Gardening (and Farming) As If the Planet Depended on It

October 14, 2011 | 11:00 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

I’m a small-time urban gardener. I have bigger dreams, but I make do with a collection of containers on my postage stamp of a patio, and a border of perennials, shrubs, and small trees. This month, I’m harvesting the last Sungold tomatoes and a late flush of jalapeño peppers…and wishing I’d gotten my act together to start some fall greens to take their place.

I’m also beginning to think about tucking in the perennial beds with a protective, weed-suppressing, winter blanket of compost and mulch.

And more and more, I’m realizing that I’m part of a huge gardening movement.

A recent harvest from the author's patio garden.

It’s a movement with an environmental ethic at its center. And it just may help to change Americans’ relationship with food and their understanding of farming.

A “growing” trend

I already knew that Americans are getting their hands dirty in droves, as illustrated in this cool infographic. Some 43 million U.S. households tended food gardens in 2009, the last year for which there are data. But it seems that everywhere I look these days, there’s more evidence of the gardening and urban farming trend.

For example, passing through the Oakland International Airport at the end of a family visit a few weeks ago, I spotted an exhibit on urban gardening. Sponsored by the airport, the Port of Oakland, and the Oakland Museum of California, it featured a display of soil types and a mocked-up compost bin.

Compost tutorial at the Oakland airport.

And last week a colleague handed me the latest issue of Mother Earth News, which features 82 (!) tips for sustainable gardening. There’s also an excellent article in there on the many benefits of cover crops for the home garden.

Today the backyard, tomorrow the farm!

Over the last year or so, UCS has worked to help gardeners adopt climate-friendly practices.

Recently, Tracey Payton, a horticulture educator from Norman, Oklahoma, offered UCS supporters this climate-friendly gardening tip for fall:

Mulch is a great way to protect bare soil, and most importantly for the climate-friendly gardener, it can help prevent carbon loss. Uncovered soil is vulnerable to releasing more carbon than it stores. Mulch also has other benefits, such as protecting against temperature fluctuations that can damage plants, suppressing weeds, and reducing moisture loss and soil erosion. Using mulch can be as easy as an additional 2-3 inch layer of compost or straw in the garden; in the flower bed, cotton seed hulls, bark mulch, or wood mulch can be used. Do only keep mulch about 2-3″ deep and away from perennial plant stems to prevent rot and other moisture problems.

We’re also working to empower gardeners to advocate for public policies that would help farmers adopt the sustainable practices already at work in many home gardens—like those cover crops.

Similar to mulching, cover crops are among the most effective farm practices to store carbon in the soil on a large scale—while building soil health and preventing erosion. A sort of living mulch, cover crops protect farm fields when other crops aren’t growing. They also have the benefit of releasing nitrogen—one of the main ingredients in fertilizers—into the soil just in time for spring-planted crops, which can reduce the need for added fertilizer (another source of global warming emissions).

Write to your members of Congress and demand farm policies that help farmers protect our water, air, and land just like you do in the garden.