How to Get More Wildlife into Your Garden and Absorb More Carbon – by Penny Anderson

Whatever size garden, window box or balcony you might have, you can contribute to helping your gardening capture more carbon (see this Gardeners’ World information). You just need to remember that most garden carbon is in the soil (some 83%). To maximise this, add lots of compost (made by you preferably), organic manures if available, or a mulch layer. This all helps preserve soil moisture, supply nutrients, improve aeration, moderate temperatures and keeps those worms happy. Keep bare soil to a minimum – so lots of flowers to support all invertebrates as well or cover crops between vegetable harvests. Give your back a break and don’t dig. This is much better for the soil fauna and the carbon which is otherwise aerated and broken down if disturbed annually. Just remove the weeds without digging – I only dig to get the potatoes out and that is only once every three years if you rotate the crops. Use your grass cuttings to mulch between vegetable rows or round those fruit trees – it saves masses of weeding but also keeps in the moisture and helps protect the soil.

There are lots of dos and don’ts in the beds too. Grow more perennials, shrubs and trees rather than annuals to save disturbing the soil. Never use peat – and try to persuade your local garden centres and plant producers not to as well (see this Plantlife information). Some of the better plant producers are going green and ensuring recycled plastics are used, or removing them altogether, stopping peat use and generally becoming more environmentally sustainable. Look out for their declarations on this and support them accordingly.

How about relabelling your lawn as a meadow (to help persuade the neighbours)? Add lots of red clover and other legumes plus diversify the swards as this increases carbon sequestration significantly, but don’t use fertilisers or other chemicals on them. Lots of mosses are good for carbon (and you could always learn to identify them all as well!). Agro-chemicals are carbon intensive in their production, but also reduce carbon sequestration if used. Diversifying the lawn (sorry – meadow) will reduce watering (best not to waste water anyway – use plants tolerant of your local conditions and make sure there is a great variety of rooting depths to help in droughts) and cutting requirements. Try cutting round the edges to look neat and tidy and stop lawns creeping into the flowerbeds, but also don’t cut the meadow bits until autumn to let all the plants seed and the different invertebrates complete their life cycles. You might need some shorter areas for games etc, but try to let it grow longer, cut less often and leave the cuttings on the grass as this can increase carbon capture by 59%.

Everyone has room for a pond – even an old-fashioned upturned dustbin lid can attract different animals. The best small ponds are very good carbon traps, but make sure they stay wet and are full of pond plants. Don’t forget the marshy bits around the pond if you have space. You could capture rain from roofs to fill your pond and provide water for the garden. Tap water is high in embedded carbon so avoid at all costs. This Wildlife Trusts webpage tells you how, but try to make it as naturalistic as possible.

Grow more trees and shrubs to suit your garden – this can shade and reduce house temperatures in hot summers as well as adding carbon to your garden, especially when they are growing strongly (see Trees safely growing around buildings can reduce energy needs by 20-40% by cooling in summer and reducing air flows in winter. Climbers on the walls can also help regulate inside temperatures. Try not to cut too much woody material back each year – the right tree in the right place is a good mantra. And don’t burn any garden waste – make log or brush piles, or chip and compost all material – or share it out with your neighbours who can help, or pile it on the allotment – the blackbirds and song thrushes will nest in it when you are not looking. Persuade your neighbours to follow suit by initiating conversations, starting competitions and sharing results – your ideas will be better here than mine.

Thinking of adding decking or sitting out areas? Use recycled materials, make them permeable and avoid concrete and plastic. The less solid garden cover you have, the better rain penetration and carbon capture – you can even have short vegetation between the wheel lines along your drive. Can you add a green roof to that garden shed or other structure? How about that greenhouse if you are lucky enough to have one? Mine is essential as I garden at 1000 feet elevation, but avoid using fossil fuels to heat it. Use insulation in the winter if needed.

Having just completed a note on how to incorporate carbon into your gardening, low and behold, out comes a comprehensive book on the subject. Anyone interested – look for How to Garden the Low Carbon Way by Sally Nex, produced by RHS.

Let me and the Action 2030 group know how you get on – write a blog for CIEEM on your progress, tell us your ideas (good or bad) and spread the word!

Penny will be speaking at our 2022 Autumn Conference: Delivering A Nature Positive, Carbon Negative Future about where most carbon is currently stored in terms of habitats and soils, the kinds of activities that releases it and how to maximise sequestration of future carbon whilst rebuilding biodiversity at the same time.

Find out more and book your Autumn Conference ticket here


Penny is a CIEEM Fellow who, in 2015, was awarded the CIEEM Medal for her outstanding, lifelong contribution to promoting high standards of ecological consultancy and habitat management. Penny is also a member of CIEEM’s Action 2030 working group. She spent most of the last 30 years or so of her career, before sort of retiring, working on peatland restoration to restore mire functioning and stop carbon loss. She has also promoted carbon sequestration in flower-rich grasslands at the recent ERHC Special Interest Group conference, and her recent In Practice article (see March 2021 edition) co-authored with Action 2030 working group member Tamsin Morris extends her interest in carbon and other habitats. She has mapped appropriate areas for tree planting in parts of the Dark Peak moorlands and is heavily involved in enhancing and monitoring a wide range of hay meadows for the National Trust as part of her voluntary effort.


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