Record Cold, They Say

Animal Tracks

The ambient temperature is six degrees below zero. The February streak of subzero days is a record according to meteorologists. The headline on the Weather Channel website is “If you think it’s cold now, just wait until Valentine’s Day and next week.”

It’s cold, but not that cold. Overall this winter seems warmer than usual. Why?

We are not in the 35 below zero range we hit a couple of years ago. That was the cold spell that caused 70-degree temperature swings, began killing our Locust tree, and caused long-stable sewer and water pipes to break around the neighborhood. It’s not that cold yet.

We are also missing a strong cold spell at or below minus 20 degrees. I follow these cold snaps to identify when I should prune the apple and pear trees. We didn’t hit one last year and thus far haven’t this year. Combine it with the fact 2020 tied for the warmest year on record and perhaps one can see why I’m skeptical regarding the hubbub about how cold it is. I just walked on the driveway and it is a quiet, refreshing, albeit cold night. The kind that sets the stage for hope and human activity.

I will attempt to get the buckets of compost from the garage to the bin in the garden. However, there is no hurry because even if I do dump them, the compost will not decay much until the temperature warms. There is also an eight inch pile of snow on top of the composter to clear.

The coronavirus pandemic was a killer as it closes its first year. Thus far 2.4 million people globally died of the coronavirus. In the United States, 485,000. In Iowa, 5,236. Every one of the deceased had a name known by others. The coronavirus is a pestilence the likes of which there is no living memory, except maybe among a decreasing number of centenarians.

One can lose track of hours and days in the pandemic. Each human interaction takes on special meaning. It’s precious because there are so few of them, and those we have are mostly through electronic media. When a human calls, it’s a big deal. We are tempted to pick up the telephone when it rings, even though it is reasonable to predict the caller is a machine wanting to ID me as a potential customer to buy an extended warranty on my 1997 Subaru.

Hopefully we’ll get enough COVID-19 vaccine in the community so everyone who wants it can get it. The vaccine is proving effective overseas where the population of anti-vaccine folks is lower than in the U.S. If the vaccines are working, and it appears they are, there is hope of ending the pandemic. In the meanwhile, we’ll stay home, keep warm, and if we have to go out we’ll do so only when it is necessary, and wear a face mask and stay socially distant. Because we have pensions, we can afford to do this. Others are not so lucky.

There is pruning to do, although not as much as last time. The Aug. 10 derecho felled a large branch on the Red Delicious apple tree, so I don’t want to stress it much more than it is. No living creature want more stress right now. One day this week I’ll put on my overshoes, a warm coat, hat and scarf, and go on walkabout to check the yard and neighborhood. I’ll take my mobile device with me in case some human calls.


2021: A Pivotal Year

With Al Gore and Company at the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Chicago in 2013

2021 will be a pivotal year. We have a new American president, a new Congress, and abundant hope for progress in arms control and in mitigating the effects of warming atmosphere and oceans.

Each person can do something.

No matter your background, I encourage readers to consider participation in one of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps virtual trainings this year. The April 22 training is United States-focused to align with the opportunity our new government presents. There will be a virtual Latin America-focused training in July, and a virtual global training in October. Here is Al Gore’s announcement video and a link to the training page for more information.


This is Our Moment

Al Gore via Zoom, Dec. 15, 2020

After the Electoral College vote for president and vice president on Dec. 14, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly congratulated president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris on their win. He noted Harris is the first female vice president-elect, a historic achievement.

In the kabuki dance that is our nation’s capitol, “(McConnell) urged Senate Republicans not to join a long-shot effort led by conservatives in the House to challenge the electoral college results when Congress formally tabulates the vote Jan. 6,” according to the Washington Post. Such an action is doomed to failure as on a straight line party vote it will fail in the U.S. House. Media outlets indicated McConnell wants to avoid such a vote in the Senate.

Former Vice President Al Gore was one of the first world renown environmental leaders to meet with president-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York after the November 2016 election. The conversation was kept private.

