The Case for Gardening as a Means to Curb Climate Change

Raising-Elijah-Steingraber-Sandra-9780738213996.jpg I am quite possibly the world's worst gardener. I would like to blame my yard for this. It's full of shade, and the shade comes from walnut trees, which, as any gardener worth her salt can tell you, exude from their roots a substance called juglone, whose job it is to take out the competition by wilting the neighbors. So, my garden now has raised beds. These are supposed to help keep the tender roots of the garden plants away from the death-peddling juglone below. Of course, the problem of the shade remains. But I am a new gardener, and I am determined to keep at it. So far, I have grown impressive crops of mint, parsley, and lettuce. I once harvested enough peas to feed all four of us. One meal. As a small side dish.

I am upstaged in the gardening department by my own compost pile. All kinds of things take root in it. Two years ago, some member of the squash family -- possibly a cross-pollinated wild hybrid of some kind -- planted its seedling flag atop the steamy, south-facing slope and began to grow. Soon, its stickle-backed leaves were the size of placemats, and they were attached to a stem as thick as a child's wrist. When it started to climb the sides of the bin and spill over the top, blooming wildly with crepe-y orange flowers and shivering with bees, Elijah became so terrified that he bribed Faith into taking over his every-other-night compost-toting duty.

Elijah, you are scared of a squash vine?

It tried to grab me. I am NOT kidding. Please! You can have all my allowance.

When we came home from a camping trip, Elijah ran into the backyard to check on the compost predator.

Mom, come and look! It turned into a balloon tree!

And so it had. Grabbing hold of a tree trunk next to the bin, the vine had climbed a small maple and entirely covered it. Its flowers had become fruits -- deep green globes, each the size of a party balloon. And so we had squashes -- or something -- dangling above our heads. They tasted good. I sautéed them with garlic and basil, grated them up for soup stock, added them to muffins and pasta sauce, and, in one form or another, we ate them all winter.

If only my garden were half as prolific. To be sure, I'm mostly slumming when I'm working in it. Because our CSA farm is only a half-mile away -- and its hoop houses, hen houses, and root cellars provide us eggs and produce year-round -- I have the luxury of leaving the serious crop production to the experts and can still carry into my kitchen (via bicycle or sled) locally grown food, burning no carbon to do it.

It's likely that your garden will produce a much bigger fraction of your groceries than mine and thus save fossil fuels twice over -- first, in the form of long-distance, refrigerated produce transportation and, second, in local trips to bring the food from market to kitchen. Regardless, the real climate value of the garden lies in three other places. The first is in building skills. If our children are going to grow up in a world of increasing environmental instability and declining oil reserves -- and they are -- it seems useful for them to know a few things about potatoes.

The second is in preserving the genetic diversity of seeds. In an unpredictable climate, we need as many varieties of as many fruits, grains, and vegetables as possible -- the drought-resistant ones, the mildew-resistant ones, the early-blooming and late-blooming kinds. Big commercial seed companies are, for the most part, not interested in the rare, the peculiar, and the untruckable. As a result, many traditional varieties are now on the edge of extinction. But gardens can function as living archives of genetic diversity, especially when backyard gardeners become seed savers. With almost no extra effort on your part, your garden can feed your family while also doubling as a gene bank.

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Sandra Steingraber is a biologist and author. She writes and lectures on the environmental factors that contribute to reproductive health problems and environmental links to cancer.

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