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A carbon sequestration garden might be right for you if you have at least a few square feet of land to care for, want to do less yard work overall, and want to save water and chemical fertilizers. It also helps to improve the climate on our planet.
The typical American lawn simply does not capture as much carbon as other plants. It’s preferable to concrete, but mowing keeps both the upper and lower parts of the plant short—the more plant, the more carbon it can hold. Producing massive amounts of fertilizer for millions of acres of lawns is also a high-carbon process. Lawns, in particular in drier areas, are a significant drain on our water resources. The answer is a garden that is good for both you and the environment, with better aesthetics and none of the drawbacks of a traditional lawn. A carbon sequestration garden is a supercharged version of our ground cover story. This is how you do it.
Select a wide range of native plants.
Native plants are hardier and better adapted to your environment, and survival is crucial—dead plants don’t capture carbon. Though research has not clearly shown what will happen as the weather becomes increasingly worse, the right plants should have a better chance of surviving your local climate. Drought-resistant, flood-tolerant, and freeze-resistant trees and shrubs aren’t all created equal. A garden with a diverse selection of native plants, on the other hand, will have a better chance of surviving the coming decades.
Doug Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware, has created a website where you can enter your zip code and learn about the native flora in your area if you’re not sure where to begin looking for native plants. Extension services and nurseries in your community are also excellent resources for determining what will work in your area.
Trees, as well as native grasses, should be taken into consideration.
Trees are the bodybuilders if carbon is protein powder. By dry weight, trees contain around 50% carbon (after you remove the water). According to Eli Sagor, an adjunct faculty extension specialist at the University of Minnesota, that’s a big carbon offset bang for your real estate and actual buck.
Trees, on the other hand, aren’t suitable in all situations. Grasses and prairie species are also capable of absorbing a significant amount of carbon. If you don’t have access to trees, look for plants that have a large root system. “I live in Minnesota, and some prairie species are known for their 6- to 10-foot-deep roots. Sagor describes it as “surprisingly deep.” “As a result, carbon is pushed deeper into the soil profile, where it is stored in greater quantities.”
Gerlinde de Deyn, a Wageningen University soil scientist, also sang the grasslands’ praises. Unmowed grasses may appear to take up little space above ground, but a lot is going on beneath the surface. And, because the majority of these plants are perennials, the carbon they collect will stay put for quite some time. De Deyn believes it is best to have a variety of native grassland species because their roots will reach different depths. When these organisms die, they are eaten by microbes and worms, and some of their carbon is absorbed into the soil, particularly if the soil contains clay, loam, or other “sticky” substances that can store carbon. De Deyn explains, “That’s a relatively recent finding that, hey, also, relatively new carbon can still be stabilized in the soil.”
Natural fertilizers should be used.
Chemical fertilizer production emits a significant amount of greenhouse gases, and the finished product, like lawns in general, is harmful to the environment in a variety of ways. Synthetics may not be necessary if you use the right combination of plants. Plant legumes, which contain bacteria that naturally convert atmospheric nitrogen into the nitrogen-based nutrients that plants require, according to De Deyn. Fixing nitrogen in the soil boosts the amount of carbon stored there because the element makes plants more efficient carbon sinks.
Use compost and mulch from your neighborhood.
Plant diseases can be spread by bringing in compost and mulch from outside your community. You don’t want to spend all that time and effort creating a carbon sequestration garden only to have your mulch trucked in from across the country, do you? Consider not raking your dead leaves every year, as they still contain important nutrients, minerals, and carbon from the tree from which they fell, and they provide the ideal habitat for earthworms and important fungi. “I’d rather live with [dead leaves] than have them removed,” says de Deyn, referring to the local recycling process. Composting facilities can be found in many communities, or you can make your own out of food scraps.
Perhaps in the future, we will be able to purchase unique plants.
The Salk Institute is working on the Harnessing Plants Initiative, which includes developing plants that can store more carbon. According to Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative plant scientists, Salk scientists are currently focused on crop plants such as corn, soybean, canola, and rice. They claim, however, that their technologies will be transferred to other plants. Super-plants for our gardens may one day become a reality.
Consider the big picture, but don’t forget about the details.
In the end, one or two trees will not suffice to offset our total emissions. “No one’s yard is big enough to make a difference in our planet’s climate on an individual basis,” Sagor says. If you care about climate change, you can make clear lifestyle and political choices that will have a greater impact. Nonetheless, doing what you can is still critical. Even if your home can’t stop or reverse climate change, a carbon sequestration garden saves you time and money by requiring less mowing, raking, fertilizer, and water. Taking care of the small portion of the planet over which you have some control is also a good idea.