There is much talk these days about global warming. It’s easy to feel hopeless and to think there is nothing we can do. But if we all take a few small steps, it can add up to a big difference.
So, what can a gardener do to help the environment? Start by growing lots of plants and using no chemicals to do so. There is no doubt that green plants help the environment. The basic process of photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide (which contributes to global warming) from the air, combines it with water and produces sugars that are building blocks for the complex carbohydrates that create the stems, roots, flowers and fruits.
Growing trees is especially good for the environment. They hold onto carbon, a process called sequestering. Of course, when plants die and decay or are burned, the carbon dioxide they made goes back to the atmosphere. My wood stove, for example, pumps carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere all winter long. But burning oil in my furnace does, too, and has other contaminants from the oil that go into the atmosphere. Everything is a trade-off.
If you grow your own vegetables, or some of them, you can reduce pollution from trucks bringing groceries across the country. The average fruit or vegetable travels 1,500 miles to get to you, some much farther. I won’t buy veggies from out of the country for that reason, and because I don’t know if they were grown with toxic chemicals. Truth in advertising: I do eat avocados and sometimes artichokes that come from California.
Chemical fertilizer is made using an energy-intensive manufacturing process to heat, compress and cool gases to turn nitrogen from the air into the nitrogen in fertilizer. The basic feedstock for this is natural gas. A 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 uses the energy equivalent of a gallon-and-a-half of fuel oil. Given there are tens of millions of gardeners, that petrochemical cost is significant. If each of us just says “No!” to chemical fertilizer this year, and every year, we can have an impact. There are plenty of organic fertilizers that are fine to use. These are made from agricultural by-products and naturally occurring ingredients from things like oyster shells and seaweed.
Conventional farmers also use pesticides, including fungicides and herbicides. Some are surface sprays to kill bugs when they eat their lettuce or corn. These wash off with rain, or when you wash them.
There are also pesticides that are “systemic:” Chemicals that are sprayed on seeds or the ground and taken up by the roots of plants, and distributed to every cell in the plant, leaf and fruit alike. These systemic poisons are easier to use and are not washed off by rain, or in your sink. Every bite a bug takes, gives it some slow-acting poison. That is true for you, too. Unfortunately, systemic pesticides are readily available at your local hardware store or gardening center. Just look on the aisle labeled “Death Row” (or perhaps they call it “Pesticides”).
Chemical fungicides are also readily available, and these can be very toxic. I remember interviewing a potato farmer in Idaho who showed me what he did: 4 ounces of fungicide “protected” 30 acres of potatoes that he irrigated with an overhead pivot-style watering system. A human error could easily turn a dose into a calamity. That’s why I eat organic food whenever I can, and grow much of my own.
What else can gardeners do, besides avoiding chemicals in the garden? Minimize the use of plastics. Yes, black plastic can keep down weeds. But most plastic breaks down in the intense summer sun. Even if you use it for two years, you are left with a mass of cracked and ripped plastic that ends up in the landfill for the next few hundred years.
Paper is an alternative to plastic. I read my local daily, and buy the Sunday NY Times on occasion. I spread newspapers in my vegetable garden, and sometimes in flower beds. I cover the paper with straw, hay, leaves or chipped branches according to the location.
Formerly, newspapers used inks with toxic heavy metals, but now they use soy-based inks that are non-toxic. Earthworms love newspaper and in the course of 12 months, they eat most of the paper I lay down. I often use mulch hay over the papers even though they contain some grass seeds because the newspapers keep most of the seeds out of the soil.
Mulching your garden is also a way to reduce water needs of your plants, as the mulch minimizes evaporation. Even if you have a good water supply, it makes sense to use the least water you can. Water is not an unlimited resource, something I often don’t think about as I have not only a good artesian well, but a small stream available for water, too. Using well water draws down the aquifer that may take eons to replenish.
Anthropologist Margret Mead is credited for saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I agree.
Contact Henry Homeyer at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.