What’s gardening got to do with it?

Cool Tips for a Hot Planet series

By Ginny Colling

We can garden with the atmosphere in mind.

I have a confession to make. I’ve never really been a gardener. Indoors or out, plants come to my home at their peril. Even a cactus isn’t safe in my care.

But I’m passionate about helping the environment, so if anything was going to get me digging in the dirt it was learning that dirt helps sequester carbon. And that gardeners can help it store even more.

A few Zoom seminars, some expert advice and support from my husband and I was on my way to deepening my understanding and ripping up 500 square feet of front lawn to install a native garden in the spring.

Avoid peat: One of the first things I learned is that peat is one of the planet’s best soil-based carbon sinks. In fact peat lands store a third of the world’s soil carbon, so we don’t want to be mining peat and spreading it around unnecessarily. Doing that releases carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas driving the climate crisis. 

I also learned that it’s a real challenge to find garden soil without peat in it. While peat use for hobby gardeners will be banned in the U.K. by 2024, it’s not even on the radar here. However, we were told that good compost and mulch can help amend soil without the use of peat.

Reduce tilling: Next, I learned that tilling the soil releases carbon. How does it get in there in the first place? In school we learned plants “breathe in” carbon dioxide (CO2) and exhale oxygen (O2). Some of the remaining carbon finds its way to the roots and soil. The less we can disturb the soil, the more carbon it can hold onto.  I understand we can simply spread compost or mulched leaves on the garden, without digging the stuff in, and it will magically work into the soil with the help of the critters that live there. Not only that, but mulched leaves can add vital nutrients like nitrogen.

Use natural fertilizers: Those natural methods of adding good stuff to the soil are much more planet-friendly than nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers. They produce nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas that can be almost 300 times more potent than CO2 at heating up our world.

The Big Picture  

While we can garden with the atmosphere in mind, we can also encourage our municipal authorities to help by protecting existing peat lands, wetlands and forests, and avoiding chemical fertilizer use in our public spaces.

On a national level, in January Canada joined 50 other countries that committed to protecting 30 per cent of their territories by 2030. While they failed to meet a previous goal to preserve 17 per cent by last year, heightened concern about global heating and species loss inspired them to almost double that previous commitment.  One study showed that Canada’s peat lands in northern Ontario and Manitoba should be among our 30 per cent. 

We can also support groups like Ontario Nature and Nature Conservancy Canada in acquiring and preserving vital natural areas for us.

My takeaway from all this? Whether it’s at home, in our communities or across the country, we can all pitch in, maybe get our hands a little dirty, to make the air a little cleaner and the world a little better for our kids.

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