The main ingredients for making your soil a super hero from climate change is to make sure it is healthy and strong. Most properties have been inundated with synthetic fertilizers and chemicals for decades. The grass has been forced to grow in the worst of conditions. Most plant life in yards I see are often ill-selected and require too many resources to maintain. The grass type wouldn’t survive without the chemicals and irrigation used on site. The ground is often compacted and never recharged with the stuff it needs to perform well. It’s been watered incorrectly and the biodiversity has been shredded due to all of these things. And these are the good ones.
I work with other clients that have thought by doing nothing at all, they have a more sustainable yard. The truth is if you are doing nothing for your yard, you are still contributing to the negative impacts like downstream flooding. Usually, yards that aren’t maintained at all show signs of erosion as well as compaction and unhealthy soil. The grass doesn’t grow well and dirt spots abound.
When treated right, your soil can store huge amounts of carbon within it. It is by activating the natural relationship of plants to soil that allows CO2 to flow more effectively into the ground. The amount of carbon you can store by using the right plants is dwarfed by the amount you can store underground and the biology surrounding the root systems.
The Biology of Dirt
The CO2 your plants breathe in along with the sunlight is used to create food for its roots as well as all the little microorganisms that live on and around the roots. A cup of healthy soil has more life in it than humans on the planet. The life includes things like worms and bugs, but also beneficial bacteria with names like Rhizobia and Mycorrhizae. These bacterial families help your plants grow strong and support them in times of stress such as droughts and heat waves. They help to store nitrogen and carbon in the soil. They support a whole list of biodiversity such as fungi (aka mushrooms) that fights off disease and other pests that can kill your grass and plants. The fungi also help to store carbon deep in the soil. When all of these dirty players are present in your dirt, they naturally aerate it providing the needed airflow and oxidation needed deep down.
The best way to make sure these beneficial agents aren’t in your soil is to add things like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides like Roundup and other products like it. These artificial additives are so used that the soil is much more a dead zone than a wild world of biology. As the biology falls, the air pockets they create are filled with sediment. So what happens? The soil can’t retain water, so when it rains the rainwater runs right off your yard. Your soil deprived fluids means you have to use irrigation to keep it alive. All that water you pump onto your lawn takes lots of energy to get there, and all of that energy emits carbon into the atmosphere.
You don't want a zombie yard, but that's exactly what you might have. The lack of water in the soil only continues to kill the biology, so you need more sythentic fertilizer to make it grow. As you force your plants to grow, you weaken them making them more susceptible to pests, so you add more pesticides. As you add more pesticides, you create a lawn of the Growing Dead. The Growing Dead is the perfect landscape for weeds. Next thing you know, you're Rick Grimes running around trying to kill a yard of weeds too...and if you've been using toxins, you're pretty likely to just add more chemicals to get rid of weeds continuing the loop.
These factors are playing out in agriculture too. As soils are devalued for the promise of temporary high yields, we have seen GMOs (genetically modified organisms) explode to offer a solution. Even time you eat GMOs, you are extending the Growing Dead of the fertilizer/pesticide/irrigation/dead soil dynamic described above. The same is happening in lawn care. More and more companies are offering GMO grass seed to help you have a beautiful lawn. All these chemicals take huge amounts of energy to produce only adding more carbon to the atmosphere.
Worse yet, Atrazine, the active ingredient in many weed killers, is linked to birth defects. In my community, most people are here to have healthy families and have babies. Studies have found that birth defects are highest during times when pesticides and weed killer is most used – in the spring and summer months.
But, it’s easy to step out of the dynamic. We don't have to have a Zombie Earth. You will need to detox your yard, and rehab the soil. The first step is to stop using synthetic chemicals – that is the detox. The second step is to start rehab your soil, and that takes a little more active involvement. Part of this will mean selecting the right grass for your lawn. I’ve found that fescue is a great option for northern NJ. Tall fescue is the most common type available. You can get it in both sod and seed form. it likes the sun and shade which is important for most places. However, if you can, you should use a fescue mix that includes several types of fescue. Avoid fescue mixes with blue grass seed in it. I exclusively use a fescue blend that reduces your need for water on your lawn by 60 to 70%, and has a root structure that can extend as deep as 24 inches. A root system like this means tons and tons of those beneficial creatures. No Growing Dead with this seed. As the roots grow, the biology will start to kick start, and your soil will become a carbon storage powerhouse.
Fescue is step three. If you want to turn your lawn into a climate warrior, you’ll need to change up your grass if you don't have the best kind for your space. Overseeding with an overseeder is an easy, effective way to switch your grass out, plus overseeders aerate the top portion of the lawn as well.
As you go through the steps, your soil will open and be able to absorb rainwater too. This means your grass can self-water so you won’t need irrigation. The ecosystem of life in your dirt will be very happy because of it.
France has called for soils across the planet to increase their carbon storage ability by .04% annually. If you start to treat your dirt like the true hero it is, you will easily surpass that percentage and create both a lawn all your neighbors and friends will admire as well as a carbon storage forest that can turn the tide on global warming.
An excellent documentary about how soil is formed and how it's a party right under your feet. The doc is called Symphony of the Soil. I’ve embedded the trailer below: