Growing good food: A citizen’s guide to backyard carbon farming
My backyard garden looks almost nothing like the two–acre market farm I planted in Washington State eight years ago. I still grow tomatoes. And I can’t imagine having a garden without onions, or the beans that I eat off the vine every August, which is peak growing season here in New Hampshire. But I no longer plant my favorite melons, and the long rows of squash and corn that took up so much room on my farm have given way to other plants.
The growing season in chilly New England is much shorter than the one in the Pacific Northwest. This means my garden doesn’t have as much time to bask in the sun, and long-season, heat-loving crops like watermelon aren’t worth the space they need to thrive. Plus, I decided a few years ago to make room for more perennials, which is why there’s a much greater representation of rhubarb, blueberries, herbs, and other deep-rooted plants, including peculiar-looking ones like walking onions.
When I first started farming in Washington, my small team and I grew close to 200 varieties of fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Our focus was on planting organic crops and finding enough customers to buy them. We started with the basics, including corn, peppers, and lettuce —the produce we knew people would keep coming back for.
Our location at the northernmost tip of Washington State meant we had more than 15 hours of sunlight a day at the height of summer. For three years I watched, as the summer sun cooked the soil during long periods of unprecedented drought. When it finally did rain, it was torrential and came all at once. Water pooled on the hard, packed dirt and dried up before it could percolate down to where my plants needed it most. At some point, we started to realize these weather extremes were not just a blip but a pattern.
So we learned to push hardier crops on our customers, like cur- rants, raspberries, and asparagus. We threw open our farmstand each Saturday to talk about these changes, and found ourselves field- ing questions about other topics as well. Rather than simply asking, as they once had, how to grow something as beautiful as what we were offering, customers wanted help in a more urgent way. They needed our advice on dealing with the arrival of new pests from the south, preventing plants from drowning in mud, and irrigating after intensely hot days had sucked the soil dry.
I was struggling with the same problems myself, and they had produced in me a kind of low-level anxiety that made it hard to sleep at night. I was stressed about the future of the farm, and of agricul- ture. Still, I wanted to keep growing food. So I decided to return to school for a graduate degree in land and water management with the hope of finding some answers.
Even before I began to formally study agriculture I knew that soil, if treated right, could buffer plants from the effects of the extreme weather caused by our warming world. I’d observed that healthy soil holds more water, resists erosion, and warms more quickly in the spring so plants can get going on growing. Healthy soil will support a vast community of important organisms that can recycle nutrients, ward off pests, and naturally aerate the soil. And the more compost, straw, and other organic matter you add to it, the more carbon dioxide it absorbs.
For me, learning more about the soil’s ability to heal the Earth was life-changing. By the time I finished graduate school, I’d decided to grow food in a way that promotes the build-up of organic matter, which is the essence of regenerative, or carbon, farming. Regenerative practices expand upon the soil’s already impressive storage capacity; our natural landscapes absorb 29 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.
Experts say that regenerative farming, if adopted broadly, could help slow the rate of global warming. With better management, global croplands could store an additional 1.85 gigatons of carbon each year, or as much as the entire transportation sector emits. Researchers at the Rodale Institute calculated that replacing conventional farming practices around the world with regenerative ones would allow us to sequester 100 percent of annual global carbon emissions.
This means the way we grow food could help save our planet. It is an amazing truth, one that requires major changes in the way farming is practiced. Planting a single crop over vast amounts of acreage, leaving the soil bare for long periods, and relying on frequent plowing accelerates the loss of healthy topsoil, releases buried carbon into the air, and uses up too much water. Poor soil weakens plants and makes them more vulnerable to pests and disease. This necessitates higher levels of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that, in turn, kill the beneficial organisms in the soil that feed plants and help make the soil rich in carbon.
Farmed soils around the world have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stocks, according to a recent study from the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. Most of that has ended up in the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that farms in this country released nearly 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent through poor soil management practices in 2016 alone.
Rehabbing my soil
When I returned to the farm from school, I quickly noticed how exhausted the soil was. I began treating it by heaping compost under and in between every potato plant, head of lettuce, and row of carrots on my land. Then I layered on a dressing of mulch—grass clippings, straw, and shredded dry leaves—to help prevent the fertilized soil from washing away. I would repeat the entire process in the fall and plant a cover crop of clover, which acts like a living mulch and slows topsoil erosion.
Over that first summer, I added more deep-rooted, low- maintenance perennials to my farm, including radicchio and goji berries. I learned to do without my beloved rototiller, which was a hardship for me—those heavy steel blades truly are the most efficient way to slash through weeds and prep for planting. But tilling and plowing destroy any chance of cultivating healthy soil. For soil-nourishing bacteria, fungi, and other organisms to multiply and thrive, they need an undisturbed place to live.
When I think about how quickly the soil on that little farm responded to my ministrations, I am still stunned. Within a year, the soil had turned a much darker brown. After two years, it was so moist you could squeeze it and it would hold its shape for a long, satisfying moment. Mulching kept weeds to a minimum. And I swear, our tomatoes, beans, and onions were more flavorful. The farm as a whole simply did a better job of taking care of itself.
I left the farm in 2017 because I was homesick for New England’s bracingly cold winters and Technicolor falls. I also wanted to see whether I could transfer my regenerative skills to the rocky soil of the Northeast. The kind of soil I associated with picking blueberries as I wandered through the forest until dark.
After I landed a job growing hops for some New England breweries, I immediately planted my own food garden. This time, however, I’m growing food not just for myself or for my business. I’m growing good food—that is, food raised in a way that helps the environment.
But what if home gardeners made the kind of simple changes I have? What if more of us started carbon farming in our own back- yards? What if a community of citizen gardeners joined together to build a giant carbon sink?
It could happen. In fact, it’s happened before.
The call to plant a climate victory garden
During World War II, Victory Gardens sprouted all over the country. The goal was to support the war effort: more food grown at home for civilians meant more food to send to the troops abroad. It also meant the trucks and trains ordinarily used to transport produce to grocery stores were freed up to move weapons and soldiers. And growing food at home helped families stretch their meager weekly rations.
Every piece of land was viewed as an opportunity to help win the war. By 1943, the nearly 20 million Victory Gardens across the country were growing 40 per- cent of the nation’s food.
Many decades later, we could use a new Victory Garden movement. We can lobby our leaders to do the right thing by our planet, but we can also take action ourselves. In this country alone, homes, golf courses, and parks grow roughly 40 million acres of turf grass, or about three times the amount of land dedicated to growing corn. That’s a lot of land that could be put to good use as carbon-sucking mini farms.
This book expands on what I started with my first book, Growing Perennial Foods. My goal in both has been to simplify regenerative gardening so that anyone can do it. In this book, I address many of the questions I’ve heard over the last year from readers and audi- ences. I also invited a few of the folks who have inspired me—David Montgomery and Gabe Brown among them—to share with you the power and promise of backyard carbon farming.
The food I grow in my family’s yard is my Climate Victory Garden. It may be small but, thanks to my wedging in as many perennials as possible and feeding it with compost, it is mighty. The following pages describe how easy it would be to park some carbon in your own soil. Let’s build a loamy, spongy, dark-brown, microbe-happy foodscape together. It has been done and it can be done, starting with a patch of soil near you.
Excerpted from the book, Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Carbon Farming by Acadia Tucker (Stone Pier Press, 2019), available for sale now at Stone Pier Press, and elsewhere. Tucker is a regenerative farmer, climate activist, and author. Her books are a call to action to citizen gardeners everywhere. They lay the groundwork for planting an organic, regenerative garden. For her, this is gardening as if our future depends on it. She is also the author of Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits, and vegetables.