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.

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Perennial herbs will come back year after year if you take care of them right. (Note: This is a stock photo; not all herbs pictured are perennials. Please read the story for more information, and thank you.) Oksana Shufrych / Shutterstock

7 Perennial Herbs to Plant Now

Growing vegetables successfully takes ample dedication and a fair bit of growing space—plus the knowledge to do it right. And once they run out, you have to plant them again! No so with perennial herbs!

Annual herbs like basil and dill must be planted anew each year, but most other commonly used herbs qualify as perennials. They will go dormant where winters are cold, only to perk back up again each spring.

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Underground Farm Pays Rent in Heat It Supplies to Building Above

Vertical farms have been touted as a way to feed a rapidly urbanizing world population (I've waxed poetic about them myself.) Critics of the trending technology, however, contend that these energy-intensive hubs are too costly and perhaps impractical to maintain.

Sure, the naysayers have a point, but what if vertical farms did more than just feed mouths? In Stockholm, Sweden, the Plantagon CityFarm located in the basement of the iconic DN-Skrapan building in the Kungsholmen district has a whole other purpose besides nourishing the office workers on site—the farm also recycles its heat to warm the offices above.

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Amazon Has a Patent For a Garden Service That Would Help You Grow Food

Amazon has a new frontier it's looking to tackle: your garden. The tech company recently received a patent for a new service that would let users upload photos of their vegetable gardens then receive a variety of recommendations from Amazon including recipes for the specific veggies they've planted, gardening tools they might need, and even advice on what else to plant and exactly where in your plot it should go.

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Monsanto Faces Hundreds of New Cancer Lawsuits as Debate Over Glyphosate Rages On

Monsanto has been slapped with another slew of cancer lawsuits over its most popular pesticide as the debate over the health risks of glyphosate rages on.

Los Angeles-based law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman filed lawsuits last week on behalf of 136 plaintiffs from across the country who allege that exposure to Monsanto's glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Three bundled complaints were filed last week in St. Louis County Circuit Court.

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The Growroom

The Indoor Garden That Can Feed an Entire Neighborhood

By Amanda Froelich

There's a lot to appreciate about the Swedish company IKEA. From its numerous projects which have helped raise awareness about the Syrian peoples' plight to its commitment to the environment by using mushroom-based packaging that decomposes within weeks, the furniture business is progressive, to say the least.

Now, IKEA has released open source plans for The Growroom, which is a large, multi-tiered spherical garden that was designed to sustainably grow enough food to feed a neighborhood. The plans were made free on Thursday with the hope that members of the public will invest their time and resources to create one in each neighborhood, if not in every person's backyard.

The tools required to create the spherical garden include plywood, rubber hammers, metal screws and diligence to follow the instructions comprised of 17 steps. The Huffington Post reports that The Growroom isn't shipped in a flat pack like most IKEA products. Instead, users are required to download the files needed to cut the plywood pieces to size and are encouraged to visit a local workshop where the wood can be professionally cut. The free instructions online walk the builder through the remaining steps.

The Growroom

According to a press release, there are already plans to build Growrooms in Taipei, Taiwan; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; San Francisco and Helsinki, Finland. You can add your city to the list by jumping on the opportunity and crafting a Growroom in your neighborhood.

The project is the brainchild of Space10, based in Denmark. The company wrote:

Local food represents a serious alternative to the global food model. It reduces food miles, our pressure on the environment and educates our children of where food actually comes from … The challenge is that traditional farming takes up a lot of space and space is a scarce resource in our urban environments.

The Growroom … is designed to support our everyday sense of well being in the cities by creating a small oasis or 'pause' architecture in our high paced societal scenery and enables people to connect with nature as we smell and taste the abundance of herbs and plants. The pavilion, built as a sphere, can stand freely in any context and points in a direction of expanding contemporary and shared architecture.

Here are images from the open source design:

The Growroom

The Growroom

The Growroom

Reposted with permission from our media associate True Activist.


