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Garden carbon footprint

How to Get Ready for Summer Gardening Early in the Year

Ashley Robinson
March 8, 2024

It’s not too early to start thinking about summer gardening plans! But if recent headlines about the high carbon footprint of backyard gardening have you a little spooked about the impact of gardening, don’t despair: you can still have a bountiful and low-impact garden with some planning and attention. So what can you do in February and March to set yourself up for success? Let’s get into it!

Why is Everyone Panicking About Gardening and Carbon Emissions?

A recent study from the University of Michigan made headlines by finding that produce grown in urban farms and gardens has a carbon footprint six times higher than conventionally grown produce, which understandably caused a bit of controversy among gardeners!

Despite some sensationalist headlines, the takeaway from the researchers wasn’t to tell people to stop gardening, but instead, to understand the impact and make a few adjustments to how we garden to make sure we’re limiting our impact as much as possible.

The researchers identified a few main areas where small gardeners and urban farmers often have a higher impact than commercial agriculture:

Irrigation: how much water is used and where it comes from.

Infrastructure: materials like raised beds, garden pathways and fences.

Supplies: soil, compost, seedlings, fertilizer, and fuel for machinery.

The reason infrastructure takes an environmental toll in small-scale growing is simply that gardens and the materials they consume to set up aren’t used for very long before they’re abandoned or trashed. Say someone builds raised beds, a new patio, and buys a bunch of pots and planters only to use them for a year or two. All those pieces took energy and resources to create, so that’s a big impact!

Supplies also generate emissions for small gardeners because they’re not set up for efficiency in the way commercial farms are. A commercial farm likely sprouts their own seedlings on site, composts their waste back into soil, and uses machinery that generates huge output of produce. A single gardener, on the other hand, probably buys seedlings, compost, and soil that have been shipped from somewhere else, in plastic containers that might not get reused, and compared to the commercial farm, they’re just not generating as much produce for the energy used.

In terms of irrigation, commercial farms are more equipped to water efficiently because that’s such a big part of their cost and the health of their farms. Home gardeners may not know how much water garden beds actually need, or how to set up beds to retain moisture, or how to capture rainfall for irrigation, so home gardening can use quite a lot of water.

All that said, don’t be discouraged! The researchers in the study point out that small gardens and urban farms have a huge social and community health impact, and it’s well-studied that gardening is good for mental and physical health.  So, if you want to have a garden, absolutely do it. Just keep these potential areas of impact in mind while you plan your garden!

The First Step: Research and Plan

The first step to a successful and sustainable garden is to research and make a plan for planting. Speaking from way too much experience, waiting until May and going to the garden store with no plan at all is an excellent way to waste money, overcrowd your beds, plant seedlings in the wrong conditions, and generally have a chaotic garden.

So where to start? First, check your hardiness zone. The USDA generates a map every year to help growers understand their climate and what plants are most likely to succeed based on that climate. They’ve recently updated the way they calculate these zones, so definitely look into it!

Once you know your zone, you can research and choose plants based on that information. Some other factors to consider in choosing plants:

How likely you are to use your garden produce? If you find yourself with way more zucchini than you could possibly want every year, maybe pick a different vegetable, or find one that you’re likely to preserve.

What plants support pollinators in your area? Especially when you’re choosing flowers, finding native plants that birds and bees love is a great way to support the local ecosystem.

How much maintenance and energy do you want to put into the garden? Some plants grow almost in spite of the gardener, while some require a lot more maintenance.

There are lots of great resources that delve more deeply into how to plan a garden, but no matter how you do it, try to have a vision before the season starts!

The Next Step: Gather Your Supplies and Infrastructure

Even if it’s too cold to start working outside, now is a great time to get your garden infrastructure and supplies ready, especially if you’re trying to limit the environmental impact.

Once you have your garden plan, you can order and start your seeds. Starting your own seedlings offers a lot of benefits over buying at the store. First, you can get much more interesting heirloom varieties of plants if you order seeds. Second, it’s usually significantly cheaper than buying seedlings! Third, the emissions toll of shipping dry seeds is significantly less than fresh plants in plastic. And there are lots of ways you can upcycle items from your house to start seeds on the cheap!

Now is a good time to research local sources for compost and soil. Sourcing these locally limits emissions from shipping and packaging, so it makes a big difference. Community gardens, small farmers, or even waste management organizations may have resources to source local compost and soil. And if you have the space and time, you could even consider starting your own composting system.

When building out your garden infrastructure, look into upcycling materials for the beds, planters, and paths as much as you can. Most of the time, second-hand is best when it comes to emissions and budget! Thinking about this early in the season will help you know how much space you’ll have for plants, and you’ll have time to find second-hand resources instead of buying new.

And lastly, do a little research into your watering system. Depending on where you live, a rain barrel might be a good option to help save water in the garden. And if you’re working with large beds, look into drip irrigation—it’s a lot more efficient and a lot less work in the long run!

The Last Step: Build Your Community

One of the best ways to have a beautiful, productive, and low-impact garden is to connect with your local community of gardeners. This can be local gardening groups, community gardens, urban farms, or just your neighbors. By building a network of fellow growers, you can save money, share resources, and create some real good for the community.

Even with the USDA zone information, little microclimates exist all over the place, so local gardeners are often the best resource for learning what plants do well in your neighborhood. In addition to this knowledge, almost every long-time gardener has extra pots and supplies that they’d be happy to donate, so ask around to see if you can get some second-hand gardening supplies!

If you’re looking to start your own seeds, having a community of other gardeners is a big bonus. A lot of local libraries have seed libraries where you can drop your extra seeds and pick up some others for free. And once planting season starts, connecting with other local growers is a great way to share extra seedlings.

And lastly, when you’re in the peak of summer and find yourself with an overabundance of produce, being linked into a good community network can help you share the wealth and make sure that produce doesn’t go to waste. Long-time gardeners probably have some great tips about preserving and using the produce that you’ve worked so hard to grow, and sharing produce is a great way to bring a community together.

Even though summer feels far away, it’s not too early to start planning for your garden. By focusing on reusing materials, sourcing locally, and sharing resources with your neighbors, you can build a vibrant and sustainable garden, and build some great community along the way!

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