Whilst we wait for news of real action on climate from COP, many of us wonder if there’s more we can do on a personal level (and yes I know, you’re probably tired of being told to act on a personal level whilst our techno-optimist government appears to do very little on a policy level and talking about a “gas led recovery”) I’m going to tell you that if you have a garden, you can play a role – more than you may have previously thought.
TL;DR Skip to “What Can I Do?”
At this time of year when our minds turn to barbeques, picnics, time outside in the warmth of a summer’s evening….and the lawn! Gotta go and dump a bunch of fertilizer and herbicide on the lawn and garden to get it all primped and primed for the social season! Before your finger starts twitching toward the mouse to click and collect that synthetic nitrogen and associated pesticides let me tell you, friend, there is another way.
Did you ever wonder that your lawn and garden could play a role in helping fight climate change and in turn, improve your health?
It begins with the soil
What if I told you that the bacteria and fungi in healthy soil will do most of the hard work for you. For FREE! And many of those same bacteria and fungi are the same ones that live in your digestive system and on your skin. They have co-evolved with plants and us animals and act as go-between for plants and soil.
But first, a quick lesson on something called the Soil Food Web: Here is a great 5 minute video explaining the process by the person who coined the term “Soil Food Web”, Dr Elaine Ingham
As far as we understand the Soil Food Web works like this: When plants photosynthesise, in addition to peeling the carbon atom off the CO2, store some carbon in roots and limbs and they use the rest of the carbon to produce exudates (literally 1000s of different combinations of carbohydrates and proteins) that they exchange with the bacteria and fungi in the rhizosphere (root zone populated by these symbiotic bacteria and fungi). These bacteria and fungi break down the soil’s mineral content (the sands, silks and clays of the parent material from which the soil was formed from and on) and the organic content (dead stuff) in the soil into plant available nutrients. These bacteria and fungi are in turn predated upon by protozoa and nematodes who are in turn predated upon by earthworms and arthropods. Each time a predation occurs there is a release of plant available nitrogen and other nutrients (Also, each new organism is more carbon drawn down.)
The Wood Wide Web
Another cool thing which you may have heard about is that some of these fungi create huge networks between each other and the plants and trees. Some call this the “Wood Wide Web” as it is a bit like an underground internet. Trees are able to communicate with each other via chemical signals and share resources, all mediated by fungi. Scientists are still trying to understand how fungi are able to exchange chemicals in one direction and water in the other at the same time. It’s mind boggling. Check out the amazing documentary, Fantastic Fungi on Netflix for more on this.
Some of these bacteria and fungi play a vital role in terms of your mental and physical well being via something called the Gut-Brain Axis. As mammals, we have co-evolved with these bacteria for millenia (known to scientists as “Old Friends”). They are discovering some very interesting ways in which these interact with our immune system and play a role in our likelihood to develop autoimmune diseases and modulate our mental wellbeing. I also suspect glyphosate has a deleterious role to play here as it is used literally everywhere in food production – such as a preharvest spray on grain crops (kill food crops uniformly prior to harvest so everything is dead at the same time) these grains and legumes which we then either feed to our meat animals or production animals such as egg producing chickens … does this strike you as a bad idea? We also spray loads of it around our gardens and …schools. Last week I saw a lady spraying a tiny weed in the gutter!
We are told by the likes of Monsanto/Bayer that glyphosate doesn’t affect us humans, because we are animals and the shikimate pathway (the means by which glyphosate works) is only used by “bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae, some protozoans, and plants…This pathway is not found in animal cells”. But remember those “Old Friends” in and on us? What are they? That’s right, they are bacteria, protists and fungi! And what are those guys in the Soil Food Web? Yes, those plus archaea, algae and all those other organisms… what do they have inside them? You guessed it: fungi, bacteria, protists, archaea… There are plenty of studies in prestigious journals such as Nature pointing to alarming studies like this finding:
“Glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) can disrupt the host microbiota and influence human health.”
Yeah but, my lawn and garden, dude?
Pssst! Want to hear a dirty secret?
