NATURE’S TURN: The 21st-century gardener

While the media informs us about the devastating affects of carbon dioxide pollution in our atmosphere, we remain uninformed about the role of carbon as an integral part of life on our planet.

March 28 – April 11, 2016

“We are fundamentally light farmers. Harvest as much sunlight energy as possible by having as much green leaf as possible — therefore as much of the year as possible. …. Soil should always be covered with plants, either crop plants or cover crops.” Dr. Christine Jones, Soil Scientist 

cottonwoods
Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) flower buds showing their “cotton” in morning sun, March 22, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.

Mt. Washington — Everyone who works the land either contributes to improving Earth’s soils and atmosphere or to damaging soil and atmospheric health. While many of us are conscientious about conserving energy to reduce our carbon footprint, and some of us march on Washington to further initiatives to assure a livable environment, all of us can decrease atmospheric carbon pollution and at the same time increase soil vitality by the way we garden.

It wasn’t until I came across an article posted on the website of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA)* that I realized how crucial understanding carbon is to our evolution as gardeners. While the media informs us about the devastating affects of carbon dioxide pollution in our atmosphere, we remain uninformed about the role of carbon as an integral part of life on our planet. As Dr. Jones states, “The reason carbon is important is because all living things contain carbon.”

raised bed
Permanent raised bed with hard neck garlic, planted in October, dancing into the sunlight on March 23, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.

For anyone who works the land, it is a game-changer to learn that “one-third of the carbon added to the atmosphere since 1850 has come from [farming and] deforestation exposing and oxidizing the rich carbon deposits in our topsoil.”

By creating permanent beds instead of plowing or rototilling gardens every year, one gardener at a time, we will decrease the amount of carbon we release into the air. Of equal importance, no-till agriculture promotes — instead of destroying – the community of soil organisms and microorganisms that becomes established when not disrupted by methods oblivious to its existence. The living soil will be able to take in and keep, or sequester, more carbon. According to Dr. Jones, “In order to build that soil carbon you have to be supporting the microbial community in the soil… to form humus particles’ ability to sequester carbon.”

self-sowing plants
Plants that self-sow: feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), Johnny jump-up and, far right, dandelion on March 23, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.

Scientists emphasize that photosynthesis drives the whole system; soil should always be covered with plants, crop plants or cover crops. More plants take more carbon out of the atmosphere and keep it in the soil where it builds a good, clumpy soil structure that holds onto rainwater.

As we begin a new gardening year with awareness that we are harvesting light and sequestering carbon, our experience of wonder and beauty in the garden grows deeper. We’ll increase our sense of connection to the world beyond the garden by playing a positive role in the carbon cycle, even offsetting our own carbon footprint.

Resources:

*https://www.nofamass.org/carbon

https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/2016/01/11/no-till-permanent-beds/

https://www.nofamass.org/articles/2016/03/organic-no-till-monthly-series-conversations-practitioners

https://www.mofga.org/%E2%80%A6/Summe%E2%80%A6/NoTill/tabid/2794/Default.aspx