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Here's how to become a land steward

“In the future we will have to change to a diet that is largely plant-based with much less meat, especially red meat. This will not only reduce the amount of space we need for farmland, and produce fewer greenhouse gases, it will be much healthier for us too.”

— David Attenborough, “A Life on Our Planet,” 2020

Attenborough goes on to note that eating largely plant-based meals could reduce deaths from heart disease, obesity and some cancers by up to 20%, which would save a trillion dollars in global health care costs by 2050. His statements about the benefits of plant-based diets are corroborated by the USDA 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020) and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report (2018).

I grew up eating red meat at most meals, and it has not been too difficult to reduce my consumption of meat over the last couple of years, particularly with plant-based meat alternatives.

Gardeners are in an ideal position to reduce their meat intake because we already grow plants. If you only grow ornamentals, consider adding food plants to the flower garden that are also beautiful. Some of my favorites are strawberries, artichokes, chives, scarlet runner beans, fennel and colorful varieties of kale, Swiss chard, lettuce and cabbage. This year, I’m trying a beautiful annual leafy vegetable called red orach in my flower garden.

If you already grow vegetables in your garden, try new vegetables this year to keep it interesting: achocha or cucamelons (both in the cucumber family), purple cauliflower, broccoli rabe (also called rapini), parsnips, long beans, amaranth (Chinese spinach), red meat (watermelon) radishes, kohlrabi the list of unusual vegetables goes on.

If you want to grow vegetables in less space, consider which crops produce more food per plant. High-yield vegetables include leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, peas, beans, peppers, beets and radishes.

Moving to more vertical farming can reduce the amount of land for growing commercial crops. Home gardeners, too, can grow more food per square foot by using trellises, hanging gardens and stacked beds or containers. This year I’m growing some of my leafy greens in tiered boxes set against the backyard fence.

Attenborough’s main point in advocating plant-based diets and vertical growing practices is that they significantly reduce the amount of land required to fulfill humanity’s need for food. Land that is not used for food can be “rewilded” — restored to its natural state in order to support native wildlife, and to capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil, thus reducing greenhouse gases.

On a global scale, rewilding some agricultural and other public and private land would go a long way toward restoring biodiversity and ecological balance. For the home gardener, adopting a rewilding mindset might involve using the extra space provided from growing vertical vegetable gardens to plant a couple of native berry bushes, such as red or golden currant, raspberry, trailing blackberry or gooseberry. There are many other native shrubs that provide berries for birds but are less palatable to humans.

The most useful lesson I learned from reading “A Life on Our Planet” is the importance of land stewardship. Attenborough’s book inspired me to register for OSU’s online Land Steward Program, which runs Feb. 11 to April 23. The course is designed for owners of woodlands, small farms, pasture or other rural land who want to manage their property’s natural resources more effectively. This will be a stimulating experience for Jerry and me as we continue to restore the 2.5 acres of woodland property we bought in Bandon a few years ago.

The Land Steward course includes a series of nine self-paced online lessons and three virtual classes. Topics will address wildfire risk reduction, forest/woodland management, encouraging and managing wildlife, stream ecology, pasture management, growing healthy soils, rural water system infrastructure and rural economics.

We’re particularly excited about the stewardship planning component of the course. We will learn how to assess the natural resources on our property and create a management plan that will help us accomplish our stewardship goals. I’m looking forward to sharing our journey with you.

The program costs $150 per person. For more information, see https://extension.oregonstate.edu/land-steward. Also check out my podcast this week in which I talk more about land stewardship and OSU’s Land Steward Program with coordinator Rachel Werling.

Caring for our own land, whether that’s a tiny yard or large acreage, is one important way we can all contribute to a healthier Earth. Attenborough reminds us, “We often talk about saving the planet, but the truth is that we must do these things to save ourselves. With or without us, the wild will return.”

Let’s do what we can to make sure humans are around to enjoy it.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her blogs at www.literarygardener.com.