Yesterday, during a 45-minute webinar with members of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, Gore said, “This is our moment.” The next four years represent an opportunity to address the climate crisis, beginning with the Biden administration’s intent to rejoin the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as the Paris Agreement. Gore had a long to-do list and there truly is a lot to get done to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. We all must do our part.

McConnell’s announcement and Gore’s speech are the beginning points for a long, difficult journey. Not only does Washington need to recognize scientific truths, we must return to the Obama era practice of embedding climate action in every aspect of the U.S. government. Biden is willing to do so. With the appointment of John Kerry and Gina McCarthy to new roles devoted to addressing the climate crisis, the structural framework is being built.

The Climate Reality Leadership Corps has a number of members across Iowa. The May 2015 training event in Cedar Rapids helped increase our numbers. There are two Iowa chapters of Climate Reality leaders, one in Des Moines, and another in Ames. I joined the Des Moines chapter this morning. Having organized the state for other projects, I’m not sure of the efficacy of developing this chapter, or another in Eastern Iowa, when so many other environmental groups exist in the state. Efforts to pull them together have proven difficult because there is a lack of consensus on priorities. There is also plenty of diverse work to be done. In a society where internet connectivity plays an increasing role, efforts to organize people willing to take action on the climate crisis is energy that should be used to address the climate crisis directly. It is important to be a part of this and other groups. It is more important to focus on the work.

The Sierra Club has a strong presence in Iowa and I support and will work on some of their priorities, such as regulation of companies that seek to pump water from the Jordan Aquifer and ship it out of state. There are other groups as well. In Iowa there are issues that merit our attention. I described them to some long-time friends in an email:

I don’t know what people feel about carbon sequestration as a way to impact greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s all the rage in Iowa. Because it’s all the rage, it is possible, although unlikely, something can be done on it. The danger is it supplants other, more important action that could be taken to reduce GHG emissions.

Another concern is ethanol production. We need a resilient form of agriculture that relies less on making combustible fuel from corn and other biomass. We’ve been at loggerheads for a long time over ethanol yet if we could drive a wedge into this issue in 2021 it would be a positive development.

I don’t know where the University of Iowa is on their blending of biomass with coal, but after numerous attempts, I don’t see any headway in influencing what they do. They should retire the coal plant, and if we could figure out a method or argument to persuade them, that would be a balance between barking up the same tree and a major breakthrough.

Email to Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility, Dec. 14, 2020.

The elephant in the room is the 2023 Farm Bill. Biden indicated addressing the climate crisis in it is an important priority. While Department of Agriculture secretary-designate Tom Vilsack is known for his alignment with large agricultural interests, and has been no friend to the environment, he is also a good Democratic soldier who will do what Biden asks and who deserves our support as the Farm Bill works its way through the process. Advocates for addressing the climate crisis in Iowa should monitor and devote some bandwidth to the emerging Farm Bill.

Gore waited to make his speech until after the Electoral College vote. We knew what was coming and are ready. There remains a lot to do to address the climate crisis and it will take all hands on deck. This is our moment.

Living in Society

Fall Cleanup 2020

Big Grove Township, Nov. 8, 2020

While returning from a walk in the state park I picked up four yard signs a neighbor placed in their yard. Two of the candidates are poised to win and two are not.

While crossing the street, another neighbor called out but I couldn’t hear them. They walked over to discuss Saturday’s events in the general election. They had considered leaving the country if the president were reelected. Like many in our neighborhood, they keep their politics private. Sigh of relief the president was defeated. They are good neighbors.

After my walk I drove over to a damaged street sign and removed the signs from the pole. It is hard to get the screws loosened so I brought it home to repair in the garage if I can. Leaves are mulched with the mower so the minerals can return to the soil. The smell of neighbors burning leaves permeated the neighborhood. What fall work remains in the yard is optional. Today looks to be in the 70s so it is a chance to work outdoors.

Emails began arriving from groups with which I associate after the election. This one from the Climate Reality Project is typical.

