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Embrace the messy garden, and other secrets of conservation farming in your own backyard

A man wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt, brown pants and a hat rakes soil in a raised garden box. The box still has soil and some old tall grass sticking out.
Rae Solomon
Mark Easter works in his backyard garden in Fort Collins on April 3, 2023. Easter uses carbon gardening techniques, like leaving last year's plant residue in place, to increase the carbon organic content of his soil, which has a host of benefits for his crops and the broader climate.

It was early April, and Mark Easter’s backyard garden in Fort Collins was a tangled mess of dried-up, yellow, dead plants: the remnants of last year’s growing season. Now the ground was finally thawed and ready for an early spring refresh, but cleaning up all that leftover plant debris was not on Easter’s to do list.

He welcomed the messiness as a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

“A messy garden actually leads to better crops in the end,” Easter said.

That’s because the plant debris is feeding the soil. It might look messy, but to Easter, an ecologist and retired Colorado State University researcher, it’s all carbon-rich biomass.

Easter said the messy garden isn’t just good for his own backyard ecosystem — it’s doing work for the planet at large as a carbon sink, which means it absorbs more carbon than it releases to the atmosphere.

Climate experts say we need to store a lot of carbon in our working agricultural lands — nearly 900 million acres in the U.S. — to avoid catastrophic global warming. At that huge scale, soil carbon sequestration has a lot of potential to mitigate climate change.

But Easter is doing the work on a much smaller scale. He’s sequestering carbon in his backyard garden by using a specific set of cultivation practices.

“By disturbing the soil less, by leaving those crop residues in place, trying to get cover crops in place, you're essentially taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through the action of the plants and storing it in the soil as organic matter,” he said.

Conservation farming principles

Those practices all make up the backbone of regenerative farming, which is also often called conservation farming, or carbon farming or even just plain farming for soil health:

  • Keep the ground covered using mulch, living or dead plants. When soil is exposed, it releases stored carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Minimize soil disturbance by not tilling or turning over the soil. According to CSU horticultural specialist Cassey Anderson, disturbing the soil exposes it to air and UV rays, which break the chemical bonds in soil carbon, turning into carbon dioxide that’s released to the atmosphere. “The more you expose your soil to air, that's going to make that soil carbon release back into the atmosphere,” Anderson said.
  • Keep living roots in the ground year-round, which prevents soil erosion and maximizes the amount of carbon those roots fix in the soil.
  • Cultivate plant diversity, which usually takes the form of rotating crops, to ensure a healthy soil ecosystem.
  • Livestock integration, which means grazing cattle or other animals, in the croplands. The animals leave manure behind and do other helpful work in the fields.

As an ecologist, Easter spent much of his career helping farmers adopt those practices in their fields. It wasn’t a huge leap for him to decide to tweak the idea for his own backyard, where he said his conservation gardening techniques are very similar to what regenerative farmers would be doing on a commercial scale.
“For our system, at this scale it’s going to be a little bit different. But the principles are the same,” he said.

Mark Easter's backyard garden is messy - and that's the way he likes it. The leftover plant debris from the previous year protects the soil and adds organic matter as it decomposes.
Rae Solomon
Mark Easter's backyard garden is messy - and that's the way he likes it. The leftover plant debris from the previous year protects the soil and adds organic matter as it decomposes.

Climate impact of the backyard garden

The principles of carbon gardening might be the same as carbon farming, but when it comes to climate impact, scale is everything.

“The carbon sequestration that's happening in somebody's backyard is tiny compared to the problem at hand,” said Jane Zelikova, director of CSU’s Soil Carbon Solution Center.

The climate crisis clearly isn’t going to be solved by backyard gardens alone. But according to Zelikova, there are a host of other good reasons to build up the soil carbon content in your backyard: Soil carbon is a decent stand-in for soil health.

“Carbon is just one co-benefit. For most people who use regenerative ag practices, it’s not the main goal,” Zelikova said.

Conservation practices build soil with better water infiltration and retention, making gardens more drought resistant — a particularly important quality in the arid west.

They also help improve other nutrient profiles in the soil.

