Could you be growing carbon in your garden?
As world leaders grapple with the scope of commitments needed to fully tackle climate change, citizens around the globe are mobilizing their communities to face the crisis. Knowing where to start can seem overwhelming, but every action you take matters.
In addition to making changes in how you live, work and bank, you can plant a garden using regenerative practices.
What is a regenerative garden?
A regenerative garden may not look all that different from a conventional garden on the surface, but it’s what underneath that counts. Regenerative gardening uses the practices listed below to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase soil fertility.
The soil in a regenerative garden is naturally nourished by nutrients produced in and around the garden, and every effort is made to limit disturbance. Together, these practices support healthy, vibrant soil that stores, rather than emits, carbon. More carbon in the soil improves photosynthesis for the plants that grow there—making them more effective in drawing even more carbon from the atmosphere.
Regenerative gardening also has other benefits:
- Improved crop resistance to pests and disease
- More garden biodiversity
- Increased crop growth
How does regenerative gardening help fight climate change?
In 2015, countries signing on to the Paris Agreement committed to reducing emissions to keep global warming below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. The agreement set a limit for how much carbon we can add to the atmosphere before catastrophic changes will occur.
If we emit too much carbon dioxide and let the planet warm by more than that, areas that help buffer climate change (like the Amazon rainforest, the Arctic permafrost and global coral reefs) will reach tipping points—meaning we will no longer be able to stop their destruction. This will accelerate the pace of our changing climate further.
Earlier this year, the United Nations warned that current commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions put the world on track to warm more than 2.7 degrees.
How can planting a regenerative garden help?
Plants have the amazing ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Regenerative gardening avoids releasing this stored carbon—something that happens every year in conventional agriculture when farmers plough the soil to get it ready for planting. According to the Rodale Institute, we could sequester much of our annual carbon emissions if farmers practiced regenerative agriculture.
Of course, there are other environmental benefits to gardening. Growing your own fruits and vegetables reduces the fossil fuels needed to transport food to your community. Using local, organic inputs further reduces your impact.
Where to start: principles of regenerative gardening
If you’re already a gardener, some of the practices below may look familiar. If you’re new to gardening, embracing these practices will simplify your routine and make your garden healthier and more productive.
1. Limit digging.
It’s no secret that tilling living soil causes a loss in nutrients and organic matter over time. In the U.S. alone, between 30 and 50% of the soil’s organic carbon has been lost since ploughing began. On a commercial scale, this obviously has a huge impact, but home gardens can make a difference, too.
Instead of tilling your garden before you plant, practice some of the methods below to keep your soil intact and the carbon in the ground. If you’re starting a new garden bed, try mulching (or sheet mulching) to prepare the ground instead of rototilling.
2. Cover bare soil.
Bare soil invites soil erosion. Many gardeners have already become fans of mulch thanks to its ability to moderate temperature changes and keep down weeds. Mulching also helps re-introduce carbon into the soil profile.
Keeping your soil planted or using a blend of cover crops when not in use are other ways to protect your soil while adding organic matter and drawing down carbon. Just be sure not to till those cover crops when you’re ready to plant. Instead, cut down close to soil level, adding the trimmed material to the compost or leave in place to use as mulch. The next crop can then be planted amidst the stubble. The stubble eventually rots away, especially as mulch is added to the following crop. Leaving residue on the soil surface (also known as ‘soil armor’) is good for your garden.
3. Encourage biodiversity.
The healthiest garden is one that supports plants, insects and soil organisms. Planting a variety of crops in each area is one way to diversify your garden. Adding a border of plants that attract beneficial insects and birds is another. (One can also leave a “wild” patch in the garden which is untended, attracting butterflies, bees, birds and snakes.) Finally, inoculating your soil with compost will kickstart microbes, ensuring a diversity of the invisible workers that nourish the soil.
4. Fertilize with compost.
As noted above, compost adds more than just nutrients to the soil. It also encourages healthy microbial growth, leading to biological diversity. Most gardeners know that adding compost results in better yields, but some compost is better than others.
5. Grow perennials.
Dedicating some of your garden to perennials goes one step further towards limiting soil disturbance. Plants that survive more than one year have a greater chance to sequester carbon and protect soil structure. Their roots extend further into the ground, supporting your garden’s water-holding capabilities.
Just remember: the location of a perennial bed should not shade any other beds once the crop has grown to full size. With this in mind, it’s helpful to locate perennial beds along a garden’s north border.
6. Avoid chemicals and synthetics.
Organic farming recognizes that synthetic fertilizers and chemical treatments don’t feed the soil for the long-term. Yes, your plant may put on a burst of green when you splash it with synthetic nitrogen, but the soil remains starved for nutrients. Opting for compost and other organic fertilizers helps optimize your soil’s carbon-storing abilities.
7. Introduce animals.
Regenerative farmers use carefully managed grazing to introduce manure into their fields and replenish soil microbes. If you have the space to run chickens, rabbits or ducks through your garden at select times of year, you’ll improve your soil while reducing pests (ducks love slugs while chickens will eat most insects). Chickens and ducks are especially useful in early spring before the beds are planted. The chickens will scratch the soil for insects while leaving manure behind, and the ducks will clear out slugs that have moved in during winter.
8. Rotate crops.
Switching up the crops you plant in your beds will help stop recurring pests and diseases. In the same way, when the same crop or plant family go in the same place year after year, the soil gets depleted of certain nutrients, making it harder to maintain a healthy balance. Instead, keep track of which plants you sow in your beds, ensuring you don’t put them in the same place more than every three or four years.
When you harvest, avoid pulling up old plants by the roots and trim at soil level instead. Plant your next crop into the stubble where possible, since leaving the roots in the ground will help preserve nutrients and other benefits.
How else can I help fight climate change in the garden?
- Convert some of your lawn to growing food or perennials for pollinators.
- For the lawns you do keep, plant drought-tolerant grasses with deep roots.
- Fertilize with local, organic materials.
- Keep plants in the ground as long as possible. Avoid removing non-invasive weeds until you’re ready to plant.
- Reduce or eliminate garden plastics.
- Return kitchen waste to your garden by composting.
- Tell your friends about regenerative gardening. Ask them if they’d like to learn to grow regeneratively, too.
- Explore some of the resources available that can help you expand your impact, like Project Drawdown, the documentary Kiss the Ground, Green America’s Climate Victory Garden project.
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