We will mobilize support like never before for federal-level climate policy, and will bolster this with continued state and local-level work, which has been so instrumental in building this movement since 2016. We will persist in fighting for climate justice, by forging partnerships and adding capacity to campaigns that address systemic ways the climate crisis hurts historically marginalized communities. And we will continue to the grow the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, ensuring we have even more voices conveying our clear message. We have the solutions at-hand, and there is no more time to waste.

Ken Berlin, President and CEO, The Climate reality Project

To work on any of the received requests, I had to get organized. Here is what I came up for post-election priorities from an email to friends:

My first Iowa work will be determining a leverage point to advocate for mitigation of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus prevents us from organizing as we are accustomed. I plan to follow State Senator Rob Hogg’s lead on this. As you likely know, experts are saying we will be challenged by the virus into 2022. This is a high priority.

I’m working on nuclear arms control issues with the Arms Control Association, and on the climate crisis with the Climate Reality Project. I’m also working with the Sierra Club on the Pattison Sand proposal to pump water from the Jordan Aquifer and ship it to arid western states. However those things dovetail with your organization will be our points of opportunity to work together.

The Biden administration will quickly become besieged with its efforts to undo the four years of the current administration, therefore I view moving the ball forward on our issues as something our folks in DC should lead. My expected local contributions include writing an op-ed for the Cedar Rapids Gazette every 4-6 weeks (arms control and social topics), organizing a group in Solon to help me work on issues including politics and political advocacy, and set the stage for a Democratic comeback in the 2022 election. Tall orders all.

I don’t see Iowans devoting much bandwidth to the TPNW (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) until there is an opportunity for the administration to listen and take action on the treaty. I forget who’s having the Zoom meeting that includes Rose Gottemoeller but I plan to listen in. For the time being, the U.S. government and those of the other nuclear states are ignoring the treaty. If that changes in the next couple of years I’ll get more involved.

If we don’t get organized ourselves, we will be hindered in working with others. Onward we go!


Going Alone on Climate

F.J. Krob and Company grain elevator. Ely, Iowa.

The 2020 general election produced a poor result for battling our biggest problems: income inequality, the climate crisis, environmental degradation, racial justice, nuclear weapons proliferation, and the coronavirus pandemic — even with election of a Democratic president. All of these issues are important yet the most significant is acting on the climate crisis.

Yesterday the United States formally exited the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. While waiting for votes to be counted, Candidate Joe Biden said, “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.”

German Budestag member Karl Lauterbach noted the results of the American election this morning, saying they set up gridlock in which “Biden hardly gets a law through, least of all in climate protection. Europe has to go alone.”

It’s not possible for any state to successfully go alone.

The failure of Democrats to secure a Senate majority makes the work more difficult. We know what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will do as we saw him obstruct the legislative goals of the last Democratic administration when Republicans were in both the minority and majority. While the work will be difficult, now that voting is finished, it must begin.

Wednesday morning, Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden-Harris campaign manager, and Bob Bauer, campaign adviser for voter protection, laid out the path to 270 electoral college votes and Trump efforts to suppress vote counting. After waking up with not enough sleep and in a fog, the information was assuring. Biden won the election and once the votes are counted it should be revealed. Now what?

The clear message from this election is there is too little work being done to move toward consensus on important issues. Of my list above, there is denial that any of them are problems. As if people say, “I’ve got mine, and that’s enough.” While I can devote time to advocacy it means little if I don’t bring others along with me. By “others” I mean people who currently don’t agree with me.

The ambient temperature was 50 degrees so I donned my riding shorts, took the bicycle down from its ceiling hooks, and aired the tires to 90 psi. I rode 13.7-miles to Ely and back to get things going after missing daily exercise on Tuesday while at the polling place. The long, straight stretch of trail from the roundabout to Ely was a chance to get some thinking done. After descending the steep hill beginning at Highway 382, I entered the zone and miles passed quickly. Not sure how much thinking I did, yet the sun and wind felt good as I pedaled and rolled north. A new beginning.

