For a Climate Solution, Look to the 1940s
August 10, 2020
From The Rodale Institute:
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 currants, raspberries, and asparagus. We threw open our farmstand each Saturday to talk about these changes, and found ourselves fielding 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 agriculture. 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.
Farming: An Act of Climate Activism
Planting a garden is a powerful act. It gives each of us with access to a little dirt the power to feed ourselves healthy food, as well as something we can do about the threat of climate change.
Many climate activists promote expensive technologies that pull carbon out of the air and inject it into deep pockets underground. Plants already do this for free through photosynthesis, the process by which light energy is turned into plant food.
This ability to capture greenhouse gases is why many experts believe regenerative agriculture, also known as carbon farming, could play an important role in fighting climate change. 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.
Cultivating even a little patch of soil, in pots or in your backyard, matters. Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farming Solution estimates that his own tiny carbon-rich backyard garden, about a tenth of an acre, can offset the carbon emissions of one American adult per year.
So what if more of us started gardening in own yards? What if a community of citizen gardeners joined together to grow good food?
Climate Victory Gardens
It could happen. In fact, it's happened before
During World War II in the 1940s, 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. By 1943, the nearly 20 million Victory Gardens across the country were growing 40 percent 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. More specifically, the average American household maintains a yard a little less than one-fifth of an acre in size, according to 2017 census data. That's a lot of land that could be put to good use as carbon-sucking mini farms.
Experts agree more research is needed to understand the full potential of carbon farming in our own backyards but there's no question that even a small increase in soil carbon can improve crop resilience, reduce chemical use, conserve water, and offset greenhouse gas emissions. Just as exciting, it's pretty easy to build rich soil.
Here's what it takes to start your own Climate Victory Garden.
Step One: Pick A Location
An ideal planting bed gets plenty of sun, has easy access to a water spigot, which helps cut down on the time and hassle of watering, and can be seen from your home so there's less of a chance you'll forget about it. But if your only bet is a plot that's heavily shaded and bone dry, don't worry about it. It just means you'll have to work extra hard to build good soil, and pick plants that will thrive without much sun. In short, it can be done!
Step Two: Build Your Beds
The hardest practice for me to adopt on my way to becoming a regenerative grower was low-till farming. Running a big metal rototiller through dirt is a really efficient way to break up weeds and grass and dig seed furrows. Unfortunately, this machine also breaks apart the soil's natural structure and the living soil community that works so hard to nourish plants.
Instead, I've learned to grow plants on planting beds made from layers of cardboard or newspaper, leaves, grass clippings, compost, and any other organic material you can get your hands on. With sheet mulching, you can leave soil organisms alone so they can go about their lives, breaking down organic matter, recycling nutrients, and aerating the soil. It is my go-to method for starting a new garden. It allows you to build good soil while eliminating weeds, all without digging, plus it works well for just about any space. Creating soil does take time, however, and calls for a hefty supply of leaves, grass clippings, cardboard, and other organic material, so it's not for everyone.
There's another way to prepare your planting area: add more soil. Shovel on soil from anywhere in your yard, as long as you've first removed all the weeds. If your yard is too weedy or hard to dig up, or just not all that big, buy some soil from your local garden center. Look for a reputable supplier; some places will resell dirt from construction sites, which is low quality and may contain toxic chemicals. Not good! What you want is an organic soil made for gardening. That way you know it's safe, light, and fast-draining, not compact and heavy like most construction soil.
Maybe you don't have a yard? An excellent way to get your hands dirty is to sign up for a community garden, offer to help in someone else's garden, or look for a garden to share on SharedEarth.com. If those don't work, you can grow in containers set out on a balcony or porch.
Container growing is easy as long as you pick the right size and start off with good soil. The bigger the pot the better because rootbound or crowded plants don't weather outdoor temperature swings well and typically need more tending. I like to fill my containers with homemade potting soil that's a mix of equal parts coconut fiber, good garden soil, compost, and sand. You can also buy potting soil from a garden store. Look for potting soil that is inoculated with mycorrhizae, a fungus that works with plant roots to absorb more nutrients.
Step Three: Mix in Perennial Foods
Artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and apple trees. These are all examples of perennial foods, which are hardier than annuals and marry well with Climate Victory Garden goals. Any plant can be grown using a soil-first approach, and be tastier and more resilient for it. But perennials are a great choice because they require minimal to no soil disturbance and can stick around for many years.
One reason they do so well is because they're anchored by extensive root systems that help them find water and nutrients deep in the soil. Deep roots also give these plants staying power when they're buffeted by heavy winds, rains, and snow. Having the same plants in place for years makes it easier for all the carbon sequestering organisms--the bacteria, fungi, and bugs--to gather and multiply.
More than 100 different varieties of edible perennial vegetables and fruits grow well in North America.
Step Four: Add Organic Matter
Planting a Climate Victory Garden is unique in how much emphasis it puts on soil health. You can't change the inert mineral foundation of your native soil, but you can bring it to life. All you have to do is add organic matter.
Organic matter is the superstar ingredient in healthy soil. It's the shredded leaves you spread as mulch, the kitchen scraps you add to your compost heap, the old roots left to decompose underground. Basically, it's anything that was once living.
Hungry soil organisms break down these dead leaves, roots, and scraps and convert them into plant nutrients, like phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium. This process, known as decomposition, produces humus, a dark brown material that is 60 percent carbon. Humus is very stable and, if undisturbed, can remain in the soil for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Soils rich in organic matter soak up water and nutrients because the molecules are charged, sort of like the static cling that makes a sock stick to your shirt when you pull your clothes out of the dryer. This charge holds moisture and nutrients tight so it's less likely they'll evaporate or wash away. Increasing organic matter in your soil by just one percent can increase its water-retaining ability by an extra 20,000 gallons per acre.
Increasing the percentage of organic matter in the soil also feeds mycorrhizal fungi, vast networks of fungi that release glomalin. Glomalin is a sticky, gum-like substance that binds together particles of sand, silt, and clay, creating a soil structure that further helps to lock in moisture and hold on to nutrients. These favorable conditions make plants sturdier and more resilient, a big plus in these climate-challenged times.
Once you plant your garden take the time to enjoy it! Don't stress if it is not perfect. One thing I love about growing food is that there is always next season to improve and build upon what you started.
So let's grow some good food. It's time.