You may already know that composting is a great way to turn food scraps into the perfect garden amendment. But did you know that composting also lessens your carbon footprint? It does, in three ways.
First, compare what happens in a compost pile versus a landfill. In a landfill, all that food waste is buried under a mountain of rubbish. Without being exposed to air, the food scraps undergo anaerobic decomposition, and this releases methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that retains about 30 times as much heat as carbon dioxide!
A compost pile is turned to provide air to the interior of the pile. This causes aerobic decomposition. It produces a small amount of carbon dioxide, but no methane. On the whole, aerobic decomposition is much more ‘climate friendly’.
Second, it has been well-established that application of compost to a garden allows the garden to literally suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The annual addition of organic matter feeds plants and microorganisms that can take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil for centuries. This process occurs naturally at a very slow pace and it’s what made the legendary soils in America’s breadbasket. We are simply speeding up the process!
Third, recall that producing synthetic fertilizers takes an immense amount of energy, and therefore has quite a carbon footprint just to make the stuff. By using compost, we no longer contribute to the pollution derived from the production and distribution of synthetic fertilizer.
In five years, we have composted 126,000 pounds of food scraps. Compared to sending these scraps to landfill, we have prevented an equivalent of 45,300 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released!
Native plants, simply put, are plants that evolved here and were not imported by people. Because these plants evolved here, they have a deep relationship with the insects and other animals in the ecosystem. As popular ecologist Doug Tallamy showed, landscapes with around 70% native plants support a much greater and more diverse range of wildlife than those with less.
Moreover, because we harvest seeds from native plants right here on our campus and surrounding areas, we are able to conserve the unique plant communities of southeast Michigan. Because they have evolved in our local climate and soil, when properly placed these plants will thrive with almost no maintenance!
Further, the horticultural industry relies on a great deal of plastic for its containers and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to get plants to store shelves. In growing our own plants, we reuse containers year after year and only use compost made on site. And there are no emissions associated with transporting the plants from nursery to store to us! All this greatly reduces waste and pollution of our landscaping needs.
We have installed several native plant pollinator gardens in the last three years, and plan on incorporating more native plants as our landscape plan continues to evolve. Many Sisters and campus visitors have commented on the noticeable increase in wildlife on our grounds, a heartening testament to our mission.
A berm is simply an elongated mound of earth and a swale is the low point between the berms. This is an ancient practice, utilized by cultures across time and space, chiefly as a water management tool. The goal, typically, is to use berms and swales to hold back water as it flows downhill. By capturing the water with earthworks, we can passively irrigate a desired area, recharge groundwater, and slow the erosion of vulnerable hillsides.
Our main vegetable garden on campus was designed with this in mind. Rainwater from higher in the landscape flows to our vegetable beds in between the swales, providing plentiful moisture in the soil right where the plants’ roots are.
The shape of a berm and swale depends on context and goals. In temperate climates like Michigan, we design the system to hold back water. In very wet climates, the swales are designed to shed water quickly, and in arid climates, people will plant in the swale, rather than the berm!
The passive irrigation provided by a well-thought berm and swale system reduces, and in some cases eliminates, the need to irrigate the garden.