While coalition building begins alone, that’s not how it will end. It’s hard to know who will join. I helped build diverse, successful coalitions before and believe we can do it again. That work begins today.

When Joe Biden said the 2020 election was about “the soul of the nation” he got it right. Who will we be as Americans? For too long our worst impulses have dominated our public life. As a nation, we are better than that.

Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” What we know now is Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation a few years later. Was he being disingenuous? No, clearly not. He did what was needed to bring the Southern states, which had seceded, back into the imperfect union the United States represented since its founding. So it may be with addressing our most significant current challenges going forward.

We don’t want to upset the apple cart of public opinion as represented by the 2020 election results, but we must. It will be complicated and challenging, beginning with the idea going it alone solving society’s problems is no longer an option.


Trees Take a Hit

Apple blossoms on Sept. 17, 2020.

2020 is the year trees and shrubs planted in the mid-1990s took a hit.

While mowing for the first time after the Aug. 10 derecho I noticed an Earliblaze apple tree was in bloom. The branches with blooms had otherwise died.

The Red Delicious apple tree lost a major branch during the storm. It seems unlikely to survive, although I might be able to get a crop next year. The scar where the branch was is big. Sealing it from insect predators seems a temporary solution. I had the same experience with a Golden Delicious tree a few years ago. It’s already gone.

One of the lilac bushes suddenly lost all of its leaves. While mowing I noticed new leaves had begun to form. I presume it is next year’s leaves. It’s time to cut that bush out.

Our neighborhood continues to recover from the derecho. Chain saws run almost every day. Burn piles amass, piles of firewood lay everywhere. Although I cleaned up the fallen branches and trees this week, there is more work to be done and sadly it involves a chain saw rather than pruning shears.

Planting a tree is a long-term commitment. When we have a year like 2020 one questions the merit of decades of work when the derecho, combined with disease, mitigates that work so quickly and unexpectedly. I don’t measure my remaining time on this blue-green, turning brown sphere in decades any more. There is enough time to eat apples from new trees I planted this year.

The haze through which the sun shines originated in record-setting fires on the West Coast. The arctic also has a record number of fires. The arctic and antarctic glaciers are melting and don’t get enough snowfall to offset the loss. It is an increasingly hot planet. We are all impacted as the pollution spreads through the atmosphere.

Phase two of my tree work is taking care of many dead branches that cropped up since spring. There is time to work on it. The firewood pile is getting taller though, and isn’t finished growing yet.

Firewood pile Sept. 17, 2020

Year of Climate Disaster

Chestnuts on the ground.

If my posts about the climate crisis have been scarce this year it is because of a decision to focus time on political outcomes.

Under Republican governance needed action to protect the environment and take bold action to reduce the constant stream of inputs that warm the atmosphere and oceans seems unlikely. If anything, Republicans are taking us the wrong direction. I spend time each day working to elect Democrats in hope of a government that will take the climate crisis seriously and address the existential problem.

Weather in Iowa continues to be crazy. There was drought, a derecho, and now a few days of almost continuous rain expected to produce flash flooding. This is what the climate crisis looks like. It is not located in a misty future, it is now.

California fires have already burned 2.2 million acres, more than any year on record according to CBS News. It is only September. Half a million people are evacuating parts of Oregon due to fires there. Hurricane Laura brought devastation to the Louisiana and Texas oil patch. Record high temperatures are being set from Florida to California. If you think this is a new normal, you would be wrong. This is the beginning of a very turbulent period of extreme weather. From here it is expected to get worse.

Our current government makes no pretense about addressing the climate crisis. They are simply not going to do it, consequences be damned. That’s why it is important to change our governance and through the ballot box has been a dependable first effort. If we do elect Joe Biden president with a Democratic House and Senate, our work is only beginning. He and his potential administration must be held accountable to make needed change that positively impacts the environment.

Absentee ballots are to be mailed from county auditors in Iowa beginning Oct. 5. The period from then until Nov. 3 will be one of tracking down ballots. In addition we’ll spend time getting people to register to vote and cast their ballot. That will take most of our time and energy.