This Hospital Prescribes Fresh Food From Its Own Organic Farm

By Liza Bayless

Five years ago, when Lankenau Medical Center was confronted with evidence that it was serving the unhealthiest county in Pennsylvania, the hospital decided to embrace the findings with an unconventional approach: building a half-acre organic farm on its campus to provide fresh produce to patients.

The Deaver Wellness Farm at Lankenau Medical Center. Lankenau Medical Center

The teaching and research hospital just outside Philadelphia was in the midst of its own patient health needs assessment in 2011 when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released findings about health outcomes in Pennsylvania counties. Lankenau is officially located within Montgomery County, one of the state's healthiest, taking into account factors including obesity rates and access to reliable sources of food. But the campus is adjacent to and receives many patients from Philadelphia County, ranked the least healthy of all 67 counties.

"That was really telling because it showed that we were serving a really diverse patient population," said Chinwe Onyekere, associate administrator at Lankenau, of the study's revelations. The findings showed that the hospital's patients had widely varying access to healthy food and nutritional knowledge.

With more than 1.5 million people, Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country and consistently named one of the unhealthiest. In 2010, 32 percent of its adults and about 25 percent of its children were obese. The same year, 13 percent of the city's adults had diabetes, and Philadelphia County ranked highest among the country's largest counties for chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

Across the nation, about half of Americans are estimated to have some kind of chronic disease stemming from health risks including lack of exercise, obesity, smoking and unhealthy eating. Treatment for these illnesses, which include asthma, heart disease or diabetes, has accounted for more than 75 percent of hospital admissions and physician visits in recent years.

This has caused some hospitals to look for ways to address health needs before a patient's condition has deteriorated so much that a hospital visit is necessary. At Lankenau, that meant providing its patients with a source of healthy food.

Students learn about fresh produce at the Deaver Wellness Farm. Lankenau Medical Center

Because the doctors, nurses and other staff were not farming experts, the hospital paired with Greener Partners, a nonprofit advocate for local food systems in Pennsylvania, to build and maintain what would become the Deaver Wellness Farm. Onyekere, who heads community needs programs for the hospital, oversees the project.

Since the farm's launch in 2015, it has provided more than 4,000 pounds of organic food to hospital patients at no cost. The produce is used for educational demonstrations and served in the hospital cafeteria. From its community needs assessment, Lankenau's staff learned that many of its patients, especially from West Philadelphia, lacked access to and nutritional knowledge of fruits and vegetables. So Lankenau now facilitates pop-up markets in internal medicine and the OBGYN practice wards.

While patients wait for appointments, medical assistants bring in fresh kale, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, arugula and other produce for them to select. The hospital also provides recipes, and, during an appointment, physicians use the produce to show how a patient can make healthier lifestyle choices.

In the Lankenau waiting rooms, hospital employees lead nutrition courses and food demonstrations. An employee might bring in the materials for a carrot salad, discuss the nutritional significance of each of its ingredients and then chop and assemble the salad in front of patients. Afterward, patients are given the ingredients and a recipe to try at home.

For years before the farm, health educators employed by the hospital ran roughly 14 programs in a health education center with two classrooms in the middle of Lankenau's facilities. Seven thousand to 10,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade took courses each year in physical health, like nutrition, as well as social health issues, like bullying and harassment.

Now, part of the mission of the farm is to serve as what Onyekere calls a "learning laboratory" for classes about healthy eating, and to create a hands-on experience for students to learn about nutrition, gardening and building healthy behaviors.

Outside the hospital, Lankenau—in partnership with The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health—incentivizes healthy food buying by providing coupons called Philly Food Bucks. These coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables are valid at more than 30 farmers markets and are given to patients who express the desire for better access to healthy foods.

"From the moment the patient walks into the door to the moment they leave the office, that whole experience is focused on improving their health," Onyekere said.

Drew Harris, director of health policy and population health at Thomas Jefferson University's College of Population Health, said that only recently have health providers begun to take accountability for addressing food insecurity among their patients. A former practicing doctor with a specialty in diabetes, he remembers having a very different philosophy about chronic diseases and overall patient health.

