadia’s books.
PICK YOUR SPOT
Pick a location that gets plenty of sunshine throughout the day and is reachable with a garden hose. If you’re like me, you need to visualize what it could look like. The Farmer’s Almanac has developed a program called “Garden Planner” that helps you draw your garden to scale, then fill your virtual garden with veggies. Its database allows you to plug in your growing region, offers a list of suitable veggies to choose from, and then develops your seeding and harvesting calendar. It’s like Sims for gardening!
BUILD YOUR BEDS
Designate an area of your lawn for your garden beds. With a little prep, you can start growing straight into your lawn by first tearing it up and removing weeds. Then mix in compost about two inches thick, and top it off with mulch. You can also build raised beds, which are a bit easier to manage because you won’t have to do any weeding. My kind, intelligent brother (we have an agreement) helped me collect discarded wooden pallets from around town and rebuild them into raised beds. My beds are built directly into the soil, but the walls buffer my plants from weeds, and are easy to cover and protect against frost.
PREPARE YOUR SOIL
Once your frames are built, consider sheet mulching, which means layering on newspaper, leaves, grass clippings, and compost to smother weeds and create a carbon rich soil structure. Here’s an intro to how to do it. You can also cart in soil from your local nursery. No matter what approach you use, it’s important to add organic matter at least once a year, preferably more. To create a happy home for beneficial soil microorganisms, fungi, and wiggly worms, mix into your soil about two inches of compost. Then cover it with mulch to trap in the moisture and nutrients needed for the party to get started.
DECIDE WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO GROW
This is where I can get a little out of control. You try flipping through the spell-bounding biodiversity of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog without ordering everything in sight. Chinese pink celery! Purple Dragon carrots! Strawberry Popcorn! If you’re not careful you’ll quickly spend $60 on seeds, only half of which will actually grow in your region. (Trust me.)
I live in northwestern Colorado with only 59 frost-free days. This means I have to start most of my seeds inside in early spring to let them grow, and then transplant them into the ground. So no waiting until it’s warm enough outside to drop tomato or bean seeds into the ground. They’ll never make it to harvest.
Find out how many growing days you have in your region, that is, the number of days between the last frost of the year, and the first frost. Using this measure will help you figure out what you have time to grow. To get more help, try the Burpee Seeds Growing Zone Finder.
As you become more familiar with your growing region, you’ll learn to plant in succession -- meaning you can get your frost-tolerant veggies (kale, beets, carrots, radishes) going, while your heat-loving plants (tomatoes, peppers, squash) are getting started inside in little biodegradable pots.
MIX IN PERENNIALS
I used to focus on growing annuals, like zucchini, corn, and peas. But after reading Growing Perennial Foods, I’ve changed my tune. Regenerative gardener Acadia Tucker favors growing deep-rooted plants, like artichokes, asparagus, and raspberries, because they stay in the ground year round. This is makes it far more likely my little garden will blend into the “giant carbon sponge,” she writes about.
I have added gooseberry and currant bushes to my yard, along with strawberries, and perennial herbs like mint and lavender. I call them my “set it and forget it” gang. Note to fellow renters: check with your landlords before adding perennials because they will be around for a while!
KEEP ADDING ORGANIC MATTER
At least once a year, dress your plants with nice heaping shovelfuls of compost and mulch. Compost adds lots of helpful nutrients, and is a nice way to deal with food waste at home, which might otherwise be emitting methane in a landfill. Mulch, a regenerative grower’s best friend, keeps all your hard work in place, helps lock in moisture and nutrients, and protects roots from drying out or freezing. It also builds the carbon storing power that helps the planet.
I won’t lie to you--starting a Climate Victory Garden takes work. But once established it requires much less attention than a garden filled with annuals because it starts taking care of itself. My garden was snowed on in June! Trying to keep my annuals alive during our temperamental spring has left me and other frustrated gardeners wondering if this is the new normal. But perennials are resilient. They will be there for you, year after year, unlike those diva lettuce heads.
It’s worth it for other reasons, of course. I find it deeply satisfying knowing my garden is helping offset global greenhouse emissions. I also like feeding family and friends with my home-grown bounty. You don’t need to tear up your whole yard to do it. (Unless you want to be as cool as these ladies.) You can start small, maybe plant five perennials and grow a patch of salad greens, and you’ll be amazed by how quickly they’ll take off. Once you plant your garden consider adding it to Green America’s Climate Victory Garden Map. So what are you waiting for?! Get growing!
Erin Torgerson is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow. She lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.