The climate crisis is urgently important. Just as a lifeguard sometimes must subdue a drowning victim to save them, so we must focus on the election. There will be time to set priorities after we win at the ballot box. If we don’t win, the priorities become much different and the climate crisis more dire.

We are stronger together and it will take all of us to turn the government around in 2020 and beyond. It is past time to act on the climate crisis.

Environment Living in Society

Jay Inslee at the Cedar River

Governor Jay Inslee at Ellis Park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 8, 2019.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Saturday afternoon I drove to the Overlook Pavilion in Ellis Park where State Senator Rob Hogg had organized a “climate conversation” with Washington Governor Jay Inslee who is an announced candidate for president.

Hogg reminded us of the 2008 Cedar River flooding. The river was visible behind him.

It is hard to forget the 2008 flood that devastated Iowa’s second largest city. On my way to the event I compared flooding levels of the Atherton Wetland on Ely Blacktop which had been covered with flood water in 2008. From the center of Cedar Rapids I used First Street Southwest, which runs next to the Cedar River, to find the park. On the eastern bank someone had built a flood wall. An earthen berm restricted the view of the river on some parts of First Street. The low-lying area had been inundated in 2008 causing damage to more than 5,000 homes, evacuation of 25,000 people, and roughly $4 billion dollars damage. The flood was made worse by climate change.

In his introductory remarks, Senator Hogg recognized elected officials and organizations present and encouraged the almost 200 attendees to engage in the Iowa caucus process of meeting with presidential candidates. Hogg added later, “with the spirit of citizenship, we can bring Americans together for climate action we so urgently need and the many climate solutions that work.”

Governor Inslee began his remarks with the reason he seeks to defeat climate change, his grandchildren. “We have a moral obligation to the young people of America to defeat climate change,” he said. Noting last week’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was 414.42 ppm (only slightly less than the record (415.70) set May 15), he added, “It is time to act on climate.”

Defeating climate change would be the first priority for an Inslee administration, the governor said. It was a “predicate for success” in all policy areas. If addressing climate change is not job one it won’t get done.

Inslee split from environmental groups like Citizen’s Climate Lobby when he said he did not support a tax on carbon. He favors regulatory reform to reduce carbon emissions. Based on his experience in Washington State, voters are unlikely to accept such a tax, he said.

Inslee asked for help in two areas of his campaign.

While he met the qualifications to participate in the first two debates being hosted by the Democratic National Committee, he has not met the 130,000 donor threshold to participate in the third and fourth. He encouraged those present to donate one dollar or more to his campaign and ask friends and family to do likewise.

Inslee wants the Democratic National Committee to devote one candidate debate to climate change so every participating candidate can lay out their plan to defeat it for voters to see. The request has been rejected, making supporting Inslee the best way to make sure the topic is covered during the debates, he said. Holding a climate change debate outside those sanctioned by DNC is not an option.

“It is the DNC’s job to organize the debate schedule, and the ground rules on unsanctioned debates were made clear with all the candidates, including Governor Inslee, and media partners months ago,” DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa told Mother Jones. The DNC welcomes candidates to join issue-specific forums instead.

The thrust of the conversation was Inslee has a positive progressive record in Washington State and wants to take that success to Washington, D.C. To learn more about Governor Jay Inslee, visit his website at

The Inslee campaign posted video of the event here.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Environment Kitchen Garden

Gardening the Climate Crisis

Garden Soil Turned over with a Spade

Gardening is one of the most popular activities on the planet. Whether one lives in an apartment, in a single-family home, or on a farm, local food and flower production can be satisfying on multiple levels. A garden can be a source of nourishment, beauty, exercise, learning, and personal satisfaction.  Gardening helps us to be sociable because almost everyone grows something or appreciates those who do.

Gardening is also a way of mitigating the effects of the climate crisis.

The Climate Reality Project posted a list of things gardeners can do to act on climate. They are easy to incorporate into a garden’s daily work. Here’s my take on their list.

