Permaculture provides several nature-based methods of sequestering carbon into the earth and reducing the consumption of carbon-producing products.
Scott Burnham details five of them here.
1. Choose the right plants
Trees are of course the best plant to use in the permaculture toolkit (and anyone’s natural toolkit really) for ways to reduce carbon – but not everyone has space to plant trees. For those with a small area of yard or limited space in their community that could be put to use, permaculture offers plenty of nature-based ways to reduce carbon.
The first step in choosing the right plant is to ensure that it is a plant native to your region. Native plants have hundreds of years of experience in growing and thriving in your climate, so there’s no sense experimenting with an unknown plant and losing a growing-season’s worth of carbon reduction. Native Plant Finder is an excellent website to help you find plants that are native to your area.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the root of the solution – literally. One of the most effective natural ways to reduce carbon is to sequester it into the soil through a plant’s root system. The deeper the roots, the further into the soil the carbon will be deposited, which means it will stay there longer to be filtered by the soil and used by other plans.
Lawns with carefully trimmed green grass and a few decorative shrubs don’t do a whole lot to reduce carbon (or really do much of anything for insects, soil health, pollinators, and so on.)
The typical grass used on domestic lawns has an average root depth of around six inches. To explore just one alternative – if a small patch of alfalfa were planted instead of domestic lawn grass, first, the leaves of the alfalfa plant have more surface area to pull carbon from the air, and second, the roots of alfalfa plants descend around 14 feet below ground. That means more they pull more carbon from the air and sink it deeper into the earth.
Alfalfa is just one example of a plant with extensive reach into the subsoil to sequester carbon. Most wild grasses have root structures that grow many feet deeper into the earth than traditional grass. If you don’t want to go the route of planting alfalfa or wild grasses, even allowing your lawn (or a section of it) to grow longer than normal will provide more ways to reduce carbon than a short, trimmed lawn would.
When grass grows long, it obviously provides more plant surface area to absorb carbon, and signals the grass to increase the depth of its root base (thus, more carbon, deeper in the soil). Longer grass is also a vastly more welcoming environment for bugs, worms, toads, snakes, and all the unsung creates that create a healthy green space and environment.
2. Use natural fertilizer
The manufacturing of synthetic fertilizers produces a tremendous amount of carbon – some scientists estimate that fertilizer manufacturing even produces more carbon than is generated by the commercial aviation industry.
The negative impact of nitrogen fertilizer on the environment doesn’t end with its manufacturing. As grain.org reports:
“The majority of emissions from synthetic N [nitrogen] fertilizers occur after they are applied to the soil and enter the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O)- a persistent greenhouse gas with 265 times more global warming potential than CO2.”– grain.org
So buying synthetic fertilizer encourages more manufacturing of it, and a whole lot more carbon released into the atmosphere. Using it – especially nitrogen fertilizer – releases even more.
Using organic fertilizer purchased from your local garden supply store is of course a route towards ways to reduce carbon, but if it comes in a plastic bottle or bag and has been driven in from far away, you’re still part of larger carbon production chain. So, what can you do?
Grow Your Own Fertilizer
In permaculture circles, the Comfrey plant is referred to as “green manure” due to the its exceptional abilities as a naturally-grown fertilizer. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a perennial flower with large dark green leaves and bell flowers that are attractive to pollinators. It grows vigorously and can be planted at any time when the soil is not frozen.
The secret to it being a great natural fertilizer is a taproot and large root system that reaches deeper into the earth than most, which pulls nutrients from deep in the subsoil. As The Spruce says about the fertilizing benefits of Comfrey:
“Comfrey is high in just about every nutrient a plant needs, including the big three, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and many trace elements. Its high carbon to nitrogen value means that it does not deplete nitrogen from the soil, as it decomposes. It becomes a good source of nitrogen. And it has more potassium than composted manure.”The Spruce
Comfrey leaves also break down quickly in water to create liquid fertilizer when added to a bucket of water. In about six weeks the leaves will break down and turn the water into a thick, brown liquid that can be diluted and used as a power fertilizer. No chemicals, no shipped supplies, no plastic packaging = more ways to reduce carbon. Details of turning Comfrey into liquid fertilizer can be found here.
Comfrey can also be used as a simple “chop and drop” fertilizer and mulch combo. Just cut down the leaves and plants and place them in an area of the garden you want fertilized and mulched. The leaves will naturally decompose, depositing nutrients into the soil. At the same time, the green cuttings will act as a mulch to help the soil retain moisture provides a welcoming layer for insects and microbes that benefit your garden.
There are a number of other plants that can be used to fertilize your garden. Of course, you can also…
3. Let plants do the fertilizing for you – underground
Permaculture is about the inter-relationships between things; and some wonderful nurturing and nutritional relationships can happen in the soil when the right plants are involved. Here’s a quick example.
All legumes (all varieties of peas, beans, and son on) are nitrogen fixers, which means they take nitrogen from the air and turn it into usable fertilizer for other plants in the soil. Corn needs a lot of nitrogen to grow. Grow these two next to each other creates a self-feeding micro system.
For those who want to go deeper into this area of planting, there are numerous books and posts on food forests and plant guilds to take you further on the journey of learning about this aspect of permaculture.
4. Use dead leaves for mulch
Same as with fertilizer, if you buy mulch packaged, wrapped, and / or trucked in from outside your community – well, those things are high on the list of ways to reduce carbon. Depending on the origin of the mulch, it could also spread plant diseases or invasive species.
If you spend hours raking leaves in the fall, you actually don’t have much of a reason to buy mulch.
Fallen leaves contain nutrients and minerals the trees brought up from deep in the soil. Use last autumn’s leaves as mulch, and you are not only saving money and contributing to ways to reduce carbon – you are also creating a habitat layer on top of your soil for earthworms and crucial fungi for your garden’s health. As the leaves decay during the growing season, they release stored nutrients back into the soil.
5. Plant natural deterrents and detractors
People love their gardens and what they grow – unfortunately, so do rabbits, dear, groundhogs, and all manner of area wildlife. Plastic fences and netting are often used to deter unwelcome harvesting visitor. As with all things plastic however, the more plastic purchased for any use means more petroleum-based manufacturing, and more carbon. Even with netting and fences in place, experience shows that most animals are glad to take up the challenge anyway and will try to chew through the plastic barriers, ingesting bits of plastic themselves or creating small plastic bits for other creatures to consume.
Then there are sprays and pesticides that don’t require a lot of description as to why they are excessively bad for you, gardens and the environment, from both a chemical production point of view and the destructive role they play in habitat destruction and pollinator populations.
Nature has its own pest deterrents and detractors, and by utilizing them wildlife grazers can be distracted and put off from their pursuit of your garden’s delights. There are a number of perennials and some annuals that rabbits, for example, don’t like – Zinnias, Sweet Alyssum, Geraniums, and Marigolds, among many others. A ring or border of these flowers around rabbit-tempting plants creates a natural fence most won’t bother to go beyond.
Then there are scent-based deterrents like wild garlic, oregano, basil, mint, sage, rosemary – most any spice / flavoring plant with a strong smell puts off curious wildlife, and also act as a powerful deterrent for plant-chewing insects.
For first-hand proof of this, the next time ants appear at a picnic, on your porch, or kitchen, tear a mint leaf in half, put it near the ants, and watch them go marching one by one in the opposite direction.
There are numerous ways to reduce carbon in every area of life. For NurtureStructure, permaculture design offers one of the most easily managed routes toward making a difference using the land and space available to individuals and communities right now. Change, as they say, begins at home.