As March approaches, my mind turns to gardening. Climate affects our gardening successes and, in turn, our gardening choices affect the climate.
People often ask what they can do to address the climate emergency. Gardening practices definitely fall among those actions.
One of the first choices we make affects how much CO2 our gardening tools release into the atmosphere. Is the choice to have a gas-burning lawn mower or an electric one? What about the weed whacker? Battery-operated ones work well on most home lots and do not directly add CO2 to the atmosphere.
Reducing the amount of lawn that needs mowing also benefits the planet. If we consider how we use our front yards, most of us don’t have a lot of activity there. Front yards no longer serve as the neighbors’ meeting place with benches or lawn chairs offering hospitality. Activities like croquet, badminton, baseball practice and frisbee all have been moved to the back yard. So why do we maintain a front lawn?
Instead of a lawn, let’s have cover crops. Red clover, beach sunflower, mondo grass, coreopsis, perennial peanut and many other possible plants can be used instead of grass.
Ground covers retain carbon in the soil, are drought tolerant and prevent both erosion and invasives. Even more important, they renourish the soil so that you don’t have to continually fertilized it.
Turf-free yards can use far less fertilizer and aid in conserving and protecting our waterways. As protection (in fact it’s the law), we cannot fertilize within 10 feet of any body of water. That practice helps keep some fertilizer chemicals from running directly into our wetlands, lakes, rivers and retention ponds, ending up polluting our drinking water.
This law means any fertilizer must be at least 10 feet away from the wetlands behind my house. Across the street, no fertilizer should be used within that last 10 feet before the retention pond. And speaking of retention ponds, native plants in those 10 feet should buffer the water, again filtering out fertilizer.
No, we are not supposed to be mowing right up to the retention pond. So why do we? Ten feet of beautiful native plants could become a feature in backyards and contribute to much cleaner ponds. People wonder where the ducks went. What happens to ducks eating, drinking and swimming in fertilizer every day?
Part of designing a landscape requires thinking about which plant is most appropriate on which part of the property. One recent problem caused by our changing climate is that we now face longer periods of drought with heavier rains when they come. So more and more of our plants need to be drought tolerant yet withstand heavy rains.
Plants that need more water can be used in rain gardens, a wet area in the landscape. In my yard, those water loving plants bloom near a downspout with a rain barrel attached. During droughts, stored water can be added if necessary.
As we select plantings for appropriate areas, we begin to create biodiversity. Differing types of plants are beneficial to birds, butterflies and bees. Some pollinators need flowering plants throughout the year.
Our pollinators support about 35% of our food supply. Without them, none of us would experience the perfect peach. That peach tree, as all trees, sequesters carbon from our atmosphere. “Plant wildflowers and trees!” say those concerned with the climate emergency.
In Ecuador, 44,000 people planted 647,250 trees in one day. Instead of planting only one species, they planted over 200 species.
Another gardening change that we all need to make is to take better care of our own health. Heat kills more people in the United States than hurricanes, droughts, floods and wildfires combined.
Although I hate long sleeves and hats while gardening, we all need to reconsider. There are more mosquitoes than in the past and they are becoming more vicious.
In the U.S., mosquito-borne infections increased nearly 10 times from 2004 until 2016. Now mosquitoes might carry either the West Nile virus or the Zika virus.
I date myself by quoting “Hill Street Blues,” “Hey, hey, hey, let’s be careful out there.”
Susan Nugent is a Climate Reality Project leader from Gainesville.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.