With the Spring weather, many of us will be getting out into the garden. So instead of having a negative impact on the environment, here are several key ways you can use your garden to capture carbon and give nature a hand.
What’s the easiest thing I can do?
Don’t dig peat.
This photo demonstrates the impact peat extraction has on the landscape. Every year, amateur gardeners use 24 million wheelbarrows’ worth of peat. Peat extraction harms local ecosystems and wildlife, and each 20cm depth takes 200 years to regenerate. It also leads to harmful greenhouse gases being released (the peat has captured 550 GIGAtonnes of carbon dioxide – that’s millions of tonnes).
Where do I start?
There are plenty of alternatives to peat compost, so sign the peat-free pledge and buy peat free. If you can’t find any, make your own (and it’s always worth letting the retailer know you aren’t buying from them for this reason).
I’m ready to take the next step. What else can I do?
Food represents 20% of our greenhouse gases in the UK. Growing your own helps relieve stress and improves physical and mental wellbeing – it’s so good for you, it’s even recommended by the NHS! You’ll also save money, especially if you get your seeds from a local seed swap and make your own compost. Most importantly, there’s nothing as satisfying and delicious as a meal you’ve grown yourself.
Where do I start?
When starting out, try easy-to-grow vegetables that you enjoy. These might include courgettes, beans, tomatoes, beetroot, garlic or spring onions. You might have more success with seedlings from the garden centre rather than seeds. Make sure you get some advice on how and when to plant, either from a friend, a good book or trustworthy websites such as Garden Organic.
If you have children, this is a great way to get them to eat their vegetables and become more aware of where their food comes from.
For lazy gardeners (like me), it’s good to go for perennials like rhubarb, berries and herbs, and easy vegetables such as chard, courgettes and mustard. For the more adventurous, you might try more unusual perennial edibles from the Agroforestry Research Trust.
If you want to incorporate vegetables within your flower garden, you could try herbs such as chives, oregano, sage or rosemary. Jerusalem artichokes are related to sunflowers, elephant garlic has beautiful purple ball flowers, curly kale is great for texture, and the green-white-pink-purple colours of rainbow chard are simply stunning. Many flowering plants you are already growing may be edible, including fuchsia flowers and berries, nasturtium flowers and leaves, love-in-a-mist seeds, and pansy, daylily and dianthus (pinks) flowers. These look great in salads.
There’s no way I can grow everything I eat, what can I do then?
Eat organic as much as possible. All those organic farmers will be helping the environment on your behalf. They also have much better welfare standards for livestock.
Why is this important?
Pesticides and weedkillers have a huge impact on the natural environment, and carcinogenic weedkillers such as Roundup have been found in bread, beer and – shockingly – even breast milk. The generation and use of chemical fertilisers leads to high levels of greenhouse gases. Worse still, nitrogen spread on fields can convert into nitrogen dioxide, a source of air pollution, which of course we end up breathing in.
We are losing soil from farmland; it is literally being washed away. Tonnes of soil per acre are being lost every year, impacting on our ability to grow healthy plants and crops.
Organic gardening focuses on building up soil fertility naturally, partly by composting food waste. This increases the bulk of the soil and means plants will be healthier. Providing habitats, such as ponds, in which beneficial predators thrive, can reduce the numbers of pests. Organic approaches also support bee populations, which are invaluable in fertilising plants such as apples (imagine having to do this by hand!)
When we buy food, we are taking responsibility for the way that food has been farmed. Buying organic contributes to a landscape where both we and wildlife can flourish.
Where do I start?
Although organic food is often more expensive, it usually tastes better and is higher quality – and it’s rumoured that you don’t get a hangover from organic wine! You could try swapping some of the highest pesticide-laden foods to begin with. Within two weeks, measurable pesticide levels in your body will drop. Organic food has also been found to contain higher levels of nutrients than non-organic.
Tell me about some more unusual techniques…
What if I told you that you can do carbon-capture in your own garden? It’s a technique developed in Germany called Hugelkultur. It involves making a ‘wood lasagne’ in the garden.
Hmm, interesting. Why should I do this?
Not only is this a good way of trapping carbon and using up old wood, hugelkultur improves the amount of organic material and moisture retention in your garden beds. So you have to water less frequently in summer.
Where do I start?
Hugelkultur essentially involves burying wood under the soil. As it decomposes, the soil benefits from the nutrients released and the increased soil life feeding on the wood. You also lock away all that carbon under the ground.
It only takes a couple of hours to put a hugel bed into your garden. Here is a project from my own garden.
Dig the topsoil away and put the wood in the hole
Cover the wood with the soil
Cover with mulch (I used cardboard and woodchippings)
What ways have you found to be kinder to the environment in your garden? Please comment below.
Jenny Barnes is the leader of Southampton Climate Campaign.