Gardening season is fast approaching. For some of us it is already here. For those of you lucky enough to live somewhere tropical, it has never left. Regardless of the geographic region you garden within, it is safe to say that growing plants is one of the most satisfying activities in which we can partake. In many ways its quite simple. You put seeds in dirt and plants grow.
In plenty of other ways, it can be a very complex process. You must balance fertilizers, build and amend soils, and negotiate the complexities that individual plants need.
I personally find no greater joy than sowing seeds and watching them germinate and grow. It amazes me to know that all the information contained in a tiny little seed can build a head of lettuce, or a native columbine. There is something spectacular about taking an acorn you found buried in your gutter and watching it grow into a little tree that may outlive me by hundreds of years.
Even when winter rears its dreary head and outdoor plants are going dormant, I still find ways to garden indoors. I have amassed quite the collection of tropical houseplants that I must dote over every day. From begonias to orchids and even the occasional arum, houseplants keep me quite preoccupied.
With all this attention paid to growing the best looking, best tasting, and most interesting plants I can get my hands on, it was only a matter of time before I started reflecting on this obsession on a deeper level. The most important thing I took away from my days as an undergraduate was how to analyze my carbon footprint.
I can get rather anxious about exactly how I spend my days on this planet and I aim to make minimize the brunt of my existence. Sure, I love my creature comforts but at the very least I want to do what I can to give back to the planet I love so very much (or at least sleep a bit better).
A few years back I decided to turn my eye to my gardening practices and figure out how I could ensure sustainability. I had always thought that my horticultural pursuits were a rather guilt-free way of preoccupying my down time. That's when I learned some dirty little secrets.
Actually, they weren't little secrets, they were pretty big ones. Not only was I contributing to the destruction of some wonderfully diverse and sensitive habitats, I was also contributing to a industries that threaten coastal communities and release a staggering amount of carbon into our atmosphere.
Luckily for me, there are some fantastic people out there who were able to guide me in the right direction and help me get my hobby back on much more sustainable tracks. As such, this piece is a call to action to kick two common gardening supplies that are doing serious harm to some very important habitats.
I had never thought of where peat comes from. Never ever. In fact, for most of my early years, I never thought there was an alternative to using the stuff. Its brown, its fluffy, and it smells lovely. Take a close look at it and you will realize that its not made of the same stuff as the soil in your yard. Peat is actually made up of tiny bits and pieces of plants. It lacks the minerals and clays of more traditional soils.
Peat is a natural product. It forms in unique habitats called bogs (other names for bogs include mire, quagmire, and muskeg). Bogs form as one or several species of moss in the genus Sphagnum form a living mat over a body of water. Over time, this mat grows thicker and begins to close over. The resulting effect is kind of like a giant mossy waterbed.
For reasons I don't need to go into here, bogs are very acidic environments and microbial life becomes quite diminished. Because of this, things that fall into bogs don't decompose very fast. Over time, this results in a thick accumulation of plant and other living materials. This material becomes peat.
The acidic environment also creates a unique habitat for plants and animals. Many of our favorite carnivorous plants such as sundews and pitcher plants call bogs home. An endless variety of other plants species grow there as well including but not limited to orchids, cranberries, myrtles, heaths, and ferns. Bogs are very rich in botanical diversity and because of this, quite rich in biodiversity overall. Bogs are important breeding habitats for many different species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.
Their importance doesn't end there either. At a global scale, peatlands constitute some of the largest carbon stores on our planet. Because things don't break down in bogs, the carbon locked up in each and every cell remains locked away for thousands and thousands of years. That is why we can find the exquisitely preserved remains of organisms like wooly mammoths that have been extinct for over 10,000 years.
It is estimated that peatlands contain somewhere around 30% of the world's soil carbon despite the fact that they represent only about 3% of the land area. That is pretty impressive. It is also one of the main reasons peat is such a cruddy product.
You see, we don't grow bogs for our peat. Instead, we mine them. We mine them not unlike we mine sand and gravel. Harvesting peat is nothing new. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years as a source of fuel. However, the industrial mining of peat is new and it is happening at an alarming rate.
