Take Climate Action By Transforming Your Lawn With Edible Landscaping
What have you done for me lately?
The one-and-only Janet Jackson once asked that question of a bad boyfriend. But lately, we've been wondering the very same thing about a far less obvious offender—our front lawn. We water it and then water it some more. We give it a trim to keep it looking super fresh, and we do it all over again a week later. When the dog digs up a spot, we patch it right up.
According to a collaborative 2015 study by scientists from NASA, NOAA, Colorado State University and the universities of Colorado and Montana, about 163,812 square kilometers of the American landscape is "cultivated with some form of lawn … an area three times larger than that of any irrigated crop.
Now, imagine the possibilities if we put even some of that wide open space—an area roughly the size of the state of Wisconsin—to better use for the planet. That's right, by simply rethinking your own outdoor space and incorporating a few new landscaping techniques, you can do your part to fight for a healthier future for our fragile planet.
What is an Edible Landscape?
Edible landscapes are just like traditional ornamental landscapes—with one important twist. While they follow many of the same design principles, edible landscapes favor plants like herbs, vegetables and fruit bushes and trees over comparatively "unproductive" decorative plants.
They allow homeowners to enjoy food crops while keeping their space aesthetically pleasing. And much like ornamental landscaping, you can scale up or down to meet your needs.
What are the Benefits of Edible Landscapes?
Environmentally, grass is great–like really great–and of course, the kiddos and the pups need a nice, open place to play. But it's not the only thing you can do with yard space–and here's where edible landscapes come in.
As any gent in crisp white New Balance sneakers will tell you, a large lawn requires frequent tending to remain attractive. Which takes energy.
By converting grassy yard space into an edible landscape, you can dial down the amount of energy (and all that comes with it ... vroom vroom goes the gassed-up mower) needed to keep it looking great.
Edible landscapes don't just prevent carbon going into the atmosphere—they also help take it out. Replacing turf with larger, often perennial plants like trees, bushes, and vines removes more carbon dioxide (CO2)—the primary heat-trapping greenhouse gas driving the climate crisis—from the atmosphere than grass alone, sequestering it in both above- and below-ground biomass.
Even with the addition of vibrantly-colored annuals like red or purple lettuces, Swiss chard, mustard greens and edible flowers, your new edible landscape is still likely to require a lot less fossil fuel-powered maintenance than a traditional lawn.
You'll also be doing your part to save water—most home gardeners use far less water than commercial agricultural production of the same crop. All at a time when the climate crisis is driving major changes to precipitation patterns all over the world, resulting in some cases of drought and crop loss.
Ultimately, if done correctly using sustainable practices, edible landscaping can go a long way toward conserving valuable resources while creating a very effective carbon sink—and just think of all the money you'll save growing even a few of your favorite fruits and veggies right in your own yard.
"Any landscape design begins with choosing the location of the paths, patios, fences, hedges, arbors and garden beds—establishing the 'bones' of your garden," according to Mother Earth News.
So, before you plant a single seed or transplant, you need to ask yourself a few simple questions: How much of my yard do I want to convert into an edible landscape? What exactly do I want this to look like? Are vivid, popping colors my thing, or am I after cooler shades of blue and lavender? Would a path made of wood chips be preferable to one made of gravel? Do I want to go all-in on semi-permanent raised beds?
What you want is, of course, up to you, but be mindful of the upkeep your garden plan will require – and keep in mind that you're unlikely to be the only one who loves your new, climate-friendly edible landscape. Deer, squirrels, birds, groundhogs, and rabbits, as well as a plethora of creepy crawlies, all have a taste for many of the same delicious fruits and veggies we love to gobble down, so consider incorporating fencing and other barriers as part of your design.
And remember to not get overwhelmed. Gardening should be relaxing and fun, and you don't need to completely overhaul your lawn all at once, if you don't want to. Reimagining a landscape can be time-consuming and depending on how you do it, even a little expensive. So if you'd rather approach your project a little bit at a time, replacing a few square feet of lawn here or there with some berry bushes or culinary herbs and salad greens, go that route.
Much like swapping out your old incandescents in favor of energy-efficient lightbulbs, every little bit helps. One or two berry bushes or dwarf fruit trees will sequester far more carbon than a patch of grass. The planet will thank you.
What to Plant?
Selecting plants for your edible landscape is double the fun of a traditional flower bed because you've added a dimension to your decision-making—your plants need to be beautiful and yummy.
Of course, what you can grow depends on the conditions of your yard. And, with our warming world and possible changes to your region's climate in mind, consideration should be given to types of plants that may require less watering and/or are more drought or heat tolerant, as well as those more tolerant to increasing salinization, if you live in a coastal area.
With the design and color scheme you've sketched out, you also want to be sure to plant fruits and veggies that you, as well as your family and friends, actually enjoy eating. Good thing there's plenty to choose from.
"I'd challenge anyone to find a shrub with more visual impact than a blueberry that covers itself with white flowers in spring, dusky purple berries in summer, and radiant red leaves in the fall," the Spruce's Marie Iannotti writes.
Blueberries live their best life in full sun, so if you're after berries, but your yard or garden space is a bit shady, consider raspberry bushes, which do well in medium shade, instead.
A little shade won't stop you from planting veggies either. Luckily, there are plenty of attractive, shade-tolerant varieties you can tuck into the sometimes-shadowy corners of your edible landscape, including beets, cauliflower, and cabbages and leaf lettuces that come in a variety of colors.
If arbors, fencing, or trellises are part of your design, pole beans make for an attractive climber. They feature soft, heart-shaped leaves and speckle themselves with tiny flowers in the springtime. These posies tend to skew white or very pale purple, so if you're looking for a flash of color, pick up scarlet runner beans, which light up with their namesake red instead.
For a more perennial arbor cover, grape vines are hardy plants with a lot of character, offering up tasty fruit in the summertime and vivid red leaves in the fall.
But what should you put in your garden beds? Well, like we said, that depends a lot on you, your climate, and what you find tasty and easy on the eyes, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Tomatoes do particularly well when planted with flowers because isolating them to some extent helps prevent common diseases from spreading easily from one plant to the next.
- Because they are strong, well-defined, and can be planted in clean lines, lettuces make great edging plants, and can be found in more colors than you think, including deep purples.
- Speaking of color, it's your friend—and numerous traditional "greens," including Swiss chard and some cabbages, come in a rainbow of colors, while others like kale, according to Better Homes & Gardens, "have gorgeous fall color and are ideal for tucking into containers and borders for color late in the year."
- On the herb front, rosemary is a particularly pretty and fragrant plant.
- It's also important to remember that plenty of flowers are themselves edible. Nasturtiums and violas are among the best known and easiest to grow, but borage blossoms, calendula, chives and hibiscus also make for attractive offerings ... in both the garden and the right salad.
If you're looking for a fern-like perennial to add a bit of drama to a corner of your evolving new yard, think about asparagus, which comes back again and again for decades and serves up one of the season's first harvestable vegetables. It may take some time to get the desired effect, but left to its own devices, asparagus plants will develop big feathery fronds that catch the breeze.
Other less-common perennials to think about to give your edible landscape a little added character include artichokes, rhubarb, and French sorrel.
As for groundcover, consider strawberries. In the spring, they pop with white flowers that give way in early summer to sweet red fruit. By fall, their leaves take on a rich reddish-orange.
Now, Take the Extra Step to Help Us Protect What Matters
In addition to helping you lessen your carbon footprint, transforming your outdoor space with some edible landscaping could also help protect the health of your soil, which is threatened by climate impacts like erosion, pollution, and losses in organic matter.
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.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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