Lighten Up: your yard and garden footprint


I’m still recovering from Monday’s “Open Garden” event, when about 100 people attending the North American Rock Garden Society’s annual meeting toured our reclaimed industrial yard, restored block of creek, and the neighboring pocket park/xeriscape demonstration garden. It was an honor to be selected for the tour, and heartening to hear people Oooh! and Aaah! over the results of our decade-plus effort to heal our property, restoring the community of the land right where we live.

That’s our house in the photo above, seen from the park next door. The mounds in the foreground sprout specimen native plants; in the background is our organic kitchen garden–contained within the old cement wall that once “contained” above-ground oil tanks. The photo below shows a section of our restored grassland front yard, a plant community we seeded in on “soil” that included compacted roadbase, fly ash and other industrial leavings. Native grasses and wildflowers are surprisingly resilient and forgiving! (That’s desert Indian paintbrush in orange, Lambert’s locoweed in magenta, Rocky Mountain penstemon in blue-purple, and blanketflower in yellow.)
I realized as I answered questions about the process of reclaiming what Richard and I call only half-jokingly our “decaying industrial empire” that we instinctively practice gardening with a very light carbon footprint. What does that mean?

First, forgoing a conventional lawn. Lawns cover more than 40 million acres of the contiguous United States, about three times the area devoted to growing corn. The power tools and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used in maintaining that vast area of lawn are major contributors to global climate change. Each gallon of gas burned in a power mower adds 20 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (the motor oil adds CO2 at a higher rate). Gas-powered lawn mowers also add as much smog to the air in one hour as a car does over a 200-mile drive. And they’re noisy as well, but that’s for another post.

The synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that keep lawns green–and sterile as habitat for pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds–are energy-hogs that suck up fossil fuels and release carbon dioxide in their manufacture, packaging and transportation. Most lawns get an overdose of fertilizer and weed killer–studies show that these synthetic chemicals are applied to residential landscapes at ten times the rate per acre of conventional agriculture. Excess fertilizer use pollutes ground and surface waters, and can release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.


Restoring the native grassland in our yard freed us from mowing and power tools–I cut the seedheads of the grasses and wildflowers back by hand in late winter, and spread them on the parts of our formerly industrial property that we’re still restoring, as mulch and seed sources. Our grassland doesn’t need fertilizer–many of our high-desert natives die if they’re fertilized–and we water only ever several weeks except in droughts. The result is a beautiful, easy-care “non-lawn” that passers-by stop to admire and which attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators by the score. (That’s our front yard on the evening of summer solstice in the photo above.)

Our kitchen garden is also organic, which means it’s welcoming to butterflies like the mourning cloak nectaring in the hollyhocks in the photo below, and we avoid those CO2 emissions from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. We also have the joy of watching a thriving community of garden insects and birds. For example, I’ve learned to not worry about grasshoppers; as soon as their populations reach a certain size, the mountain bluebirds and/or house sparrows arrive to hunt down each ‘hopper they can find, a service any gardener can appreciate!


Another way we lighten our gardening and yard-care carbon footprint is to water by hand. We use less water that way, and pay more attention to what we do use. Fully half to three-quarters of residential water use in the United States goes on landscapes and driveways. Pumping, treating, and delivering that water to our faucets and hoses takes energy and thus emits considerable amounts of CO2. Using drinking water to irrigate our landscapes makes no sense to me; I’d rather harvest rain- and snowmelt water, and reuse our graywater.

For more ideas on lightening the carbon footprint of your yard and garden, check out the Union of Concerned Scientists’ excellent tips. (Download the “Climate-Friendly Gardener” for the full scoop.) 


On a personal note, blogger Susan Ideus honored me with a Silver Lining Award last week along with four other bloggers. “The American Heritage Dictionary defines silver lining as ‘a hopeful or comforting prospect in the midst of difficulty,'” she wrote. “All of these ladies, in one way or another, encourage me, teach me, inspire me—by their words, by their actions, with the knowledge they share.” Thanks, Susan. I’m honored that you’d think of me as a silver lining! 

And there, in the photo below, is last night’s silver lining: the new
moon, on its way to setting. Thanks to my love, Richard, for pointing it
out in time for me to race into my office and get my camera.