At the last Garden Club meeting, we had a lively discussion of sustainability in gardening. Generally, gardeners like to think of themselves as ecologically conscientious and contributing to the natural balance of the earth. Our plants sequester carbon and exhale oxygen. Deciduous trees shade us from summer sun but let the winter sun shine through.
But let’s not pat ourselves on our backs too soon. There is much room for improvement. For example, a lot of our plants are trucked in from distant wholesale nurseries. Until electric trucks are feasible, that means carbon emissions. Well, at least seeds don’t weigh much or take up a lot of space, so their carbon footprint is smaller. (And seed catalog season is almost upon us!) Of course, not everyone has the time or facilities for seed saving and starting. For those people, there are local options for starts grown from seed: Ladybug Nursery, Friday Night Market, the Garden Club plant sale in some years, and seedling sales through Point-e Post and NextDoor.
If you must pay for something more advanced in growth, then at least consider less bulky heavy plants like young or bare-root plants. And don’t forget to clean and store any plastic pots they come in, since there are no close recycling facilities for them.
Another sustainability challenge lies in soil improvement. Most gardeners here need to add organic matter, whether it is to enrich our dominantly sandy earth or aerate the pockets of clay in some areas. For decades, gardeners have added peat moss to incorporate organic matter. However, the world is running out of harvestable peat bogs, which also happen to be important for maintaining atmospheric health. If you look at satellite photographs of Delta’s Burns Bog, you can see the scars left from 20th century peat mining. Happily, the ‘lungs of the lower mainland’ are now protected. Of course, that means that Point Roberts gardeners using peat moss are having their peat trucked in from Quebec and other distant areas.
The solution? One is using coir or coco peat, the shredded fibers of fast-growing coconuts. Better than peat, but needless to say imported from distant climes on fuel-burning vessels.
A more sustainable option is using the organic matter your household and garden already generate. Unless diseased or noxious, don’t let organic matter leave your property. Mulching mowers deposit finely cut grass back into the lawn. Vegetable scraps and fine garden waste can be composted. (Garden Club: perhaps time for another community composting workshop?)
For small lots with little space for big compost bins, I’ve heard about worm composting, digesters and the Bokashi method of composting. These break down organic matter into useable compost. Although designed primarily to deal with kitchen waste, I assume that they can handle the small amounts of yard waste that a tiny garden would produce.
Gardeners generally find woody prunings and storm litter more challenging. Some of it can be left where it fell – nature’s own sustainability. That’s even the current ecology advice: Leave as much yard waste as possible until at least spring gardening cleanup. However, we all know that’s not always feasible. If you have the space, brown yard waste can be piled in an out of the way spot. However, a major caution is that you do not want to have heaps of wood that could pose a wild fire hazard.
An ideal solution in my opinion is a chipper or chipper/shredder, although the small machines designed for home rather than arborist use can’t handle large limbs. Each model will have its own limitations, so research what you buy carefully. Gas-fuelled ones can usually handle fatter branches, but I recommend electric ones. They are more sustainable and quieter than gas machines, and seem to be less prone to dangerous kick-back and temperamental fits. You just have to be patient feeding small branches or handfuls of leaves into their openings. But what else is there to do in the winter garden? And what do you get in return from a chipper or chipper/shredder? Great stuff! Wood and leaf mulch that you didn’t have to buy! And it didn’t need to be trucked in from elsewhere by polluting trucks! How cool is that?
You might still have large branches to deal with. Sometimes they can be left in place, moved to a small brush pile or incorporated into the garden. Alders of a certain diameter can be used to grow mushrooms, although I personally have had little success with this.
If you have a wood-burning stove, barbeque or fire pit – or a friend who does – and really no place to leave the branches, your best bet is to invest in a chainsaw, cut the branches to size, and set them aside to season. Wood ash can even be returned to the garden.
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