That chemical nitrogen you are using on your lawn has a few very dark secrets: only about 30% of applied chemical nitrogen is taken up by the plant – the rest is going into the waterways causing eutrophication, ie deadzones in rivers and the oceans. When applied to our gardens and lawns (and crops) it is broken down by bacteria and released to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a really bad greenhouse gas about 100 x worse than CO2 and it stays in the atmosphere for around 100 years.
“…the production and use of synthetic N fertiliser accounts for 2.4% of global emissions, making it one of the top climate polluting industrial chemicals”
according to a new report from the IATP – and nobody else is talking about it. Did you hear anyone at COP talking about it? Nah-uh! They were, however, talking about methane which is better than not talking about it but I wonder if that is the influence of the tech sector and their rush towards fossil fuel and synthetic nitrogen hungry lab-meat “alt protein”.
Chemical nitrogen also interferes with our “Old Friends” in the soil in another couple of ways. It cuts them out of the transaction between the plants doing their job of fetching organic nitrogen and other nutrients so these microbes go to sleep or die and it burns the carbon out of the soil. This destroys the soil’s structure making the soil collapse and become anaerobic. (no oxygen). All the good/beneficial bacteria are aerobes – they thrive in an oxygen rich environment (good soil is about 25% air.) As I mentioned earlier, these bacteria when present in the right balance will feed your plants what they need when they need it but also they will actively “outcompete, consume or inhibit” soil and plant pathogens. When we burn out the soil carbon we remove much of the sponge like quality of the soil so you get erosion and the need for more water. Cruelly, synthetic N is a salt so guess what, you get an increase in salinity for your troubles. (Plants don’t do well with salt, BTW.)
Is your lawn and garden addicted to fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals?
To summarise, the organisms that were doing all this amazing work literally for shit (because that’s the stuff plants have co-evolved with, animal poop) have been sent packing or killed and your plant (the lawn) has become a drug addict. It is dependant upon the fertiliser you deliver. You have become what ecologists quaintly call a “more-on gardener”. You must put on more and more synthetic nitrogen to get the same results. When you forget to water, it really suffers because there is no fungi in the soil to exchange sugars for water in times of need. Weeds with their long roots spot the imbalance and the free nitrogen and pounce. It becomes the domain of anaerobes and pathogens.
My friends, there is a better way.
In environmental circles lawns are seen as a relic of a very strange part of history. The early industrial revolution. A period when the European landed gentry and bloated industrialists would surround their stately manor house with neatly mown expanses of grass –”Look at me and my wealth and my majestic house- I can afford to grow grass, not have peasants toil in my fields and grow vegetables!”. The concept has spread throughout the world and is now a symbol of pride, of status and of belonging. They are of course a completely artificial construct and cannot exist in nature. It is estimated that there are roughly 18 million acres of lawn in the US. Or, 2% of land in the continental US. Sorry, all the stats are American but as we all know, what happens in the USA, Australia follows very soon after.
Maintaining a monoculture has in the past relied on irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides to preserve their appearance. HOWEVER there is a good aspect – if managed in a more thoughtful manner, some say they can be a carbon sink. In much the same way as thoughtfully managed grasslands can be. Here is a primer on grassland ecology if you care to look into it.
According to Project Drawdown: Improved grazing can be very good for the land and sequester from one-half to three tons of carbon per acre.
Basically we can graze our lawns better. Better? You didn’t know you were grazing them in the first place?! You don’t have any cows in my garden so how can you graze and sequester carbon? You probably have the closest thing to a ruminant which is the combination of a lawn mower and a compost bin. A lawnmower is a grazing machine. (Albeit not a perfect one). It doesn’t wee or poop fertiliser but it does the first part well – mostly too well. By this I mean TOO CLOSE. We mostly mow too short which allows the sun better access to the space below the leaves, where the weed seeds are waiting for their chance to germinate. Once they germinate under a very short lawn they are up and off to the races whilst your poor lawn is recovering from being cut so short. The roots of the grass have just dumped a whole bunch of exudates in order to stimulate the bacteria and fungi to go and get more food so it can recover. The weeds just jump up and put their leaves on top and start making flowers before you need to mow again. Also the lawn is now needing more water as you have removed their moisture retention blanket so you water and the weeds – if you listen carefully – are cheering your generosity!
