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Some Advice for Starting Your Own Backyard ‘Carbon Farm’

Author: Julia Franz | Published: December 22, 2016 

For visitors to Eric Toensmeier’s home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the lush, 8-foot banana plant in the front yard is the first indication that something is unusual about his landscaping.

A walk around his stucco-covered house confirms it. In the back garden, about 300 species of perennials are thriving on just one-tenth of an acre: Raspberries, mountain mint, bamboo and bush clover all jostle for space alongside persimmon, chestnut and mulberry trees.

Toensmeier’s garden is an exercise in what is known as “carbon farming,” or the use of agriculture to remove excess carbon from the air and soil; storing it instead in trees and plants. As scientists and policy experts rush to develop ways to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, Toensmeier estimates that the carbon sequestration in his garden roughly offsets the emissions of one American adult each year.

“So, certainly the scale at which we’re doing this is not the scale which is necessary to fully address the problem,” he says, “but it’s sort of a research and development project, and it’s certainly doing more than mowing a lawn. It’s a step in the right direction.”

In his new book, “The Carbon Farming Solution,” Toensmeier explores in detail the potential for using perennial crops and agroforestry to trap carbon from the atmosphere. But as he explains, many of the techniques he’s using to sequester more carbon in his own garden have long been used to make plots of land naturally produce more food.

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Meet a Woman Who Keeps 500 Plants in Her Brooklyn Apartment

Author: Dan Nosowitz

The model-turned-sustainable-clothing-activist-turned-sustainable-food-movement-activist has had an eventful career. Oakes currently heads up marketing for Foodstand, whose aim is to “to connect a community of good eaters,” and also runs a website about detoxing from sugar. But leading up to these jobs, she earned an environmental science degree, worked as a model, wrote a book (with another due out this year), and launched a service to connect designers with sustainable fabrics.

For 11 years, Oakes has lived in a 1,200-square-foot converted industrial space in Williamsburg, which is filled with 500 plants, including a living wall, an irrigated vertical garden constructed out of mason jars, and, in a closet garden, edible plants ranging from the familiar (herbs, greens) to the exotic (a pineapple plant, curry leaves—the latter of which she raves about). Although Oakes studied environmental science in school, her love of agriculture goes back further than that. She grew up, she says, on five acres of land in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, alongside chickens, goats, and an orchard

To garden in an apartment is a daunting task; lack of space, soil, and especially sunlight tend to put firm limitations on what you can and can’t grow. “I’m lucky that I have windows on both sides of my house, one south-facing, which gets a lot of light, and one north-facing,” says Oakes. “In the windows is where I have more of the light-necessary plants, like ivy, which I can’t eat, and herbs.”

Her apartment is an attempt to cram a country house into a Brooklyn apartment. None of that is really possible in the city, but Oakes does her best: a vermiculture kit beneath the kitchen sink, a compost bin, LED lighting systems, a sub-irrigation system for certain plants, and plants, plants everywhere. Succulents line the bathroom. An old sled on which her pots and pans are hung also include low-light-tolerant philodendrons.

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The Climate-Friendly Gardener

Seventy percent of American households engage in some level of gardening or lawn care every year. Some do it for beautiful flowers, lush grass, or fresh fruits and vegetables; some for the peace and quiet or the connection to nature.

But there is another reason to grow plants in your yard: certain gardening practices can help combat global warming. This guide will show you how.

First, we explain the science linking soil, plants, and climate change; then we provide practical tips for a more climate-friendly garden, and links to resources that will help you adapt these tips to your own needs.

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Food forests manage themselves

Author: Andrea Darr

On a suburban Kansas lot at the corner of 55th and Mastin streets, an experiment is underway: A food forest is growing crops, creating economic value and, most notably, doing most of the work on its own.

The 10,000-square-foot garden is not tended to daily, at least not by human beings. Insects do the job of managing pests, some plants act as natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil, and other plants form deep taproots that mine the soil for nutrients, bringing them up to the surface for the tree roots.

The area doesn’t have to be mowed, it doesn’t get sprayed and it doesn’t just survive — it thrives.

What is this system? The trendy term is permaculture, but it’s nothing new. It has been around for thousands of years.

“This is how nature manages itself,” says P.J. Quell, the property owner who has lent the site to Cultivate Kansas City to design, install, manage and harvest food grown from guilds of trees, shrubs and plants. Volunteers come annually to prune trees and spread wood chips. That’s about the extent of work involved.

Of course, it took much effort at the beginning of the project, designing for maximum sunlight, digging swales to capture and hold water, and planting. There are 39 varieties of fruit and nut trees and 12 varieties of shrubs, several with which people are familiar — pears and plums — but also many that are relative unknowns: pawpaws, jujubes, serviceberries and aronia.

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How to Eat Your Lawn: Transform Your Wasteful Grassy Space into a Food Forest Garden

Author: Sarah Rich

Who ever imagined that lawns would go from epitomizing the American dream to embodying all manner of evil? Blaming both human and natural failings, many homeowners have embraced the idea of lawn-eradication, and the Food Not Lawns movement is growing on a daily basis. Lawns were originally cultivated by wealthy European nobles to show off all the land that they didn’t need for growing food, but in an era of droughts, climate change, and imminent food shortages, such wastefulness isn’t a trophy for the elite; it’s pretty much reprehensible.

Several organizations now exist that help people transform their lawns into edible food forests, and one of those is Edible Estates. This company is the brainchild of Fritz Haeg, who has made it his mission to replace the water-guzzling, pesticide-drenched grasslands of American front yards with functional, fruitful plots filled with all things edible. His philosophy on lawns vs. edible gardens is as follows:

“The lawn devours resources while it pollutes. It is maniacally groomed with mowers and trimmers powered by the 2-stroke motors responsible for much of our greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrocarbons from mowers react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to produce ozone. To eradicate invading plants, it is drugged with pesticides which are then washed into our water supply with sprinklers and hoses, dumping our increasingly rare fresh drinking resource down the gutter. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater and 23 have the ability to leach into groundwater sources.

The lawn divides and isolates us. It is the buffer of anti-social no-man’s-land that we wrap ourselves with, reinforcing the suburban alienation of our sprawling communities. The mono-culture of one plant species covering our neighborhoods from coast to coast celebrates puritanical homogeneity and mindless conformity.”

For those of you who may be interested in growing food instead of grass, there are countless books and websites available to help you on your way. As a couple of examples, the Food Not Lawns book is a great start, and Paradise Lot is an ideal reference guide for those living in urban settings.

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