The majority accept that there is overwhelming evidence climate is changing because of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by human activity. I remember this subject being discussed in school in the 1980’s and nearly 40 years later we are still discussing it with the trend in average global temperatures still on the rise.
Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of CO2 emissions since 1988. Unsurprisingly, many of the most egregious of these companies are oil and fuel corporations. There seems little will on the part of the world’s governments to challenge these corporations and cocerce them into shouldering their overwhelming share of responsibility and corporate ‘greenwashing‘ is becoming more commonplace. Banks continue to invest our money in fossil fuels. Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas are amongst the worst offenders having actually increased investment in the fossil fuel industry in recent years. All this means that we as individuals are burdened with the responsibility of reducing the collective impact upon the planet.
The challenge of global warming is a hugely complex and interconnected problem and the suggested solutions are just as numerous and multifaceted.
As gardeners we aim to enhance nature, rather than contribute to its destruction, but the activity of gardening is resource hungry and can be quite wasteful. We have to start somewhere to tackle the problem, but where to start? Perhaps as gardeners we can contribute to ‘the cause’ by simply solving the problems as we seem them within our own domain and our own competence. The RHS estimates there are 30 million gardeners in the UK alone so small changes en masse in our gardening habits can have a big impact.
To reduce our impact on the planet there is much I think we can do as gardeners to help:
Plant a tree or shrub
It has been stated that a trillion trees are needed worldwide to help reach carbon reduction targets, which may sound like a lot, but if we were all to plant at least one tree, not only would we personally benefit from their presence we could together make a signicant contribution towards atmospheric carbon reduction.
Planting trees is a great way of getting height into the garden; gardens can have a tendency to be a bit flat, or typically can have everything planted around the edges. Trees cool the air around them and provide shade, which can be a relief on a hot day in the Poitou-Charentes. Trees provide a windbreak in gardens exposed to winds and give much needed privacy from neighbours, or passersby. Trees provide a natural home for birds, insects and other animals bringing you and your kids closer to nature. Best of all the plant will absorb atmospheric carbon and use that carbon to build their structures over many years to come. Any tree will do the job, but for optimal results choose a large and long-lived species, such as oak or chesnut. There are options even if your garden is small.
Reduce the environmental impact of shipping plants back and forth
Transporting goods around the country contributes to carbon and other emissions harmful to the environment and health. Purchasing new plants and seeds from a local nursery (pépinière) who will have grown the plants on site has a lower carbon footprint and reduces your need to travel afar for plants, or have them delivered to you. It also helps local businesses in the process.
Try to avoid buying plants from garden centres, the supermarket or DIY centre. These plants will have been transported in from elsewhere, are generally not of good quality in my opinion, or may have suffered neglect while sitting on the shelves, and may well be sold to you at a mark up to cover the shop’s profit margins; buying direct from a nursery can be cheaper.
Purchase in bulk where you can to reduce the number of journeys you may need to make.
Avoid buying ready grown annual and biennial plants. These are often resource hungry and the process needs repeating year after year. Either grow your own at home, or consider perennial alternatives.
Take cuttings or divide your favourite plants, rather than buy new ones from the nursery. Propagating your favourite plants from your own stock requires no artificial lighting or heating costs and has no transport costs.
Choose peat free compost
Harvesting peat for use in composts is not only destroying peat bog environments that are important to wildlife, peat bogs are natural carbon sinks that absorb vast amounts of carbon. Digging it up releases carbon into the atmosphere. Just leave it where it belongs. No garden is worth destroying the natural environment for.
Unfortunately, “tourbe” as it is known in France is everywhere you look. Sacks of 100% peat are still available here, which I find astonishing in this day and age. It is my experience there is little motivation to change whilst people are still buying it. Vote with your feet and buy peat-free products. If you are not sure, check the packaging or ask a member of staff. Only once no one is no longer buying peat will the shops cease to stock it.
Compost your own waste
When buying compost you have to travel to the garden centre which has a carbon footprint. Likewise the garden centre will have had it delivered to them, which has its own carbon footprint too. It will come in those horrible plastic sacks. Even if you choose to buy from the local déchèterie you have to go and collect it and there will be a carbon footprint to the production of that compost, which has been produced from the waste you may well have driven to them in the first place!