"Like many doctors, I probably blamed the patients for not getting well," he said. "I didn't really ask the question: Did they have the ability to follow the diet they were supposed to follow as a diabetic?"

Harris eventually became interested in the wider issues that led to chronic illness. While some patients are never taught health literacy, he said, for others "challenges in life can intervene."

"Not having food security—not knowing where your next meal is going to come from or whether you can purchase everything you need to purchase when you need to—is a major challenge," he said.

What's more, the tools for patient treatment taught in the medical profession have been so focused on prescriptions and procedures, Harris said, that doctors do not always learn the importance of stressing to their patients things like how to create a balanced diet and where to access those foods—knowledge that could keep people out of the hospital in the first place.

Though food insecurity is not a new issue, he thinks medical education is just starting to take a more holistic approach.

"There's a much stronger incentive to worry about why patients are not getting better and what we can do to avoid them getting sick in the first place, and a lot of it has to do with their social environment, their access to healthy food," he said.

Still, Harris stresses the need to pressure health providers. "Holding the medical profession more accountable for results—the quality of the care they provide—is going to make a difference," he said.

Onyekere estimates that Lankenau has provided farm produce to about 400 patients so far, and the hospital is about to launch a survey of patients to better understand the program's impact. Although she said patients have expressed that the farm is making a difference and raising awareness of how to incorporate healthy choices into daily life, the research survey will be a valuable resource for other health providers considering similar initiatives.

Going forward, Lankenau plans to grow the farm with four additional raised beds. Though this year's yield far exceeded initial expectations, staff took that as a sign that it can further increase production. Onyekere said Lankenau is also looking to donate its food to additional community partners, like local food banks.

Lankenau is not the nation's only hospital-run farm. Others include St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, both in Michigan; and St. Luke's University Health Network in Pennsylvania. But Onyekere is aware of none that have so extensively incorporated their own organic food into hospital life.

If America is to confront its growing chronic health epidemic, that integration is key, and, as these hospitals show, is already happening. "We're beginning to move from the patient outward to look more at the neighborhood and the larger environment in which that patient lives," Harris said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.


It's Time to Get Rid of Your Lawn!

By Mary Talbot

In a case of taking "the grass is always greener" a bit too literally, American homeowners have long strived to make their lawns brighter, lusher and more velvety than their neighbors'. But all that competition has a devastating environmental impact. Every year across the country, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing) and 70 million pounds of pesticides.

Adams County, Pennsylvania Master Gardener, BBG Graduate and NRDC Member, Audrey Hillman.

You may also know that turf grass, however welcoming it looks for our bare feet, provides virtually no habitat for pollinators and other animals and plants that make up a healthy, diverse ecosystem. In fact, these lawns can do substantial harm to the environment and to both vertebrates and insects. Birds, for instance, may ingest berries and seeds that have absorbed pesticides from the ground. Likewise, rainwater runoff from lawns can carry pesticides and fertilizers into rivers, lakes, streams and oceans via the sewer system. This can poison fish and other aquatic animals and harm humans who swim, surf and eat seafood that may be contaminated. And then, of course, lawn mowers can pollute the air.

Luckily, today more Americans are ready for a change.

"We're on the cusp of a transition that will likely take place over the next 10 to 15 years, away from the conformity of mowed turf," said Ed Osann, senior policy analyst and water efficiency project director with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Water program.

He adds that eradication of all grass isn't the goal. "We're not declaring war on turf or suggesting that we remove every square foot of it. But we want to encourage people to think about whether there are places in their yards that can be converted to allow for a more diverse and sustainable landscape."

The No-Mow Movement

A growing number of homeowners are converting part or all of their lawns to a less thirsty form of landscape.