Reduce or eliminate synthetic fertilizers

A few years ago I began using composted chicken manure to supplement compost from my bins. The resulting vegetables were dramatically better. This is the kind of fertilizer my local food farmer friends use and it is acceptable for certified organic crop production.

We don’t ask a lot of questions about where the chicken manure originates, and maybe we should, but Iowa ranks first in the United States for egg production with 57.5 million laying hens according to the Iowa Poultry Association. With an 18.2:1 chicken to human ratio, chicken manure is an abundant resource.

There are plenty of reasons to be wary of synthetic fertilizers, according to the Climate Reality Project. Chemical runoff from haphazardly applied fertilizer can drain into streams and lakes, making its way to our water supplies. They can disrupt naturally occurring soil ecosystems, and are a temporary solution to a long-term solvable problem.

When it comes to the climate crisis, fertilizer manufacturing is the issue.

“Four to six tons of carbon are typically emitted into the atmosphere per ton of nitrogen manufactured,” according to Dr. David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University.

Gardeners should be more conservative about nitrogen use in the garden. Using composted chicken manure to improve soil nitrogen levels can produce great results and avoid the greenhouse gas emissions of synthetic fertilizers.

Plant Trees and other perennials

When we built our home in 1993 there were two volunteer trees on our lot, a mulberry which remains in the northeast corner, and another that died and was replaced with a blue spruce grown from a seven inch seedling. In all I planted 17 of 18 trees here, of which 15 remain. We also have three patches of mature lilac bushes.

Atmospheric CO2 Levels

The benefit of planting trees is they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. Because of their long life and size, they store more carbon than other plants. Scientific data shows the impact of trees on our atmosphere. The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii measures carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Last Saturday, the level of atmospheric CO2 rose to 415.25 parts per million, higher than it has been since humans evolved. Click on the chart of monthly CO2 levels and you can see the impact of deciduous trees. While the overall level continues to rise, as the world greens up in spring, CO2 levels predictably, consistently fall. When leaves fall from the trees, CO2 levels rise again. The thing about planting trees is do it once and the focus can turn to other things.

Trees offer cool shade in the summer and protection from winter winds, so a well-placed tree can reduce emissions and energy bills associated with heating and cooling a home. Fruit trees provide an added bonus for gardeners.

Reduce water use

Science explains that the warmer temperatures associated with the climate crisis increase the rate of water evaporation into the atmosphere, drying out some areas and then falling as excess precipitation in others. This can lead to a cycle of water misuse in ever-drier areas, and plant diseases in regions where average annual precipitation is on the rise. In Iowa we have seen all of that, with the record drought of 2012, and severe flooding that got within 100 yards of our home in 2008.

Lawn and garden watering is estimated to account for 30 percent of all residential water use in the U.S., according to the EPA, and that number “can be much higher in drier parts of the country and in more water-intensive landscapes.” And as much as 50 percent of it is lost to evaporation, wind, or runoff. Water conservation is everyone’s business. I’m not sure why anyone would water a lawn, except maybe a golf course. I don’t play golf. It is better to let a lawn survive in varying temperatures and moisture levels. Thus far in Iowa that’s been possible.

I don’t use an irrigation system or sprinkler in my garden. To ensure adequate moisture to sustain plants in seven plots, I use grass clippings as mulch. Often there are not enough clippings so I’ve been experimenting with plastic sheeting for peppers, cucumbers and broccoli. I have successfully re-used the plastic for multiple years. I use a garden hose to water at the base of the plants and do so sparingly.

“Less frequent, deep watering also encourages deeper root growth to areas where the soil stays moist longer,” according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension. “If supplemental water is determined to be necessary at a specific time and location, be sure to use no more than is needed and minimize your use of potable water.”

Focus on soil health

I have gardened non-stop since we moved into a rented duplex after our 1982 marriage. I have gotten better at gardening, but the biggest improvements came after we ceased being renters and bought our own homes, first in Lake County, Indiana, and then in Johnson County, Iowa. Owning our home enabled me to better consider soil health and long-term investing in it.

