Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Garden for the Globe

It's Blog Action Day 2009, and this year the theme is global climate change.

A garden blog seems like the perfect venue to talk about going "green" to address global climate change and reducing one's carbon footprint. After all, one can plant a tree to absorb carbon dioxide and photosynthetically transform it into wood and other plant tissue. Problem solved. Right?'s a start.

Think about where to locate that tree. On the south side of a house, a deciduous tree can shade the house in the summer, reducing the costs of keeping the house cool. On the north side, an evergreen can block chilly winter winds, reducing winter heating costs, while a foundation planting of woody shrubs can protect the house as well. Stick with small trees that top out at 20 feet or so, and you might have your trees and solar panels, too. Choose shrubs appropriate for the climate, and you reduce water usage as well. Now we're cooking with gas... er, solar.

Using trees to take up carbon dioxide and cutting heating/cooling costs to reduce carbon output is all good, sure. But solving the global climate change puzzle is going to take a lot more than planting a tree and turning down the thermostat. It's even going to take more that putting up a solar panel and thumbing your nose at the electric company trucks.

What got us into this mess in the first place was the use of fossil fuels to energize an industrial revolution which led to an out-of-control consumption-based economy. Mother Nature took hundreds of thousands of years to put all that petroleum and coal into the ground. Humans have burned up perhaps just shy of half of it in less than 200 years. That's a lot of carbon, all at once. Of course it's going to have an impact.

What have we gotten in return? We have fast transportation, machine-produced goods, labor-saving appliances, hot-and-cold running water, central heating, fresh produce year-around, and all the other former luxuries that we now consider daily necessities and would be loath to give up.

We live in a society grounded in consumption. We haven't always been this way. In the past, people of the US took pride in their productivity. Most people lived on small farms. People cooked, sewed, spun, and knitted. They worked wood, braided rugs, made milk into butter and cheese and apples into pies and cider. In the country, people grew most of the food that they ate. Even in the suburbs, while houses might have a lawn and flower beds in the front, they more often than not had a kitchen garden in the back.

In the mid-20th century, particularly after WWII, American society had a turn-around. After scrimping and saving for two World Wars, after giving up butter and meat, after endless scrap drives, after knitting for the soldiers, people were tired of economizing and were pleased with the message from Madison Avenue: luxury goods! Modern living! Why cook from scratch when you could buy ready-cooked in a can, all the work done for you in (what was presented as) a clean, hygienic factory kitchen? Why be so old-fashioned as to knit or sew when you could buy ready-made?

And so we became consumers instead of producers, happily contributing to an economy that was based on more and more people buying more and more stuff per capita every year. The price for the luxury of buying everything ready-made and on-demand was increased pollution, increased carbon emissions, and depletion of natural resources. Global climate change was the inevitable result, and it's not thousands of years in the future. It's right now.

Our consumer-based economy is neither economically nor ecologically sustainable. We can't keep it up. We must change, and do so before the economy and the ecology collapse irrevocably. We must do so intelligently, thoughtfully, and with care in choosing what kind of economy we can sustain.

And what does this have to do with gardening? Take a peek back at those farms and homes I talked about earlier. What was in the back yard? Yep, the humble kitchen garden. Where were most people living? You got it -- on local farms, supplying people in the area with fresh produce, meat, and eggs.

If global climate change is the demon child of the industrial revolution and the transformation of producers into mass consumers, the way out again is to become producers once again and become more thoughtful consumers. Eating locally is one avenue. Eating locally reduces our reliance on produce shipped from faraway countries, and you can't get much more local than your own back yard. There's also nearby farms and farmer's markets. Buying local not only reduces one's carbon footprint, it also keeps money in your local economy, which keeps local businesses and farms alive and preserves meaningful employment in your area.

Natural landscaping is another avenue. Outside of the kitchen garden, thoughtful choices among native and near-native plants can reduce water consumption, contribute to carbon-sequestering, and support local wildlife. Organic gardening methods put carbon-rich humus in the soil, which increases carbon-sequestering.

Then there is the more cerebral part of organic gardening. As the gardener goes through the seasons, learning from books and by (sometimes hard) experience about which plants to choose, how to care for them, and which pests to watch out for, the gardener connects to the natural world and the rhythms of the seasons. Thoughtful choices in the garden, from which pest control methods to use to which plants to choose, can lead to thoughtful choices outside of the garden. If I don't want to put poisons on my plants, do I want poisons in the household cleaners I use? If I'm concerned about the health of my soil, what about the soil of our nation's farms? What do I care about the latest fashions or must-buy products when I have a harvest of tomatoes and corn to take pride in?

By some religious traditions, humans began life in a garden. With a little effort, maybe it will be gardens that keep us alive as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I eat local because I can...

A long, busy summer has gone by since I last took the time to sit down and garden blog. There's something about the late summer, with the heat and the whole yard drying to a crisp and even the weeds punking out that kind of diminishes garden fever, until the spring catalogs arrive.

This summer I've had lots of landscaping projects in mind, but knowing that we were about to have the roof torn off of our house and reconstructed gave me pause: "Hmm, those guys are paid to demolish and build, they're not paid to tiptoe gently around the tulips." Nope, not at all. And I'm glad, now that construction is underway (pictures to come -- the transformation on our house is astonishing) that I did put off my summer projects. It looks like a mini-tornado has been through. Fortunately the shrubs next to the house are practically indestructible.

Eating local, whether out of the garden, the farmer's market, or nearby farms, has been a common theme this summer, and will continue all winter. I've dried several pints of sun-dried tomatoes, canned whole bushel (42 pints) of peaches from a local farm and 40 pints of pears from a friend's pear tree, and froze 60 pounds of blueberries from a blueberry farm. Oh, lordy, the flavor of home-canned peaches is incomparable. Nectar. Ambrosia. Food of the gods. I'm glad I put up double of what I usually put up, so I don't have to try to make them stretch and can have home-canned fruit salad when I want. Alas, I missed the cherry harvest and didn't get cherries put up. Try again next year.

All those shiny, colorful jars of produce look so nice on the pantry shelf, and give me a smug, self-sufficient feeling. If we're snowed in this winter, we'll certainly have enough fruit to eat. Maybe not a whole lot else, but fruit, yeah, we have it!