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Lightening your Carbon Footprint….in the Garden

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Submitted by Master Gardener Anne Robin:

It was a cold and stormy night. The large house was warm and cozy, central heat set at 76 degrees, three computers and two televisions turned on, the warm glow of incandescent lights shining from all windows. No one was home. Outside, large flood lights illuminated the huge expanse of green, green lawn. Nary a weed nor insect was to be found in the garden of tropical plants, due to the continuous applications of pesticides and fertilizers. A big fountain was sending jets of water into the air; the sprinklers came on as programmed, meeting heavy raindrops midway to the ground. AAAAAAAAAGH! Wake me from that nightmare!

Whether you believe global warming is due to natural cycles or is caused by human activity, enough scientific evidence has been gathered to show that our planet is slowly warming.

Climate change or global warming is—in large part—the result of a build up of greenhouse gases (GHG), chiefly carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere. GHGs trap the sun´s heat in the earth´s atmosphere (the ‘greenhouse effect´), a natural phenomena that keeps the earth warm. However, when the concentration of GHGs gets too large, and the earth´s equilibrium gets out of balance, we experience a dangerous rise in temperatures, which can result in severe and extreme weather conditions. In effect, earth´s blanket thickens and our atmosphere absorbs and holds more heat than it radiates back. This could directly affect rainfall, flooding and droughts, agriculture, economies, health and biosecurity.

In its 2001 report, the United Nations´ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated, "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities." In fact, since the industrial age began around 150 years ago, man´s burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas—has meant a rise in GHG emissions, mainly carbon dioxide, for the past two centuries. Some scientists estimate the increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the last 150 years to be 35 – 60%.

The IPCC projects that global temperatures will rise an additional 3 to10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. I´ve heard longtime Tuolumne County residents describe the winters of their youth as being longer, snowier, and colder than we have recently experienced. Some initial studies indicate that the widespread die-back of Quaking Aspens in the Rockies may be due to a combination of drought and winter warming. What other native species may be suffering from these effects?

There are many things we can do locally to reduce our personal “carbon footprint.” There are several good calculators available on the internet; the government Environmental Protection Agency has a simple one at:

In the garden, many University of California Master Gardener suggestions contribute directly to lowering carbon production: reduce dependence or use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; reduce lawns; plant more native species; reduce overall water usage. While we have discussed these frequently in the context of water conservation and environmental protection from toxins, they are also important steps in reducing carbon related pollutants—either from manufacturing (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) or from the energy it takes to produce and transport the product (water or exotic plants).

Trees act as natural air filters. Through the process of photosynthesis they absorb carbon dioxide (a key GHG and principle contributor to global warming) from the atmosphere and store it in their trunk, branches, leaves, roots, soil and foliage, while releasing oxygen back out. Planting trees in your garden not only helps absorb carbon dioxide, it provides natural ecosystems for birds, insects, and other critters that depend on the food, cover and nesting sites they provide. There are many organizations who are contributing to reforestation efforts, such as the Arbor Day Foundation. Some will even donate trees to homeowners. Trees can also produce shade in the summer. Trees planted on the southwest side of the home can help reduce cooling costs. (Remember to keep fire clearance in mind.)

Gasoline-powered lawn mowers, weed whackers, and other yard tools can be replaced by battery or electric ones. A good old fashioned push mower can work well on small lawns (plus it´s good exercise). Goats, the quintessential weed eater, can be rented for large fields or difficult to access areas. Rather than using that noisy blower, sweep your drive or walkway—great exercise and no GHGs. Solar lights for the yard have become more reasonable in price, and with the addition of LED lights, they are much more brilliant than older models. There are solar powered flood lights with motion detectors which will come on as needed, rather than staying on all night long.

Here´s an easy laundry list of things you can do to reduce your garden´s “carbon footprint”…

1. Collect rainwater for irrigation

2. Plant local species of trees

3. Plant native plants

4. Stop using chemical pesticides; practice integrated pest management

5. Reduce the size of your lawn

6. Make compost from your yard clippings, kitchen scraps, etc.

7. Use person-powered equipment!

8. Buy recycled products like planters, raised bed materials, etc.

9. Grow your own food, or buy locally grown food!

10. Plant for the bugs…..bees and butterflies pollinate our flowers and food. Even “safe” or natural pesticides can be harmful to the good bugs, so use them as little as possible

11. Mulch! This will cut down on your water needs, and will contribute to the health of your soil over time. Use organic materials such as straw, wood chips, composted manures, coffee grounds, and even pine needles.

Don´t forget the inside of your house either. We´ve all seen the television commercials that say “if every American household switched one incandescent bulb to a compact fluorescent light bulb it would be like taking 4 million cars off the road.” Those funny looking compact florescent bulbs have gotten much better than they were a few years ago. Try one! It´s much cheaper than buying a new hybrid energy car.

Weather stripping, insulation, double paned windows, and energy saving appliances can help reduce heating and utility costs. The local Home Energy Assistance Program can help low income individuals with some of these programs. Call the

A-TCAA Service Center at (209)533-1397 for help.

Keep the thermostat at about 68 degrees, and put a sweater on! Fix drippy faucets. And most of all, recycle and reuse!

Be proud of your garden by making it as LOW-CARBON as possible! If we all do just a little bit to help reduce our personal carbon footprint, the world will truly be a much healthier place—for ourselves and for the future.

Anne Robin became a certified Master Gardener in 2006. Her years of gardening experience began in Southern California and moved to the Sierra Nevada foothills. To contact Master Gardeners call 533-5696.