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How to Garden Through Climate Change

Morgan, who is also the editor of Organic Farming magazine, owns Empire Farm, a 100-acre organic farm in Somerset, in southwest England. A champion of resilient, low-carbon, and peat-free gardens, Morgan advises how to use sustainable approaches to cope with the challenges of a changing climate through regenerative gardening and permaculture.

In the middle of the U.K.’s recent record heatwave, Morgan spoke with Civil Eats about the importance of employing no-till methods and cover crops in your backyard, the art of loving weeds, and the future of saving seeds.

“It locks up so much carbon, and I just get so frustrated when I see gardeners using peat because they think it’s perfect, weed-free, and cheap.”

In many of your books, you talk about the fact that soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of the carbon they previously held. You also mention how practices like no-till are more important than ever. We’ve reported a lot on no-till farming in the U.S. in terms of large-scale agriculture; can you share how those principles can apply in our own backyards? Why is it important for climate gardening?

I think for gardeners, no-dig or no-till, as you refer to it, has its benefits. Every time you put your fork in that ground and pull up soil, you’re exposing it to oxidization, and that carbon just evaporates. For me, [not disturbing the soil] is capturing that carbon, and putting the layer of compost or mulching material on the surface of that soil protects the soil through the winter months. At the moment, we’ve got a heatwave—it’s about 32°C (89°F)—and [that layer of material] is protecting my soil.

I also have a big thing about peat. Over here we have a big campaign to stop using peat in gardens, in potting compost, etc. In the States and in Canada, a lot of peat is dug up [to make potting soil], and peat in the ground is our best weapon against climate change. It locks up so much carbon, and I just get so frustrated when I see gardeners using peat because they think it’s perfect, weed-free, and cheap.

And, and then mulching! I’ve been mulching my own beds this week with the heatwave coming. It will protect your soil; it will improve the drainage and retain moisture; and [it] gives more organic matter for your soil organisms and leads to healthier soil.

The other thing that a gardener can do is compost everything. Composting and locking in that carbon in your own closed loop in your own garden is great.

Sally Morgan says mulching can protect soil, improve drainage, retain moisture, and provide organic matter, all of which leads to healthier soil. (Photo credit: Sally Morgan)

What can gardeners use instead of peat?

There’s all sorts of things one can do. Over here, we have quite innovative horticultural companies looking at alternatives. One of the best ones is woodchip. A colleague of mine at the Soil Association has written a book called The Woodchip Handbook, and it’s amazing how woodchips, when allowed to digest, break down, and decay, form a really good basis for a potting medium.

Alternatively, you can use wool bracken and also coconut coir, but it has a few question marks against it because it’s a waste material from coconut plantations, grown mostly in India and Sri Lanka. So, there is this question about is it better to transport the coir, albeit in very compressed form, by tanker from South Asia to Europe and beyond? Or should you dig up the peat? I think it’s better at the moment to use coir. But going forward, if we can use other green materials that are wasted materials—like woodchip, food waste materials, [and] straw—[you] can also form a basis for replacing peat. But you can’t be beat good old compost, and I make a lot of compost here. I will also use loam.

People seem to forget that you can use topsoil as a loam as part of your potting compost. And the lovely soil that moles bring up from their tunneling is great for making potting compost. For me, loam from my mole hill, compost, and also leaf mold, fallen leaves allowed to rot down in a bag for a year or two, provide the most amazing medium. I’ve got three ingredients in my potting compost: one-third compost, one-third rotten down leaf mold, and one-third loam that I’ve got from molehills in my field is perfect. It’s a little bit weedy, but no peat.

Composting is great for boosting soil fertility, and many organic farmers use cover crops, or green manures, to improve their soil structure and fertility. How can you use cover crops in the garden?

I use phacelia, a lovely fast-growing plant. It’s one of the best for bulking up soil and has the most impressive biomass improving rating. It’s got lovely little purple flowers, and is great for bees and parasitic wasps. You can also use buckwheat, which will come in later in the season and grow for four months and be finished off by cold weather. I also use a lot of legumes; I have the most gorgeous crimson clover, which I try and grow ornamentally as well en masse to get beautiful deep red flowers and is nitrogen fixing, adding biomass to my soil.

When I’m finished with these crops, I will cover them with carboard or with a piece of plastic so they rot down and by the time I come to use them later in the year or next spring, I have this lovely fine mulch over the surface which is perfect for planting into. Cover crops are just as good as compost in many respects. And they will give you biomass for your organic matter, may provide some flowers for your pollinators and beneficials, and, all for a cost of this pack of seeds, which is even better.

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