Why have I written this? Do I want to look after your lawn? No. Do I want you to be healthy? Yes. Do I want your soil to be healthy? Yes. Do I want your lawn and garden to draw down carbon? Absoil-freaking-lutely!
Soil by Matthew Evans
For The Love of Soil by Nicole Masters
For Dr Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web School go here
Stats:https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/Lawn/lawn3.php lawns a carbon sink
Like a lot of gardeners, at our Forestville (urban) Farm, before we had Steve’s landscape design, we had several failed attempts at designing and building vegetable beds to grow nutritious food. Our first attempt came after our neighbours demolished their original 1950s house, including the hard wood timber studs, and then (very generously, thanks Jansons!) gave us a whole lot of hard wood timber beams, which we recycled into three vegetable beds.
Our suburban property is on sloping land, so the three beds had to be dug into the ground on one side. This meant our beds (which even though we had lined with plastic) still eventually became overwhelmed with grass runners on all sides (a mix of exotic grasses Kikuyu, Queensland Blue Couch and Buffalo grass), and the hardwood timber started to rot in the ground. It was a mess. Big fail.
We also have a lot of local wildlife (which we love), as our home is surrounded to the north by bushland of the Garigal National Park and to the south by Middle Harbour. We have two resident possums, one a Brushtail and the other a Ringtail, large flocks of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, two pet rabbits, Lulu and Thumper and four chickens, The Kransky Sisters, as well as the expected caterpillars, slugs and many more, so we have a lot of creatures competing with us for our vegetables.
Fast forward a few years to 2020 during the Coronavirus pandemic, Steve’s landscape design had been constructed and part of our land was now level. We needed an affordable and low maintenance vegetable bed (I had been put on the government Job Keeper wage subsidy by my employer and we have two primary school-aged kids, so are a wee bit time-poor) plus we needed a system that could be protected from local wildlife.
Steve chose the Vegepod system. The landscape design needed a system that could coexist with our chickens within a chicken run, to save space.
In Steve’s design, the three Vegepods provide shade and shelter for our chickens as Steve chose to install them on stands, to create space for our chickens beneath the beds. Win win! The only veggies The Kransky Sisters can reach are those that we occasionally let slip out of the lid (and they get devoured!)
Our back garden faces west, so another part of Steve’s design (and one other thing we had learnt from our failed first attempt at veggie beds), was to construct the three beds at different heights, facing north, so the bed closest to the northern boundary had the shortest legs and the bed closest to the southern boundary had the tallest legs. This meant the beds didn’t shade each other out, maximising sunlight to our veggies.
The first step during construction was to measure the Vegepod legs to the correct heights and cut them using an angle grinder.
Then Steve constructed the Vegepod bed frame, attaching the cut legs to the frame using bolts.
After cutting the legs, the raw steel was exposed (without the powder coating).
To make sure the legs didn’t rust over time, Steve painted the exposed edge with rust-proof paint.
Little leg feet are part of the Vegepod system, so they were put on the legs and then the beds could be constructed and put on top of the frame.
The last step in construction was to place the drain trays inside the beds, which keeps the growing medium or soil away from the water reservoir.
And voila! We had three raised wicking veggie beds ready to be planted.
Make sure you use the best quality potting mix you can afford, as well as one quarter perlite (Steve followed the Vegepod instructions), but also added a compost bin full of rich homemade compost, to really kick start the biology of our veggie beds.
Every household is different of course, but in our household, we have our resident food nerd, Steve Willis, who devised a planting plan with a mixture of Brassicas (Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts and three different varieties of Cabbage), Endive, Celery, Lettuce varieties (Cos and Coral), Swiss Chard, Rainbow Chard, two varieties of Carrots, Leeks, two varieties of Beetroot and Garlic.
Nom, nom, nom!
Once the seeds and seedlings were planted, Steve covered each bed with sugar cane mulch.
Steve finished constructing and planting the veggies by May 30 2020 (yes, a bit late, we know, we had only just finished the landscape construction). After about three or four weeks, we started harvesting (gently) from the lettuces. After about eight weeks, we started harvesting from the Swiss Chard. The photo below was taken on August 2 2020, after nine weeks and you can see the beds are now in full flight.