Using heavy machinery, the peat industry sets to work draining and digging up bogs. The peat is then dried, bagged, and sold at gardens and nurseries all over the world. The peat industry likes to claim that peat is a renewable product, however, it simply is not.
As mentioned before, bogs form over thousands of years through some very complex climatic and geological processes. What's more they are home to countless species that, for the most part, cannot live in other habitats. When a bog is drained and mined for peat, it does not revert back to its natural state, not even with mitigation. More often they become stagnant ponds with a mere fraction of the biodiversity they once had.
The good news is that there are plenty of alternatives. The best option we have as gardeners is compost. There really is no substitute to good quality compost. We produce so much food waste every day that it may be hard to compost it quick enough. Rich, clean compost is full of nutrients and, with a handful of easy amendments, makes for some excellent soil.
Though not perfect, coconut coir is another great soil amendment you can use. You just have to make sure to wash it good to get rid of damaging salts. More and more there are peatless options being offered in garden centers and nurseries. Peat will be for sale as long as people keep buying it. Lessen the demand, lessen the mining, and save some incredibly important habitat.
There was a time when cypress mulch could live up to the hype of being durable and insect repellent, however, those days are long behind us. We lost those properties when we lost the millions of acres of old growth cypress swamps that once covered the southeastern United States. We lost them, of course, to logging. These once rich habitats were devastated over the last century and a half and with them we lost incredible species like the ivory billed woodpecker.
Today, mulch companies have resorted to cutting and mulching second and third growth stands of trees. The young age of these trees means they haven't had the time to accumulate the protective compounds in their wood that once gave their great grandparents incredible rot and insect resistance. They simply don't exist in any abundance in younger trees.
To make matters worse, cypress swamps don't recover like other forests. The key to this distress lies in their germination. Cypress seeds require regular inundation of freshwater and nutrient-rich silt to germinate and grow.
Thanks to the horrifying way in which we manage our water ways, things like dams and shipping canals have altered the way streams and rivers behave. Instead of lying down silt and clean, fresh water into these wetlands, we now see erosion and inundation with brackish water. The life giving soils needed to grow cypress swamps are swept out into the ocean where they create dead zones.
Again, the loss of cypress swamps isn't just a hit to the environment, it endangers coastal communities as well. Cypress swamps are one of the nation's first lines of defense against hurricanes. They act as buffers, absorbing the storm surge and diminishing all of that energy that otherwise barrels inland and floods communities.
A healthy cypress swamp can cut the force of a storm surge by as much as 90%! That is quite the ecosystem service if you ask me. If storm data isn't your thing then consider this - in Louisiana alone, cypress swamps provide an estimated $6.7 billion in storm protection every year!
Sadly, every year we are losing more and more cypress swamps. And for what? Well, in part for a gardening product with plenty of sustainable alternatives. Mulch is each to come by and, in many municipalities, it is available at little to no cost. Mulch is quite useful in the garden, however, that doesn't mean we have to level sensitive wetland forests to get it.
There is plenty of mulch available in our own back yards and neighborhoods in the form of storm debris, leaves, and unwanted landscape trees. Again, cypress swamps will be cut as long as their is demand for their products. By eliminating cypress mulch from your landscape, you are diminishing the demand.
So, there you have it. If you want to limit the carbon footprint of your gardening endeavors, eliminating peat and cypress mulch are two great places to start. I find it painfully ironic that careless gardening can cause so much environmental damage. If we can't grow plants sustainably, then our outlook as a species is quite grim.
Now, if only we could tackle industrial agriculture as easily. Whether you are growing vegetables, native species, or houseplants, it is important to know where your materials come from. There is no sense in destroying one habitat so that your yard looks nice.
Matt Candeias is a plant fanatic. His current research is focused on how plants respond to changes in their environment, which takes him to the southern Appalachian Mountains where ample topography and seemingly endless plant diversity offer a window into how and why plants grow where they do. He is always reading and writing about plants on his blog, In Defense of Plants. Read all of Matt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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