Combating Global Warming in Your Own Backyard

Posted on Jan 28, 2016


ceanothusstockSeventy percent of American households engage in some level of gardening or lawn care every year.  Some do it for beautiful flowers, lush grass, or fresh fruits and vegetables; some for the peace and quiet or the connection to nature. But there is another reason to grow plants in your yard: certain gardening practices can help combat global warming.

All living organisms are based on carbon. Carbon atoms can bond with as many as four other kinds of atoms, resulting in carbon chains and other compounds such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that are essential to life on Earth. Carbon continually moves through living organisms, the oceans, the atmosphere, soil, and rocks in a phenomenon known as the carbon cycle.

Gardeners participate in this complex cycle. Plants capture CO2 from the air and convert it to carbohydrates (starches and sugars) along with other carbon compounds that become the tissues of the plant. When these carbon-rich plant tissues are consumed by animals, or when the plant dies and microorganisms in the soil cause it to decompose, CO2 is formed again, and its return to the atmosphere completes the cycle.

Global warming is largely a result of the carbon cycle being out of balance. When we burn oil, coal, and natural gas we release vast quan­tities of ancient carbon that had been stored underground for millions of years. One way to re-balance the carbon cycle is to “lock up” some of Earth’s carbon atoms again.

In the garden, the key to locking up carbon is soil. Putting carbon-rich organic matter such as plant parts or manure into the soil may store (or “sequester”) the carbon there for a period of time. Although some of this carbon is re-released quickly into the atmosphere as CO2, some remains bound to minerals or in organic forms that break down into CO2 slowly in the soil, helping to reduce the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. Gardeners can help their soil store more carbon through a number of practices such as eliminating the power tools and chemicals, adding mulch or using fallen leaves as mulch, planting native trees and shrubs.  Building carbon-rich soil has other benefits besides combating global warming. Soils rich in organic matter drain well, prevent water pollution, support many beneficial microbes and insects, and sustain plant growth with little or no synthetic fertilizer (which is derived from fossil fuels).