6 Ways to Practice Climate Farming

Turn your garden into a carbon-guzzling food-growing oasis.

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by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynar
Co-planted daikon radish, hairywatch, and oat grass function better as living mulch and fertilizer than they would if grown on their own.

If you read the first part of our Climate Farming series in the June/July 2021 issue (“Climate Farming Practices”), then you already know that Climate Farming is a cutting-edge growing practice that combines proven tenets of regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and syntropic agroforestry in a unique way. Climate Farming practices include:

  • Integrating livestock into growing operations.
  • Minimizing soil disturbances through no-till practices.
  • Composting.
  • Companion planting.
  • Succession planting.
  • Natural erosion control.
  • Careful water management.

The purpose of Climate Farming is to produce delicious, nutritious fruits and vegetables while improving topsoil health, reducing or eliminating harmful agricultural runoff, and sequestering atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Putting Climate Farming into practice is a way you can make a difference in the battle against climate change beyond sharing a social media post or donating to a cause. We can all begin doing our part in the home garden and asking for Climate-Farmed produce at the market.

Aside from its global impact on climate change reversal, collective carbon sequestration in farming and home gardening will also make a noticeable difference in your region, leading to healthier rivers, streams, and lakes. Surely that’s something we can all stand behind!

Ready to join the revolution? We’ve compiled a list of six things you can do right now to turn your farm, garden, or homestead into a carbon-guzzling oasis.

Start a Compost Pile

Compost is a life-rich soil amendment that not only cuts down on waste, but also releases valuable nutrients that re-energize the soil. One of the biggest misconceptions about composting is that you need a lot of space to get started. Even city dwellers can create compost with the proper receptacle and approach. Identifying which setup will work best for your situation is the first step.

If you have a backyard, you have space to use just about any method you desire, whether that’s to start a pile in an underutilized corner of the yard, or to build a wooden bin to keep it more contained. Apartment and town home dwellers can get crafty and come up with some innovative bins. Various online specialty shops sell pre-made bins designed for urban agrarians, and the DIY-inclined can get creative with recyclable materials (think old butter tubs, coffee cans, etc.). You can store your bin under the sink, in a cabinet, or on a porch where it will stay at an ideal temperature. Can’t find a receptacle you like? Just cover your pile with a tarp weighted down by bricks. This system is ideal for the home gardener, because it can be easily accessed from all sides and flipped with a pitchfork.

To have a successful compost pile, you’ll need to add an even mix of high-carbon “brown” material, such as sawdust, straw, and leaves, with nitrogen-rich “green” material, such as vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and grass clippings. Mix or turn your pile about once per month to help it break down faster and eliminate odors. Gently spray it with a hose if it starts to feel too dry (it should always be about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge). Your compost will be finished when it’s dark, crumbly, and smells like earth!

Grow Support Species

Support species are a crucial aspect of Climate Farming. While crunchy vegetables and succulent fruits are always the end goal, harvesting an abundant yield while naturally enriching the soil requires intentional action.

In most natural ecosystems, you wouldn’t find one plant without a consortium of two or more different species growing around it. Together, they function at a higher capacity than they ever could on their own. Here are five key benefits to using support species in your farm or garden ecosystem:

Biomass accumulation. Support species provide biomass for soil production when “chopped and dropped” onto the ground surrounding a farm’s main productive crops. They are then allowed to decompose, enriching the soil.

Nitrogen fixation. Growers often use legumes as support species, because their roots exude simple sugars and other compounds that attract rhizobium bacteria. These bacteria have a symbiotic relationship with the plant, in which they harness atmospheric nitrogen that otherwise wouldn’t be available to the plant and make it accessible in exchange for carbohydrates.

Living nursery. Many support species act as a living nursery, providing shade for sensitive young seedlings when they’re newly transplanted in the field.

Hydration. Support species can help maintain soil and plant hydration by decreasing evapotranspiration (the movement of water from the surface of the earth into the atmosphere, as well as from the surface of plants).

Cover cropping. Many small herbaceous species can be used as rotational cover crops, as they reinvigorate soil that’s been diminished by the nutrient demands of the last crop.

Follow the Land and Sun

If you’re a first-time grower who hasn’t yet broken ground, you have a golden opportunity to design your garden in a way that maximizes its ecological potential. Many growers don’t pay attention to the slope of their land when building their planting rows. This leads to poor irrigation, excess runoff, and the leaching of water and nutrients.

When planning your rows, plant them perpendicular to the slope of your land. This will force rainwater to travel the greatest possible distance, around each row of your crops, maximizing the water’s
exposure to the soil, both in terms of time and surface area. Slowing, stopping, sinking, and storing water in this manner keeps nutrients on the crops and away from neighboring waterways. There are ways to measure your slope exactly with expensive land-surveying tools, but for a home grower, simple tools, such as an A-frame or a bunyip level, will do the job and can be made easily.