“The water and nitrogen and carbon cycles are tightly interlinked,” Zelikova said. Over time, as you build up the carbon content of your soil, “you build a soil system in your garden that holds on to a lot more nutrients so you don't have to fertilize so much.”

Cassey Anderson, the horticulturalist, advises that through a combination of regenerative practices, backyard gardeners can realistically aim to increase the carbon content of their soil to about 3-5%, over time.

“Once you get to that level, then you're really holding about as much as the soil is really going to want to hold before you start getting imbalances,” she said, adding that regular soil testing is necessary to keep track of how much carbon you have and how much you’ve added over time.

And while the climate impact of any one backyard garden might be but a drop in the ocean, Zelikova emphasized that to mitigate catastrophic climate change, we need to manage every acre of land optimally to keep carbon in the ground. Every backyard plot contributes something, and every gardener is part of something bigger.

"Just being able to see what it takes to do that in your backyard is really helpful for connecting to the broader effort."
Jane Zelikova, director of CSU's Soil Carbon Solution Center

What it takes to do it in your backyard

Backyard carbon gardening can start out pretty simple. In Mark Easter’s backyard, the messy garden does a lot of work in and of itself. The soil is covered — protected — under all that yellowed plant debris he didn’t clear away at the end of the last growing season.

“It's just one less chore I have to do in the fall,” Easter chuckled.

But he takes carbon gardening a few steps further, planting cover crops in the off-season. That helps keep the ground covered and provides living roots for much of the year. It also boosts crop diversity: He uses a custom mix of seeds.

We've got two different types of legumes in here. We've got field peas and Austrian winter peas and then some hairy vetch,” Easter explained, poking a finger around a handful of seeds. The mix also included yellow mustard, tillage radish, buckwheat, oats and rye.

“The objective is a living root in the soil, 365 days a year,” Easter explained. “You're trying to feed the microbial community below ground.”

Home gardeners often turn over the soil to clear the ground before planting, but that’s an unnecessary disturbance that will cost you soil organic matter.

“When you disturb the soil, you lose the carbon that it holds,” Zelikova cautioned. She recommended planting new seeds into spaces between existing plants.

In Easter’s garden, the approach was to make room for the new seeds by gently brushing dead vegetation off to the side with a hoe.

“I'm trying to disturb the soil, the deep soil as little as possible,” Easter explained as he worked.

After sowing the seeds, he replaced the brushed-aside plant residue, sprinkling it back on top of the buried seeds.

“We’ll put it back in place here and use it to cover the soil,” he explained. “It helps prevent erosion, helps hold moisture. It acts as a kind of a mulch.”

Mark Easter's custom cover crop seed mix includes two types of peas, hairy vetch, yellow mustard, tillage radish, buckwheat oats and rye. He plans cover crops in the fall and early spring. They keep the soil covered, provide extra plant diversity and living roots in the ground. He also harvests them as produce.
Rae Solomon
Mark Easter's custom cover crop seed mix includes two types of peas, hairy vetch, yellow mustard, tillage radish, buckwheat oats and rye. He plants cover crops in the fall and early spring. They keep the soil covered, provide extra plant diversity and living roots in the ground. He also harvests them as produce.

As those leftovers decompose, they will enrich the bed with organic matter. Meanwhile, the new seeds will sprout into the next generation of carbon-absorbing soil cover.

As for bringing grazing cattle into the mix, Zelikova conceded that integrating livestock probably wouldn’t work for most home gardeners. “That's challenging to do in a tiny backyard,” she said. “That's probably going to be a principle that's hard to pull off.”

Easter doesn’t attempt to bring animals onto his property, but regularly feeds his soil with compost, which provides some of the same benefit, and certainly enriches his soil.

And all that work has paid off. Easter has been testing his soil since 1995, when he started adapting the principles of conservation agriculture in his own backyard. In that time, he calculated that he’s increased the carbon content of his property by 757 pounds, which means he’s taken that much carbon out of the atmosphere and stored it in his soil.

That might not be a lot in the grand scheme of things. But Easter said that over that same period, his yields have improved, and his crops have become more pest- and drought-resistant.

“We're not just getting delicious food, We're getting a garden here that's just a lot more resilient to the sorts of challenges it faces.”
Mark Easter, ecologist and retired Colorado State University researcher

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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