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The garden of the future looks like the garden of the past

  • Marie Narlock
  • Gardening connects us to the past. Our grandparents nurtured soil, tended plots and planted many trees we enjoy today. I wonder what they would think about our current situation.

    The symptoms of climate change are unmistakable. Drought, fire and flood are more frequent and intense. Plants bloom earlier and the growing season has become somewhat unpredictable. As plant communities adjust, soil composition changes. In essence, we’ve interrupted the rhythm of the seasons.

    Sorry, grandma.

    Fortunately, gardeners possess secret weapons that mitigate these distressing reminders. In fact, we can actually play a significant role. According to the National Academy of Sciences, natural solutions can provide over a third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed to keep warming below the Paris Agreement goal of 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. On a global scale, this includes conservation, restoration and land management activities.

    Here’s what you can do in your own backyard.

    Start by planting trees. If you have space, plant lots of them. If you don’t have space, consider supporting an organization focused on reforestation. Even Elon Musk got in on the action, temporarily changing his Twitter handle to “Treelon” to announce his $1 million donation to Team Trees, which has planted more than 21 million trees.

    That’s a lot of trees, but let’s put it in perspective. Fifteen billion trees are cut down every year and the world has 46% fewer trees since humans arrived. In 2017, we lost 40 football fields of tropical trees every minute of every day. About 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed in the past 50 years, and the pace is quickening.

    This matters. Trees (and all plants) absorb CO2 and turn it into energy. If we could magically increase the Earth’s forests by an area the size of the United States, we could cut CO2 by 25%.

    Like trees, soil has powerful carbon sequestration abilities, especially when amended with compost. According to the Marin Carbon Project, a single application of compost doubles soil carbon sequestration — a benefit that could persist for 30 to 100 years. The implications are astounding; spreading a half-inch of compost on half the rangelands in California would offset 42 million metric tons of CO2, an amount equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from energy use for all the commercial and residential sectors in California.

    Planting trees and amending soil take time and energy — human energy just like our ancestors expended. That’s a winning strategy for climate-conscious gardeners, because relying on fossil fuel-based energy is counterproductive. This is especially true when it comes to leaf blowers and lawn mowers, surprisingly filthy tools.

    According to the California Air Resources Board, running a gasoline-powered leaf blower for an hour is equivalent to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry 1,100 miles. Today’s automobile is almost 200% more efficient than in the 1950s and spews 99% less smog-causing emissions. Unfortunately, many of our noisy garden tools have not kept pace. As a result, 60 cities in California have banned gas-powered garden tools and CARB recently proposed a rule change to lower emissions from small gas engines by 85% within a decade. But, why not get a jump on it? If you prefer blowing leaves to raking them, consider purchasing a rechargeable electric model.

    Cutting water usage also reduces energy consumption, since getting water to our homes uses 20% of California’s energy. If you’ve put off installing a drip system or converting your lawn to a less-thirsty alternative, now’s a good time. Avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides also helps, because it takes energy to make them (and they’re unfriendly to beneficial insects). Also consider swapping out old patio lights for LEDs, composting on-site to avoid gasoline-powered deliveries and growing edibles to reduce reliance on fuel-intensive industrial farming.

    When it comes to climate-conscious gardening, it pays to think globally and act like grandma.