Similarly, it pays to notice how much sunlight your plot gets and plan your planting accordingly. Use trees to shade crops that need less sunlight, and pay attention to how the sun moves so you can maximize your growing area by designing your garden to allow the right amount of sunlight for each type of crop.

Adopt Minimal-Till or No-Till Techniques

An easy way for home gardeners and small farmers to adopt no-till soil practices is to find a plant that does the work for you.

One of the most promising options is the daikon radish, which grows a long, thick, cylindrical taproot with many lateral roots. Not only do these roots help break up compacted soils, but they also, when left to decompose, fill all those pathways with nutrients the plant captured over its life span. This builds a softer soil profile because of the aeration and increased water capacity along the vertical fractures created by the daikon radish’s roots — ultimately leading to more nutrient-dense soils that support beneficial microorganisms and fungi.

Feeding the microorganisms supports an ancient symbiotic relationship in which the microorganisms feed off plant root sugars, and then produce four times more sugars (a source of carbon) through their residues than their plant counterparts produce. So, while you’re tilling your fields with daikon, you’re also playing a role in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Of course, daikon radish isn’t the only cover crop with minimal-till potential. With proper organic-matter management strategies, oats, pigeon pea, sunn hemp, millet, sorghum, and buckwheat can all fill this role.

(A variety of excellent books explain in detail how to implement no-till farming and gardening techniques. Search for “no-till” at www.MotherEarthNews.com/Store to see a selection.)

Adopt ‘Chop-and-Drop’ Green Mulching

“Chop and drop” is exactly what it sounds like — you “chop” (or cut) the organic material of mature plants, and then “drop” it on the ground, mimicking what plants would do in nature. When plants die (or die back), old material falls to the ground, decomposes, and contributes food to soil organisms (fungi, bacteria, and animals) while creating a beautiful compost-like humic layer.

This method also keeps the roots in the soil, where they prevent erosion, help maintain aeration, and keep nutrient networks intact until they decompose, becoming another source of nutrients. While the concept might make sense and seem simple, it’s like anything else — there are times when it’s appropriate to use this regenerative farming method, and times when it’s not.

Plants that tend to have deep taproot systems, produce a lot of leafy material, and fix nitrogen are the ideal choices for this practice. Those deep-reaching roots can surpass some of the smaller, more fibrous roots of your garden veggies. By leaving them in the ground, you’ll give other plants access to the nutrients that have accumulated. (See “Top Plants for Chop-and-Drop Method” for more info.)

Start a Worm Bin

Vermicomposting — the cultivation of a worm garden — is a means of animal integration that’s accessible whether your garden is a container on a terrace, a plot in your backyard, or a small farm. Worm castings and worm tea are often referred to by vermicomposters as “black gold for plants.” Many gardeners farm a few pounds of red wiggler worms, feeding these beneficial invertebrates kitchen scraps, and harvesting the digested and deposited castings to feed to their plants. A worm home will act as a garbage disposal and fertilizer-maker rolled into one. Raising a few pounds of worms is surprisingly inexpensive and easy, and not nearly as messy as you might expect.

After you decide to make conscious choices to work with the land instead of against it, you’ll find that nature actually wants to help you grow.

Top Plants for the Chop-and-Drop Method

  • Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan ). This quick-growing legume is the chop-and-drop classic. Many gardeners grow pigeon pea just for this purpose, as it produces a lot of biomass (leafy material) in a short amount of time. It also happens to be a legume whose roots accumulates nitrogen that will live on after the plant is gone.
  • Moringa (Moringa oleifera ). It’s everywhere these days, with good reason! Not only does it have numerous health benefits, but moringa also grows quickly, leaving an abundance of leafy material for you to harvest.
  • Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.). Speaking of green mulch, nasturtiums make for an especially attractive one. When planted with taller plants, they act as a natural barrier while alive, and when they die out during hot months, they provide excellent biomass.
  • Lupine (Lupinus spp.). Another legume, this one is an especially attractive addition to the garden that brings in pollinators as well. Like the pigeon pea, lupine fixes nitrogen at the root level, and that nitrogen will be accessible even after the plant dies back. Note: Lupine is poisonous to livestock.
  • Sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea ). Valued for its stellar production, this friend of the soil accumulates biomass quickly and has the unique ability to suppress nematodes. In 90 days, sunn hemp can accumulate more than 130 pounds of nitrogen per acre! (While ideal for tropical climates, this might not be a great fit for northern climates.)
  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.). This may not be the first plant that comes to mind, but the biomass from one lemongrass plant is substantial!

Jeff Meyer is the founder of Johnny Appleseed Organic, an eco-village and online store that provides farmers and gardeners with resources to fight climate change. (Climate Farming is a registered trademark of Johnny Appleseed Orchards LLC.)

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