Instead, compost your own waste. You don’t have any transport costs associated with it, the need for those horrible plastic sacks is dispensed with and you can control what goes in your compost, which means you can be certain there is no peat content. If you organically garden, your compost will be organic too.
If you don’t currently have a compost heap, you can construct one. Having a compost heap means that you will be producing less waste for collection, which in turn means there is less reliance on bin collection.
Collect up deciduous tree and shrub leaves from your lawn in the autumn and add to these compost heap. You’ll save carbon by not transporting this waste to the déchèterie, your lawn will thank you for it too, as will your compost heap.
Avoid using manufactured fertiliser in the garden
The manufacture and transport of fertilisers all has a carbon footprint, its use is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and the gradual leeching of fertilisers into our local streams and rivers is damaging those environments.
Don’t waste your time or money applying fertiliser trying to sustain plants that are poorly suited to your conditions. Instead choose your plants wisely and mulch with a composted bark, compost or composted manure. I was once told ‘feed the soil, not the plant‘. Mulching the soil has other benefits too: a healthy soil will sequester more carbon, it aids water retention in periods of drought, increases drainage of heavy soils, and suppresses weeds.
If you must fertilise your plants consider making your own nettle feed. Making this fertiliser from nettles in your own garden has no transportation cost and therefore no carbon footprint.
Instead of regularly cultivating soil, go ‘no dig’
Everyone here in the part of France where I live regularly cultivate the soil and it drives me mad! Every spring the ‘pépés’ are out in force with their motoculteurs rotovating and turning the soil to prepare their potager for the year ahead. Likewise the farmers are doing the same all year round; no till agriculture is most definitely not a ‘thing’ in this part of the country.
Go ‘No Dig’. Digging activity and cultivation of the soil releases carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere. Using machinery to dig the soil emits carbon and other harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Digging destroys the soil’s fungal networks and microscopic invertebrate and bacterial communities that do just a good job of storing carbon as they do giving plants access to nutrients stored in the soil. Just leave the soil alone and mulch instead. This will gradually be incorporated into the soil and improve the soil structure and texture without the need for harmful tilling or digging. It involves less back-breaking work, reduces weeding, improves water retention and improves yields.
Reconsider your fruit and veg
Fruit and vegetables that must be propagated annually have a higher resource use, than perennial planting. Try to increase the number of perennial fruit and veg you grow to reduce your footprint, or consider creating a forest garden. Permaculture has become en vogue for good reason.
Grow your own rather than buying fruit and veg from the supermarket. By growing your own fruit and vegetables at least you know what is going into, and on, the food you are putting into your body. Buy from local markets if you can’t grow your own: there are less transport costs involved and you are supporting local business.
Embrace eating seasonally. Strawberries grown and transported to your local supermarket from the other side of the planet so you can enjoy strawberries and cream in winter just isn’t sustainable.
Choose your tools wisely
Use hand tools where it is practicable. If you are following a no dig philosophy cultivating and digging will essentially be a thing of the past anyway. Keep tools sharp to make the job more managable.
If you have the money invest in electric power tools over petrol. Invest wisely, test where you can and follow recommendations. Go for the best you can afford. More expensive tools will likely be more up to the job and therefore easier to use, be more durable and perform comparatively well with their petrol counterparts.
Whilst coal is still in use as a source of electricity the carbon cost of electric tools is still a matter of debate it seems, but at least by using these you are not emitting any other harmful emissions, not travelling to the fuel station to purchase fuel, and you will be future proofed if and when petrol tools are eventually phased out by the EU.
Reuse materials or locally source
When landscaping choose local or locally sourced materials to reduce transport. Use sustainably sourced materials, or perhaps even reuse materials from on site; crushed and compacted stone or tiles (of which there can often be stockpiles of many in this part of the world) can be used as a sub-base material.
At the design phase, ensure the ratio of hardscaping to planting is in the favour of planting. Growing more plants increases the carbon absorbtion capacity of your garden.