Concerned Scientists Get Gardening Right


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Good news!  The Union of Concerned Scientist has weighed in with a Guide to Climate-Friendly Gardening [pdf] and it's terrific.  Author Karen Perry Stillerman knows that gardeners are already in tune with nature and contributing positively to the environment.  Her guide helps us go beyond adapting to climate change to actually reducing the problem – by making sure our gardens are storing more heat-trapping gasses than they're generating.

Here's how: 

1. Minimize the use of herbicides and carbon-emitting products and devices (synthetic fertilizers, gas-powered tools, and overfertilization, both organic and synthetic).

2. Keep soil covered.

3. Plant trees and shrubs, especially long-lived ones and trees that shade our homes.

4. Make compost rather than adding to methane-emitting landfills.

5. "Rethink the lawn" – which begins a surprisingly complicated discussion of both the good and the bad about lawn.  First, lawns clearly store lots of carbon, but there's new research showing that when they're well watered and fertilized, they also emit nitrous oxide.  So the jury's still out but in the meantime, leave clippings in place, mow high, and use minimal amounts of fertilizer and water.

All very sensible, and I especially appreciate the balanced assessment of lawn and the admission that we don't yet know enough about it.  By phone I got a chance to ask Stillerman where to find the best research aimed at solving the many lawn issues, and she cited Cornell, Colorado State and several places in Australia.

I then asked if the Scientists might also be planning to address water conservation and Stillerman answered that climate change practices generally match water-saving practices.  And now that she mentions it, they DO.  Interesting, and oh so helpful for us earnest liberal arts majors trying to figure it all out.

I was also curious where she came down on the issue of peat – a product we're
being told to avoid with increasing frequency – and she agrees with the anti-peat crowd.  Even if it could be harvested "sustainably" (whatever that means), the very harvesting of peat releases greenhouse gasses.

Long-time readers may recall less favorable reviews of another guide on this topic – by the National Wildlife Federation.  No need to rehash our objections here, just to say what a relief this more objective guide was to read. 

Help Spread the Word
The Concerned Scientists are sending the guide to everyone who can possibly help spread the word – garden writers and bloggers, Extension Services, Master Gardener groups, garden clubs, even the nursery and garden-center industry.  If you have any suggestions at all for publicizing this excellent product, just leave a comment here coz they'll be reading.


  1. Point no. 3 is especially close to my heart. With the energy-sapping HOT summers we’ve been having lately, Mumbai is also missing a major part of its shade trees. I wish we had more trees here. Wide-canopied fruit trees would be ideal. But I’ll settle for just the wide canopy if nothing else.

  2. Point #3 can be improved. It should say plant DECIDUOUS trees by your home. Shade is important in the summer, just as sun is important in the winter. That’ll cut your cooling and heating needs.

  3. Susan, I agree with you. This is a comprehensive, but fair and balanced look at our gardening practices. I will spread the word.

    It’s not just individuals who can have an effect, but also the municipalities. I was in St. Petersburg, FL for their 24th annual Green Thumb Festival last weekend and was impressed with how involved the city is in helping their citizens be greener. The city gave away 500 perennial butterfly plants on each day and sold a good selection of native trees for $3 each. They also had a booth where you could get your tools sharpened and the master gardeners ran a plant clinic where folks could bring in plants for ID or ailing plants for advice. There were speakers on both days who covered a wide range of topics and the 100s of door prizes were given away before and after each speaker. There must have been 15,000 people there. What a way to educate and generate excitement on green issues.

  4. I think Point 4 – make your own compost is best of all, though hardest to change habit-wise – It is someting that generally does not occur to Mr. Average Joe Homeowner. He may leave his grass clippings on the lawn, but save a banana peel or egg shell from the trash to take our later to add to the compost bin? Likely not. We need more folks in mainstream media modeling this behaviour. I’d like to see a basketball star or sitcom actor do this on camera as if it was second nature. Not make a big deal over it, just casually go through the steps as he is talking about something else.

  5. Kathy J., I hear you! My grandkids set me up with a wormbox over a year ago, which sits in a cool dark corner off of my kitchen, and nearly all of my kitchen scraps go in there now, becoming lovely soil and food for worms, both of which every so often get transferred to my garden. It’s so easy to do, not yucky at all (and easier than having to take out the trash, really). We are now at the point of deciding to cancel our garbage service, we have so little garbage. If kids learned about wormboxes and “kitchen composting” in school, as a science project maybe, we might make it commonplace in a decade or so. This is what happened with recycling, with many school recycling projects starting off in the 70’s, and now recycling is considered “normal” in most households, and a part of community life.

  6. I am in complete agreement with suggestion # 3 – Planting trees and shrubs.

    My guess is the overall balance approach is important to take good care of our gardens.

    Jay Chua

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