These no-mow yards fall into four categories:

1. Naturalized or unmowed turf grass that is left to grow wild;

2. Low-growing turf grasses that require little grooming (most are a blend of fescues);

3. Native or naturalized landscapes where turf is replaced with native plants as well as noninvasive, climate-friendly ones that can thrive in local conditions; and

4. Yards where edible plants—vegetables and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs—replace a portion of turf. (According to the National Gardening Association, one in three families now grows some portion of the food they consume).

Making the Change

A successful lawn conversion depends on climate, terrain and of course individual taste. Of the four main no-mow strategies, Osann said, native or naturalized landscaping is likely your best option. It's adaptable to any part of the country and offers gardeners an infinite range of design possibilities. If you want to join the no-mow movement, here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Get expert advice. Begin by talking with a landscaper who has experience with lawn conversions or even a neighbor who has naturalized all or part of his yard. A landscaper can help remove existing grass and recommend native plants to use in its place. Depending on water and weather, a low-growing turf lawn will "green up" about two weeks after seeding. Another alternative is a wildflower garden grown from seed. (Just make sure you choose a wildflower mix that fits your climate and weed out existing vegetation that would compete for moisture and sun). After the seeds germinate and the flowers bloom (in 6 to 12 weeks), they don't require watering unless there's a prolonged drought.
  • Do your weeding. Invasive plants like ragweed, thistle and burdock can crowd out their native neighbors and may run afoul of local ordinances (as noted below). For most no-mow advocates, the payoff in natural beauty and habitat are well worth the effort.
  • Check for incentives. Not surprisingly, western states such as Arizona and California, which have been in the throes of extreme drought for more than four years, have taken the lead in spurring homeowners to do lawn conversions. California, in fact, launched a turf replacement initiative that offers rebates of up to $500 per yard for homeowners who convert turf lawns to native, drought-resistant xeriscaping. On a more grass-roots level, organizations like the Surfriders Foundation, a national environmental group made up of surfing aficionados, have helped transform turf lawns in Southern California parks and homes into ocean-friendly gardens, using succulents and other indigenous plants along with hardscape materials like rocks and gravel that increase filtration, conserve water and reduce runoff.
  • Check the rule books. The no-mow movement may sound idyllic, but some practitioners have faced a surprising stumbling block: the law. In one example, Sarah Baker, a homeowner and scion of a family of horticulturalists in St. Albans Township, Ohio, decided to let her turf grass yard grow wild. Last year, she was forced to mow when authorities from her township deemed her garden, which had become a naturalized but well-tended landscape, a nuisance. Sandra Christos of Stone Harbor, New Jersey, said that after she replaced turf grass with native plants, she was delighted that cormorants, night herons and kingfishers made themselves at home alongside "every kind of butterfly you can imagine." But since receiving a letter from the town clerk, Christos has had to tame the mallow, bayberry, clethra and rosa rugosa along her walkway—or pay a fine.

Sarah Baker in her yard.Amanda Mae Taylor

While local ordinances or homeowner association bans have emerged―mostly out of concern over fire safety, rodent control and noxious weeds―they take on aesthetic concerns too, often proscribing grass over eight inches tall, vegetable gardens (especially in planned communities) or any kind of landscaping that deviates from clipped turf.

A recent white paper by students from Yale's forestry and law schools, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, surveyed legal obstacles to various forms of no-mow and concluded that, for sustainable landscaping to achieve wider adoption, some municipalities will need to adjust their policies.

That change can happen if residents push for it. Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, amended its nuisance laws to allow for naturalized lawns after locals made the case that their wild gardens improved air and soil quality and reduced stormwater runoff.

Moving away from water-guzzling and chemical-hungry lawns and cultivating yards that are diverse and self-regulating is a matter of mounting urgency worthy of that kind of community organizing. As global temperatures rise and droughts drag on, the demands of turf grass are likely to become untenable.

"Our existing lawns are going to get thirstier and their water requirements will increase," Osann said.

Fortunately, with an evolving toolkit of sustainable landscaping strategies, home gardeners can avoid such effects and help nurture the health of the planet—right in their own backyards.



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