Spring Into Action: 6 Tips for Climate-Smart Gardening
After a long—and in some places very cold—winter, spring is almost here. And with its arrival comes one of our favorite things to do as the days get longer and sunnier.
What if we told you that you can make a major difference without leaving your own backyard? That's right, by simply rethinking how you garden, you can do your part to fight the climate crisis.
With just a little bit of gumption and some know-how, you can lessen your carbon footprint and conserve important resources like water, all while showing your family, friends and neighbors how much you care about common sense solutions. Solutions they can then take back to their own gardens.
Up your sustainability game with these six simple tips for climate-smart gardening—and do your part to fight for a healthier future for our fragile planet.
1. Lay Off the Synthetic Fertilizers
There are plenty of reasons to be weary of synthetic fertilizers. Chemical runoff from haphazardly applied fertilizer can drain into streams and lakes, making its way to our water supplies. They can disrupt naturally occurring soil ecosystems, and are a temporary solution to a long-term solvable problem.
But when it comes to climate, it's their manufacturing that really gets our goat.
"Four to six tons of carbon are typically emitted into the atmosphere per ton of nitrogen manufactured," according to Dr. David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. "Anything you can do to be more efficient and conservative about nitrogen use is one of the biggest things you can do in the garden."
Instead, look to compost, worm castings and manures to perk up your plants.
And for next year's garden, consider sheet composting (though we prefer its fun nickname, "lasagna gardening"), a cold composting method where alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen materials are placed directly on the soil and break down over time, turning into a fantastic growing medium.
2. Plant Trees and Other Perennials
Environmentally, trees and shrubs are all kinds of awesome. Their size and long lives mean they remove more carbon dioxide (CO2)—the heat-trapping greenhouse gas driving the climate crisis—from the atmosphere than other plants, sequestering it in both above- and below-ground biomass. Their one-and-done planting means they require less energy (and all that comes with it) than many other plants too, particularly compared to the constant tending annuals often require. And their roots secure soil in place, making them important to fighting things like erosion and even holding back dangerous mudslides.
They also offer cool shade in the summer and protection from blistering winter winds, so a well-placed tree can even reduce emissions (and energy bills!) associated with heating and cooling your home.
3. Stop Wasting Water
We know that the warmer temperatures associated with the climate crisis increase the rate of evaporation of water into the atmosphere, drying out some areas and then falling as excess precipitation in others. This can lead to a cycle of water misuse in ever-drier areas, and plant diseases in regions where average annual precipitation is on the rise.
Watering of lawns and gardens is estimated to account for 30 percent of all residential water use in the U.S., according to the EPA, and that number "can be much higher in drier parts of the country and in more water-intensive landscapes." And as much as 50 percent of it lost to evaporation, wind or runoff.
Fifty percent! That's never okay, but it's particularly uncool at a time when climate change-exacerbated drought is pushing cities with millions of residents ever-closer to running out of water entirely.
So, what can you do?
If you have a small or medium-sized garden, you can easily hand-water your veggies rather than use an overhead sprinkler system, applying the water near the base of the plant slowly to allow time for it to absorb into the soil near the roots. Also, consider drip irrigation, a type of micro-irrigation that helps maintain ideal moisture levels by allowing water to drip slowly and directly to the roots of plants.
"Less frequent, deep watering also encourages deeper root growth to areas where the soil stays moist longer," according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension. "If supplemental water is determined to be necessary at a specific time and location, be sure to use no more than is needed and minimize your use of potable water."
You can also capture and save rainwater for later use in a rain barrel or cistern. (Just make sure you keep it covered to save your rain harvest from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitos.) But before you head to your local garden supply shop to pick up a big ole bucket, make sure you check out your state's laws around rainwater collection. Some U.S. states and municipalities, largely (but not exclusively) in the American West, have laws restricting the collection of rainwater.
4. Really Focus on Soil Health, In General
The story of climate change's impact on soil health is really a tale of changing precipitation patterns. Extreme downpours can lead to runoff and erosion, stripping healthy soil of key nutrients needed to sustain agriculture. On the other end of the spectrum, frequent droughts can kill off the vital living soil ecosystems necessary to grow healthy crops—and of course, plants can't grow without water either.
But you can fortify your soil against climate change-related weather challenges, increase its fertility and productivity, and even improve your plants' resistance to pests and disease by training your eye on something called "soil organic matter."
Healthy soil rich in organic matter sequesters carbon and stores water kind of like a sponge, helping it mitigate climate impacts like heavy rainfall and short-term drought by keeping the right amount of water where your plants need it—in the ground around its roots, an area called the "rhizosphere."
It also adds nutrients to your foods as all that organic matter breaks down. (A very big bonus you can feel!) So remember to keep your plants happy by feeding their soil organic matter regularly with compost and by growing cover crops.
5. So Just Dial Down the Tillage, Ok?
A low- or no-till approach to gardening plays a very big role in building the soil organic matter talked about above. The reason why is pretty simple: When you tear up the ground, you wreck the soil ecosystem.
At its most basic, no-till gardening is the practice of growing produce without disturbing the soil through tillage or plowing. In addition to locking up more carbon in the soil, this approach dramatically cuts back on fossil-fuel use in gardening. After all, gasoline-powered garden tools are emitters of CO2.
No- or low-till gardening plays a role in making some of the other tips on this list even easier. As soil organic carbon levels increase through reduced tillage, so does the amount of nutrients that the soil can hold, meaning gardeners have less need for synthetic fertilizers.
6. And Opt for Hand Tools
So, if you can't use your trusted weed eater or rototiller in the garden, how are you supposed to get anything done? We hear you, and believe us, we understand. So we'll break it to you gentle—you're gonna have to do this the old fashioned way.
There are numerous easy-to-use hand tools that can help make gardening a clean, exhaust-free breeze. From push-mowers and rakes to the real nuts-and-bolts stuff like hand trowels, shears and weeders, no matter what you're trying to do, there's a gizmo for that.
If you're looking to scale up your garden game and smaller implements simply won't cut it, consider adding a broadfork to your shed. These big guys consist of five or six metal tines, each around eight inches long and spaced a few inches apart, on a horizontal crossbar with two handles that extend upwards to around chest or shoulder level, depending on your height. To operate, you step on the crossbar, driving the tines into the ground, and pull backward to loosen the soil.
A broadfork will lightly aerate the soil and improve drainage while leaving the soil layers intact, preserving the soil structure and the living ecosystems necessary for your plants to thrive.
Now, take the extra step to help us protect what matters.
While it's unlikely to inspire a telethon, over time the toll of erosion, pollution, losses in organic matter and other soil impacts of the climate crisis imperil a very basic human need—to eat.
Take an in-depth look at climate change's impact on soil health as well as what's at stake and what you can do to support a world where we can provide our booming population with fresh, healthy food grown in a sustainable soil ecosystem in Right Under Your Feet: Soil Health and the Climate Crisis.
Download this free resource now and make sure you share it with your friends and family.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.