Taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil carbon sponge is a beautiful concept but can just anybody do it? Yes. If you work with any size parcel of land, you can do it directly. If you don’t, your choices as an individual can help. There are two main rules.
First: Grow more plants.
Second: Disturb the soil less.
Cover bare soil with living plants, everywhere possible. Mulch is good; it prevents soil carbon from oxidizing. But plants are better. They actively pump carbon into the ground as they photosynthesize; working in tandem with soil micro-organisms.
Once you’ve got plants, keep them photosynthesizing for as long a season as possible. Improving your soil with compost can give plants greater resistance to heat and cold, so they don’t go dormant during hot spells, and stay green longer into the fall.
Start with the lawn, a less-than-ideal carbon sponge. Most lawn grass has short roots; soil carbon is best built where there is root depth variation. Also, we burn a lot of fossil fuels caring for lawns. (1 hour x 22 mowings x 0.5 gallons of gas = 11 gallons/gas x 17.7 lbs. CO2 = 194 pounds of CO2 added to the atmosphere annually. Calculation from Climate-Wise Landscaping, Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt, New Society Publishers 2018).
So get rid of your lawn, or sharply reduce its size. Put in a rain garden, a no-till vegetable patch, or fruit trees. Use mulch under trees where grass grows thinly, or grow shade-loving perennials there. Turn part of a larger lawn into a meadow. Grow milkweeds and other pollinator plants. These kind of lawn alternatives have their own, slightly wilder kind of beauty and provide many environmental services.
On what lawn remains, mow high and less frequently. Allow dandelions and plantain to grow. Their deep roots help store carbon underground. Add white clover, which lets the lawn produce and store its own nitrogen. Aerate the soil, limit compaction with heavy equipment, and use an electric or push mower. (The CO2 footprint of a push mower is 23 lbs. total, not annually.) A robot lawnmower is also an excellent choice, using about $15 worth of electricity a year and producing a spongey, well-mulched lawn with no work.
Avoid using chemical fertilizer, which interferes with soil micro-organisms and short-circuits carbon storage. Spread compost instead, or spray with compost tea.
These steps can have a major impact if adopted by many individuals or by large landowners. If you work on a campus surrounded by acres of green lawn, ask managers to shift toward organic, low-carbon methods. A meadow with mowed walking paths can be as beautiful as a lawn, while building soil carbon and attracting wildlife.
In the vegetable garden, build soil carbon by minimizing soil disturbance and increasing soil organic matter. That means no tillage, or minimal tillage. Practice raised-bed intensive vegetable gardening. Build the soil up with compost that you create on-site. Mulch to keep the soil cool and moist. There are many books on the topic; I recommend The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, by Vermonter Edward Smith (Storey Publishing, 2000).
Weed gently to minimize soil disturbance. That means weeding early, while the weeds are small. (Do as I say, not as I do on this one!) Use rotted leaves instead of peat moss; peat stores carbon but harvesting peat releases it.
In the flower garden, minimize soil disturbance. Use fewer annual plants, more perennials and shrubs. Don’t do seasonal plantings, where impatiens or marigold seedlings are popped in for a month or so, then pulled and replaced with something new. That’s most often done by institutional landowners. Pressure from employees or trustees to change those practices can be helpful.
If you have livestock, switch to holistic planned grazing. Instead of turning the animals loose in a large pasture for months on end, use an electric fence to confine them to smaller paddocks for shorter amounts of time. As the animals cycle through paddocks, the grass they first grazed can regrow, fertilized by the manure and urine the animals left behind. The root pruning caused by grazing, along with the storage of sugars caused by re-growth, builds soil carbon rapidly, while the animals happily rotate through a series of lush salad bars. Raising beef on well-managed grass builds soil carbon on the pasture, while avoiding carbon losses in distant grain fields. Consumers can look for 100% grass-fed beef and dairy—and local is better, as it helps build a grazing economy here in New England.
If you’re a farmer, use cover crops. Shift to no-till. Feed cows grass and hay and plant corn fields to perennial grasses. Nobody can say change is easy, but dairy farmers especially are in a terrible economic situation right now, so this may be the time to make a shift in what you are doing.
These are not exotic concepts. All have been around for many years. What’s new and exciting is the understanding that by building soil, we help our planet regulate its carbon cycle. Tilling the soil caused great damage to the climate. Building soil is a crucial tool to reverse that, and literally everyone can do it.
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com.
Links available with the posting of this article on the G.E.T. website.