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21st century victory gardens can be used to feed the soil with carbon

“Gardens are frames or settings for activity and behavior; they mirror a culture’s values and attitudes; they are places of ideals, aspirations and life necessities. The garden’s subject ranges from humanity’s most mundane need to history’s most profound questions.”

— Kenneth I. Helphand, “Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime,” 2008

In his book, “Defiant Gardens,” historian Ken Helphand describes a meeting in 1918 between Winston Churchill, who was England’s minister of munitions during World War I, and British war poet Siegfried Sassoon. It was during this interview that Churchill remarked: “War is the normal occupation of man.”

Churchill quickly added, “War — and gardening.”

In the United States, the government called for citizens to grow vegetable gardens during WWI to help feed those at home and support the troops fighting overseas.

Propaganda posters during WWI urged civilians to “Sow the seeds of victory!” By 1918, more than 5 million new plots, called victory gardens, were cultivated, which produced about 1.5 million quarts of canned fruits and vegetables.

During WWII, civilian victory gardens in the U.S. helped stave off hunger caused by food rations. By 1944, approximately 20 million gardens produced about 8 million tons of food, or almost 40 percent of the fresh vegetables that were eaten by civilians.

Flash forward 75 years to October 2019, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees C.” The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C compared to 2 degrees C or more.

IPCC committee co-chair Hans-Otto Pörtner said, “Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5 degrees or higher increases the risks associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems.”

However, the report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C will require “rapid and far-reaching changes” in land and energy use, as well as in industry, buildings, transport and cities worldwide.

To accomplish this formidable goal, and help prevent what’s been called a climate catastrophe, the IPCC report recommends that global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide decrease 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching zero emissions by 2050. Any remaining emissions would need to be offset by removing CO2 from the air.

In the 21st century, rather than battling other nations, we need to learn to fight as a multinational community in order to ensure long-term food security for a rapidly growing population, while under increasingly adverse agricultural conditions from the impacts of global warming.

Will we be able to (literally) step up to the plate and confront this modern threat — climate change — even when it doesn’t look like the “others” of wars past?

For that matter, will we be able to look up from our Tweets long enough to agree that global warming is a primary threat and places the well-being of our children and children’s children at risk?

Gardeners can do something positive about climate change in 2020 by growing a victory garden. The 21st century version is less about growing vegetables to eat, but is all about feeding the soil with carbon. Climate-focused victory gardens use the regenerative practice of carbon sequestration to reduce the amount of CO2 lost to the atmosphere as a harmful greenhouse gas. Instead, the garden provides long-term storage for carbon — a definitive measure that allows each of us to make a difference in mitigating climate change by doing what we love to do — growing plants.

I recently spoke with Scott Goode, a Central Point environmental scientist who is helping the Master Gardeners at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point and students at Ashland High School create victory gardens. Scott speaks frequently in the community about climate change, regenerative gardening and building healthy soil.

He says growing particular plants and using them in a process called trench composting shows promise for sequestering carbon at a rate of several hundred tons per acre.

“What that means is that even if you have a garden that’s only a few hundred square feet, you can sequester a significant amount of carbon,” Scott said. “If every 10th person all over the world was doing this, then we could make a significant dent in climate change just as individuals.”

Gardeners who cultivate a 10-by-20-foot victory garden could store a ton of carbon in the soil over 10 years.

Here’s how Scott recommends creating a climate-smart victory garden. (My podcast this week features a discussion with Scott about the science behind victory gardens and carbon sequestration.)

Dedicate one of your raised garden beds as a victory garden, keeping in mind that trench composting requires the soil to have good drainage. Or create a new bed for a victory garden that’s about 10 feet wide and 10 feet long, or longer.

Designate a width of 4 feet in the garden to grow a crop of sunflowers with large seed heads, such as Mongolian Giant. Allow space for a walkway and then at least 18 inches or wider for a trench that’s dug 2 feet deep. Use soil from the trench for growing crops; amend with compost as needed.

Plant sunflower seeds in May when the soil has warmed up, sowing the seeds no more than 1 inch deep and about 6 inches apart. By early August, the last of the sunflowers’ disk flowerets will be pollinated by bees, and the immature seeds will be in the “milk” phase. The plant stalks will be 2-3 inches in diameter.

During this phase, remove the sunflower plant from the soil, cut off the seed head, remove the leaves, and cut the stalks into sections that fit into the bottom of the trench. Layer the sunflower leaves over the stalks and then the heads.

Cover the biomass with 1-2 inches of wood chips, and for new gardens, inoculate with oyster mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms grown naturally outdoors will fruit in our area in the fall; they will be ready to harvest when the caps are slightly concave, rather than convex. Spores can be purchased at local garden stores or online. Scott recommends purchasing spores from Fungi Perfecti (website address is https://fungi.com/).

Over a 6-month to 1-year period, the biomass in the trench is composted and turns into humus. After all of the air in the pile is used up, a secondary biological process makes use of the remaining lignin in the sunflower stalks to eventually turn the biomass into peat, and finally into a low-grade coal called lignite, which is rich in carbon. By this time, the biomass has been reduced to about one-tenth of its original volume.

Right after the sunflowers are placed in the trench, amend the crop section with compost and densely plant a cover crop of buckwheat. Just as the plants begin to flower, in about 6 weeks, remove the buckwheat plants and add them straight to the trench compost, making sure not to disturb the previous compost layers. Cover the buckwheat with wood chips and allow the process of carbon sequestration to continue.

After harvesting the buckwheat in October, plant a winter cover crop of fava beans, which produces a lot of biomass. Add the fava beans to the trench in the spring, just as the plants begin to flower, and cover them with wood chips.

Soil carbon continues to accumulate as a fresh crop of sunflowers are sown in the victory garden for the following season.

“Defiant Gardener” author Ken Helphand was right: Gardens do, indeed, “mirror a culture’s values and attitudes; they are places of ideals, aspirations and life necessities.” In 2020, let’s make sure our gardens mirror our commitment to help mitigate climate change, and to ensure a world where healthy food can be grown for the generations that will come after us.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

A summer crop of buckwheat is added to the trench compost. Photo courtesy of Scott Goode and Anna Eichner of Nourishing Systems
Central Point environmental scientist Scott Goode grows giant sunflowers in his victory garden to help mitigate climate change. Photo by Rhonda Nowak