First Things First

Last night, I was fortunate to hear Dr. Sara Via, a University of Maryland biologist, give her talk on "Ecology of the Soil" to my county's Master Gardeners. She recommended a 2016 paper from Nature entitled Climate-Smart Soils. One of the gems in this paper is the decision tree it offers for the coolest things to do with agricultural land, depending on its nature and condition. It says that marginal lands should be planted in perennials, and histosols (soils containing high organic matter, i.e. former bogs) should be restored to wetlands. Aside from those cases, the paper proffers a hierarchy of various measures that can be taken to improve soil health, such as cover cropping and no-till. The final measure in the hierarchy - adding soil amendments, such as biochar - is not based on the soil condition, but on the availability of the amendment - the more, the merrier (though 2" of compost per year may be a good upper bound).

This decision tree clarifies matters greatly for those who want to practice climate-smart horticulture at any level; from garden to farm-scale. Once I learned about biochar and began making it, my interest in gardening bloomed (along with many more flowers). Along the way, I have learned the importance of many of the other conditional steps in the decision tree that also help to sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases.

Early in my gardening avocation, I was taught that the first thing a landscaper needs to deal with is stormwater. That dictum makes good sense - all the more after getting trained as a Master Watershed Steward. The epiphany for me was that by learning and practicing key disciplines, e.g. stormwater management, composting, and biochar, I would be able to maximize my success in gardening. Similarly, if one wishes to maximize their contribution to improving the climate, there are key practices to follow, depending on the situation. The result, invariably, will be healthier soil - so the payoff and gauges of success are close at hand, though yield increases may not necessarily be as immediate as might be obtained by following ecologically harmful regimens. Dr. Via pointed out that monitoring your soil's health with a do-it-yourself tool called a soil health card is a good way to track progress.

When you take an approach, such as biochar, as the cornerstone of your efforts, it might lead you to wonder how it fits into the grander scheme of climate change mitigations. Project Drawdown's website makes schematics available to assist in that conception. The schematic in the area of Food solutions contains (among other land-use topics) high level categories that encapsulate the decision tree measures just discussed. The Conservation Agriculture / Regenerative Agriculture (CA - Reg Ag) category is particularly germane to croplands. With the guidance of the decision tree above, the soil health card, and the bigger picture of food solutions, my efforts at carbon sequestration through gardening should become even more efficacious.

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