When we moved here the living layer of top soil had been removed and sold by the developer, leaving a hard, heavy surface devoid of earthworms and other visible life forms. Gardening, by its nature, must address soil health because if there is no life in the soil, fruit and vegetables won’t grow as well. This is the lesson of row crop agriculture where the best soil has eroded and what remains is supplemented with synthetic fertilizers and other inputs to create an artificial environment for plant growth and pest control.

The story of climate change’s impact on soil health is mostly about changing precipitation patterns, according to the Climate Reality Project.

Extreme downpours can lead to runoff and erosion, stripping healthy soil of key nutrients needed to sustain agriculture. On the other end of the spectrum, frequent droughts can kill off the vital living soil ecosystems necessary to grow healthy crops – and of course, plants can’t grow without water either.

What a gardener wants is soil rich in microorganisms that will sustain plant life through drought and heavy rains. After years of work composting and working our garden plots we can see plenty of earthworms. They are the most visible aspect of a rich miniature biome that sequesters carbon and stores water to make irrigation less needed. Healthy soil helps a garden survive short-term drought and heavy rains by sustaining moisture in the ground near plant roots.

Not many gardeners I know use cover crops, but that is an option to increase soil health. Like most, I add compost in the spring before tillage until the bins are empty.

Reduce tillage

Over the years my relationship with gasoline powered tillers has been inconsistent. A low- or no-till approach to gardening can plays a big role in building the soil organic matter. The reason is simple, when you rototill the ground, you break up the soil ecosystem.

“At its most basic, no-till gardening is the practice of growing produce without disturbing the soil through tillage or plowing,” according to the Climate Reality Project. “In addition to locking up more carbon in the soil, this approach dramatically cuts back on fossil-fuel use in gardening. After all, gasoline-powered garden tools are emitters of CO2.”

The best way to say it is I’m in transition regarding tillage. I have always turned over all the soil in a plot with a spade. What varied over time was whether or not I used a tiller. Sometimes a rented or borrowed a large rototiller to do everything at once, sometimes I used a smaller sized tiller inherited from our father-in-law’s estate, and now I break up the soil with a hoe and rake. I’ve been changing my way of thinking.

Last year I made a tomato plot but instead of turning the entire plot over and breaking the clods of soil down with a hoe and rake, I made two-foot lanes for the tomatoes. The production was excellent. Not tilling the entire plot leaves some of the soil structure in place and in the long term, that’s better for soil health.

This is an ongoing experiment, but the obvious conclusion is less tillage is better.

Opt for hand tools

My main garden tools are shovels, a hoe, rakes, a post driver, and a bucket of hand tools. Eliminating use of a rototiller was an important step in reducing emissions and using the spade, hoe and garden rake to break up the soil provides exercise. I also plant crops in four waves: early (kale, broccoli, peas, carrots, beets, radishes), succession planting (spinach, onions, leeks, herbs, beans and celery), tomatoes, and late (cucumbers, zucchini, squash, eggplant and peppers). Spreading planting over weeks helps make the physical labor of using hand tools more tolerable.

With a large garden and yard it proved difficult to make the battery-powered trimmer work: I kept running out of charge. When it broke, I got a new gasoline-powered trimmer. I also use my gasoline-powered mower and a chain saw. I used less than five gallons of gasoline between the lawn mower, chain saw and trimmer this year. Not perfect, but consistent with a practice to reduce the amount of garden emissions.

Part of my strategy of lawn maintenance is to avoid the use of chemicals completely and mow less often, maybe once every three or four weeks. The benefit of this practice is the lawn becomes a habitat for local flora and fauna. The downside is I don’t get enough grass clippings in a season for mulch. After years of the practice, the neighbors haven’t complained.


The climate crisis is real, it is now, and we have to do something about it. The lesson I learned from being a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps is there are many way to contribute to solutions in our daily lives. Among the things we do in a day, mitigating the effects of climate change must be one of them. We are all in this together and even a gardener can do something to help.

~ To learn more about the Climate Reality Project, visit