Having made many attempts at growing veggies in many different community gardens as well as our Forestville Farm, the Vegepod system is the bomb. The veggie bed covers stop pests, extreme weather events (like the high winds and heavy rains we had recently in Sydney), which accelerates the growing season and plant growth.
Because there’s a wicking reservoir at the base of the beds, it’s self-watering and really low maintenance. Our veggies look like superhero veggies with abs of steel and they taste amazing. Our five year old daughter never eats greens but when Steve served up a salad of our home grown Cos lettuce, she devoured it saying “come on Henry, you’ve got to eat your greens” as if she was a seasoned eater of veggies!
This isn’t usually the sort of item I would consider using in a build (too heavy, nearly impossible to move and have uneven bases a lot of the time) but it was there on the roof/balcony and it was part of Tim’s vision for the garden to use the double concrete basin as a bed for mint and cress. Besides, you see these things all over the place, right? So best we find a way of making them even more useful as a planter.
As previously blogged I am using wicking beds for this job because regular watering will be a challenge for the busy staff and budget is tight (ruling out automatic irrigation.)
So making a Sub-Irrigated Planter (S.I.P.) out of a concrete container. No worries, easy right? Remember for a S.I.P. you need a drainage hole at the level just below the soil. And also remember this is a concrete basin… Now seeing as I like to do things the easy way I decided to use the sink hole as the drainage and not have to drill through concrete – but how to make it drain from the level just below the soil at the top of the reservoir? You guessed it, whack a tube over the sinkhole!
What you will need:
Here’s how I did it:
Position your base for the tub. I used a shipping pallet to accommodate the uneven base of the tub. Use your favourite search engine to look up who sells used ones in your area or just find one that someone has left lying about someplace.
Call a couple of mates to help you lift the heavy tub into place.
Position the tub on your chosen surface ensuring it will drain from the base freely
Cut a couple of lengths of PVC drainpipe. They need to be a diameter wide enough to cover the sinkhole.
Shape the end of the tube that will cover the sinkhole so that when you look down the tube, there isn’t much light coming in at the base. (Don’t worry about making it perfect as you can just add more glue at the glue step.)
Sand the area of the tube that will come into contact with the adhesive (or if you want, spend the money they suggest and buy the PVC primer and apply it – I didn’t bother)
Figure out the depth of your reservoir layer then mark just below that level on your tube/s and drill several holes around the tube/s.
Make sure you have swept the area around the sinkhole so no particles of dust or dirt remain. I brushed it thoroughly then flushed it with water before I began so it would have time to dry.
Apply the glue around the sinkhole. I used Sikaflex f11, an adhesive suitable for potable water that works on concrete and most other surfaces. Remember you want to not only stick the tubes securely but also seal the sinkhole so no water drains out. Again look down the inside of the tube to see if any light is coming in. Use a cloth or paper towel to smooth the glue around the tube and ensure a complete seal.
Prepare the watering tube/s. I didn’t actually use any for this tank as you will see from the pics but if you want to add them, now is the time. Cut them the desired length (same as the other pipes), drill a few holes near the bottom then place them in the tub. Depending on the type of adhesive, you will need to leave it to set. I left mine for a few days as I had other stuff to do.
Assemble the reservoir using your chosen media. I used a collection of waste items from the restaurant (mainly milk bottles) and then some gravel to top it off but you could use gravel on its own, sand, expanded terracotta beads (which are good as they are round so create space between the beads for the water) or basically whatever will hold the weight of the soil layer up out of the reservoir layer. Level it all off.
Add the separation layer. I used shade cloth but again as previously mentioned in this blog, you could use hessian sack, straw or anything porous, some choose not to use a separation layer at all. The function of this layer is to separate (probably why it’s called the separation layer) the water reservoir from the growth media so the plants don’t get soggy feet and end up with root rot). Layer the material over the tubs and trace the area you will need to cut and mark where the drain pipes are. Cut an “X” to accommodate the tubes and cover the drain holes with the flaps you made with the “X”.
Add your growing media. I started with potting mix, then a layer of shredded newspaper, then potting mix again, then compost, cow manure then lucerne mulch.
Now plant it out and make yourself a cuppa then stand there looking at it with a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Ahhh!