Posted on Nov 22, 2015

Garden maintenance contributes to the problem of global climate change in a variety of ways. For starters, we consume energy directly by deploying the entire panoply of power equipment deemed essential for a proper modern landscape. These tools, particularly gasoline-powered equipment, generate large amounts of CO2 emissions.

The fertilizers and pesticides with which gardens are routinely coddled account for still more energy consumption and carbon emissions. Most gardeners are surprised to learn that often the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from home gardening and lawn care is associated with use of nitrogen fertilizers. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive. Manures and other organic sources are better alternatives because the CO2 emissions associated with their manufacture are mostly eliminated. But using either synthetic or organic fertilizers releases nitrous oxide, which has 300 times more global warming potential per molecule than carbon dioxide. Chemical pesticides also have high embodied energy, and they are toxic to boot.

The energy involved in pumping and distributing the water we use for irrigation can be another major source of CO2. Generally, the more arid the area, the higher the water’s “embodied energy,” the technical term for this indirect form of energy consumption. A study commissioned by the city of Irvine, California, found that the energy used to deliver water was second only to the fuel consumed by the service vehicles of municipal landscapers—and far more water is lavished on private gardens than public landscapes.

Garden maintenance is just part of the problem. Garden construction also has an impact on the local environment. In some cases, it can be so energy intensive that it may take many years to offset the carbon emissions. Paving surfaces represents an especially large amount of embodied energy. Throw in processes involved in producing other accoutrements of a well-appointed landscape, and the emissions can pile up.

Having a garden that goes easy on the atmosphere requires changing some routine practices, but ultimately it is both better for the environment and less trouble to maintain.

Want to save energy and reduce your backyard’s carbon footprint too? Here are six steps you can take:

  1. Reduce the size of your lawn. Better yet, consider eliminating it entirely. Everyone can manage without turf by creating patios for living space and enlarging planting beds or gravel pathways where children can run and play.

Tip: Consider replacing your lawn with a native wildflower meadow. This will provide habitat for wildlife and requires little    to  no watering after its young plants are established. Since introducing plants to your property that are not indigenous to your region can contribute to ecological problems, choose plants that are native to your region.

  1. Use hand tools instead of power equipment. When you lose the lawn, for example, you’ll only need a rake and a broom to clear pathways and decks of fallen leaves and debris.
  2. Choose materials with low-embodied energy. Brick and concrete have large carbon footprints compared to gravel and especially wood. Used brick and other recycled materials are good choices, too.
  3. Emphasize woody plants that capture more carbon than fleshy herbaceous species. Create a flower meadow or vegetable patch, but plant most of your property with low-maintenance native trees and shrubs, preferably those that also provide food and nesting and resting places for birds and other wildlife. Again, choose plants that are native to your region.
  4. Plant trees and shrubs where they will block winter winds and provide shade in summer. This will reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool your home and thus reduce your carbon footprint even further. The particular landscape strategy depends on your climate.
  5. Eliminate, the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your property. Use mulch produced from garden trimmings to enrich your soil instead, and use native plants that are naturally pest resistant.

Tip: Leave the leaves where they are. This will provide free nutrients for your soil and retain water, as well as, habitat for all the little critters that drive life, including birds and butterflies.  For more about leaving the leaves see