The carbon-capturing power of your own backyard

 
 The tomatoes pictured here, in Acadia Tucker's garden, are grown with heavy helpings of organic material, which draws down excess carbon in the atmosphere. "I like to imagine what we could accomplish if more of us believed in the power of soil, even a little bit of it,” says Tucker.

The tomatoes pictured here, in Acadia Tucker's garden, are grown with heavy helpings of organic material, which draws down excess carbon in the atmosphere. "I like to imagine what we could accomplish if more of us believed in the power of soil, even a little bit of it,” says Tucker.

Acadia Tucker used to look at her garden and see only tomatoes, artichokes, corn, and rhubarb. Now the New Hampshire farmer and writer says she also sees the soil it's all growing in. If the ground is dark brown and earthy, she knows it contains a good supply of organic material and a lively community of bacteria, bugs, and microorganisms. Soil this rich produces tasty, nutritious food. It also draws down excess carbon from the atmosphere, and it's this last characteristic that inspired Tucker to write a book, Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits, and vegetables (Stone Pier Press, Spring 2019). She prompts us to “imagine what we could accomplish if enough of us commit to using our yards and gardens to offset our own carbon emissions.”

What we realized is that people’s backyards are a really big player here.
— Carly Ziter

Tucker’s brand of backyard activism got a boost recently from a study about the carbon-capturing power of residential lots and yards. These soils lock in more carbon emissions than you might think, according to research by Carly Ziter, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For her study, published in the Ecological Applications Journal, Ziter collected soil samples, from forests and grasslands to open spaces, from parks, golf courses, and cemeteries to backyards. She learned that run-of-the-mill backyard soils were capturing more carbon than soil in native grasslands or urban forests.

Until now, most research has focused on the climate-buffering effect of larger green spaces like parks, which can lower temperatures and capture extra water during flooding. “What we realized is that people’s backyards are a really big player here,” Ziter says.

Carbon storage isn’t just confined to soil. It's captured in plants and trees as well, which is why forests and grasslands play an important role in helping offset global warming. But the potential for backyards becomes significant when you consider the sheer number of gardeners in this country. In 2013, there were 42 million American households, or 35% of the nation, gardening at home or in community plots. Now imagine if they were practicing the soil-rich, regenerative practices espoused by Tucker and others.

Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farming Solution, does exactly that. He grows 300 varieties of perennial crops in his tiny Holyoke, Massachusetts yard, mulches instead of tills, and uses plenty of compost. After running the numbers he calculated that his one-tenth of an acre can offset the carbon dioxide emissions of one American adult for an entire year. “If all of us did this in our gardens it wouldn’t be enough to do the trick,” he said, “but it would be a huge contribution.”

If all of us did this in our gardens it wouldn’t be enough to do the trick, but it would be a huge contribution.
— Eric Toensmeier

when gardening is only the first step

When Tucker talks about the importance of taking up regenerative gardening, she often refers to the multiplier effect it can trigger, particularly if you're growing food. 

If you start growing vegetables, fruits, and herbs, says Tucker, you often make fewer grocery store trips, pay more attention to the seasonality of food, and buy more locally. Maybe you invite your neighbors over for dinner where your lasagna, full of ripened, heavy tomatoes, makes them shamelessly ask for leftovers to take home, along with advice on how to start their own plant beds. Perhaps, when you see the difference it can make to grow one small garden, you support farmers using regenerative agricultural practices. And maybe that carries over into support for politicians willing to take a stand on the environment, and climate change.

”I like to imagine what we could accomplish if more of us believed in the power of soil, even a little bit of it,” says Tucker. “It’s quite possible we could have a climate game-changer on our hands.”


Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits, and vegetables is available for preorder now. For more information on mulching, composting, and organic pest management, check out Acadia’s gardening stories on The Regenerative Gardener.