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Marin IJ Articles

The Greening of Gardeners

  • Marie Narlock
  • By Marie Narlock

    As gardeners, we’re uniquely qualified and inspired to help reduce global warming. We celebrate and anticipate our earth’s eccentricities: the seasonal changes, the inter-relationship between the tiniest creature and ourselves, the distinctive microclimates that make our gardens our own. We know that our trees and shrubs are the lungs of our planet. According to the American Forestry Association, if every American family planted just one tree, there would be a billion less pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, almost 5% of the amount that human activity spews every year.
    Isn’t it nice to know that doing what we already love to do is a proactive way to make a difference? Go ahead: be a plant junkie. The more you plant, the more CO2 you remove. If you absolutely don’t have another square inch of planting space, you can buy carbon credits (www.cleanair-coolplanet.org) or contact an organization such as Treepeople (www.treepeople.com) or American Forests (www.americanforests.org) to plant one for you.
    That’s the good news.
    The bad news is that, as a society, we’ve developed some bad gardening habits. Let’s look at a typical Marin scene.
    You’ve just returned from Home Depot with a bag of fertilizer in your trunk, heard the click and spray of your sprinkler heads as they pop up to water your lawn, and started to fire up your barbeque as your electric path lights illuminate. Your gas lawnmower and power edge trimmer are neatly stored in the garage, ready for action tomorrow morning. The sound of your neighbor’s leaf blower is deafening and familiar.
    What’s wrong with this picture? To most of Marin, nothing. To the blanket that’s thickening around our globe, perhaps just a little.
    Bright lights, big emissions
    Perhaps the easiest and cheapest thing you can do to make a difference is to replace your light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFL). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), if every American household swapped just one regular light bulb for an ENERGY STAR™ CFL, it would be like taking 800,000 cars off the road, the equivalent of lighting more than 2.5 million homes for a year. Check all of your outdoor areas—entry lights, patio, garage, porches, driveway—switch these bulbs today.
    Solar landscape lighting is improving. More and more people are lighting their paths and patios and heating their pools using the power of the sun. Smith and Hawken offers an effective, attractive, and affordable solar garden lighting system. I’ve just installed some in my own garden and have been very impressed with their design and brightness. They are effortless to install and don’t draw a speck from the grid.
    Little lawn, big water and energy waster
    Now, about that lawn. Do you need it? Do you use it? If you answered no to either of these questions, then perhaps you should replace your lawn with a cushiony, colorful groundcover. Lawns require sprinklers; alternatives do not. In some counties, residents are paid to remove their water-hogging lawns. Remember: drip systems are measured in gallons per hour. Sprinkler heads are measured in gallons per minute.
    What do water use and our warming planet have to do with one another? For water to reach our homes it must be pumped. According to the Marin Municipal Water District, it takes 26 million kWh of electricity to move Marin’s water around every year, and when electricity is generated emissions are generated. In American forest-speak that’s over 58,000 trees! Lawns gulp water. If you don’t use it, lose it.
    We live in an area which has lovely lawn options, from bunch grasses to meadows to groundcovers of all heights, textures, and hues. If you don’t have children playing on your lawn or if you don’t use it yourself, there are more interesting plant choices that will be kinder to our planet and your wallet. Besides, aren’t you a little old to be running through the sprinklers?
    Man vs. Mower
    Lawns are often the target of loud and dirty gas-powered machinery, and fertilizers that come in large plastic bags. Consider switching to a good old-fashioned manual mower which requires only your own personal energy. And leave the grass clippings on the lawn to supply the necessary nitrogen to keep it green and happy. This technique, called “grasscycling,” has even been adopted at golf courses and has taken a considerable bite out of the need for fertilizers.
    If pushing a manual mower isn’t your thing, Black and Decker makes a battery-operated lawn mower and there are a variety of quiet, less-polluting electric (plug-in) models available. And for goodness sake, get rid of your leaf blower and encourage your town to ban these noisy polluters. Raking and sweeping never killed anyone, and they don’t add an ounce of hot gunk to our atmosphere.
    One word: plastic
    If you feel compelled to feed your (necessary) lawn or other plants with store-bought fertilizers, consider buying organic mixes out of bulk bins, such as those at Green Jeans in Mill Valley, rather than in plastic bags which are petroleum-based. According to the EPA, the processing and burning of these bags is a considerable contributor to global warming. Stay on the look out for new corn-based plastic bags that are more eco-friendly than oil-based plastic bags. Use recyclable paper bags or find yourself a sturdy tote bag that you can fill and re-fill.
    Drive less, garden more

    Less time driving your car means more time for tending your perennial border. When you buy local produce, fewer greenhouse gas emissions were generated to get it to the store than if it were flown in from Chile. When you compost, that’s less material that will have to be hauled by a fossil fuel-powered vehicle to a landfill. When you buy a used garden tool or bench off of Craigslist, that’s one less new item that has to be produced and imported from China (on a plane flight that could generate over a ton of CO2). Heed the advice of the EPA: reduce, reuse, recycle, rebuy. Take pride in your inherit gardener traits to care for the earth and all she has given you.