The $100 Carbon-neutral kitchen garden

🕔May 22, 2008

Come July 1, residents of BC will be paying even more to fill up the gas tank and fire up the furnace, thanks to BC’s new carbon tax.
The introduction of the controversial new carbon tax is meant to induce conservation and encourage BC residents to use alternative transportation and heating technologies. It claims to be revenue neutral, meaning every dollar of carbon tax paid at the pump will be directly offset by reductions to personal and business income tax.
To that end, the BC Government is putting its money where its mouth is, and during the month of June every BC resident will receive a Climate Action Dividend cheque for $100. This one-time-only payment is meant to help residents invest in lifestyle changes, which will in turn allow them to reduce their fossil fuel dependency.
Herein lies the dilemma. For over six months of every year families of northern BC don’t have the simple luxury of being able to turn down the thermostat or walk to work. We do, after all, live in the north—best known for cold winters and remote living. Most of our rural towns and villages aren’t even serviced by transit, and only a few would even consider braving the bike to work in -30°C temperatures.
So how then do we invest our 100 bucks in a meaningful, life-changing way that will not only reduce our fossil-fuel dependency, but also provide us with a return on our investment?

Well, how about a garden?
With less money in-pocket come July, putting a healthy meal on the table every night will become more challenging. Although the carbon tax is meant to be revenue neutral, the reality is it will cost more to grow and transport fresh fruit and produce, imports we currently depend upon heavily. To meet that challenge head-on, families everywhere can take their carbon dividend cheques ($100 per family member) and invest in a kitchen garden.
What’s a kitchen garden? Basically, it’s a backyard (or possibly front-yard) garden where the family grows at least some of the fruits, vegetables and herbs it requires to sustain itself. It might be 50 or 500 square feet…or maybe only a few containers on the apartment balcony. The amount of food that can be harvested from even a small area is surprising.

A new, old idea
According to Cornell University’s Harvest of Freedom, A History of Kitchen Gardens in America, kitchen gardens are really the very essence of what colonized America. “The kitchen garden plot figured prominently in the early American psyche as a means to achieve the household security and economic independence that were elusive dreams for many in the Old World.”
The age of industrialization changed the economy of kitchen gardens; they no longer provided the same level of financial security and independence of days gone by, but during both World Wars, when times were toughest, families, neighbourhoods—even entire communities—came together and, in the best interests of society, they gardened.
Taking over vacant lots and church courtyards, they planted “victory gardens,” growing literally thousands of bushels of potatoes as well as beans, squash, pumpkins and other vegetables in their attempt to offset the pressure on the public food supply. In her 1980 article for City Farmer, Shirley Buswell states, “In 1943, the Vancouver papers reported there were 209,200 Victory Gardens in Canada, and on the average they produced 550 lbs. of vegetables each. One gardener in seven was a city dweller.”
It’s true that today we face a different set of challenges; climate change, peak oil, water scarcity, pollution and waste—to name but a few—but returning to the kitchen garden makes as much sense now as it did during wartime. As we strive to find healthy, affordable, carbon-neutral alternatives to nourish and sustain ourselves, it’s surprising to learn that the cheapest, most convenient one is right outside our kitchen door.
Not only is the concept of growing our own food economical, having it readily available outside our back door means less trips to the supermarket. Home gardening is also energy efficient compared to huge commercial farms; it requires little to no electricity or fuel and the average 15 by 30-foot plot rarely needs to be visited by a tractor. Most kitchen gardeners use minimal amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, if any, translating into healthier produce with little or no harm to the environment. What little fertilizer the garden does require can be obtained by simply composting the garden and food wastes accumulated by the very kitchen it serves; sustainability at its best!

Getting started—at low cost
Now, gardening isn’t all easy—don’t get me wrong!—especially when you only have about 100 frost-free days in many northern areas. But here are a few tips to get you started on your own kitchen garden for under 100 bucks:

• Choose the right site and know your frost dates. Your site should receive at least six hours of full sun each day, preferably facing south to southwest, and within close proximity to the house for easy access and watering. If you don’t have a suitable site, get creative: can you garden cooperatively with a neighbour or start a neighbourhood garden on a vacant lot, or as part of a community park? Community gardens are a great way to share resources, knowledge, and labour.
• Recycle. Put to use old buckets, wooden dresser drawers, clay pots, wicker baskets, worn out wheelbarrows, old laundry baskets, and even leaky hoses. Be creative with what can be reused in the garden and on the balcony.
• Compost, compost, compost!-—to improve your soil. One secret to gardening success is good soil and it is as simple as composting your garden and kitchen waste and adding it back to the soil every year. When starting a garden it makes sense to put the lion’s share of your investment into rich topsoil. If your soil is poor or lacking, pay a visit to some local farms where you may be able to acquire well rotted manure or organic-rich topsoil for a steal compared to garden-supply prices. Continue investing every year by adding your own compost; it will pay huge dividends over time.
• Share, exchange and save seeds whenever possible. In addition to saving money on seed and fuel in the shipping process, you will also have the added benefit of planting what’s already proven to grow in your area.
• Beg, borrow and buy cooperatively the larger tools that you don’t use daily. Check with community garden groups or experienced gardeners to exchange your labour or skill for the use of more expensive equipment.
• Some basic startup purchases to create a small 15 × 30-foot backyard garden plot might include a round-nose shovel, rake, hoe, trowel, watering hose, soil, manure and, of course, seeds or bedding plants. If you don’t have the yard space, you will also need containers.
• In order to maximize your budget for seed, it might be worth limiting yourself to proven winners for your area and your family. Northern gardener Dave Havard, author of Gardening Between Frosts, suggests Norland potatoes, Lincoln peas, Amsterdam Coreless half-long carrots, Premium Crop single-head broccoli, Copenhagen Market cabbage, Contender green beans and, if you’re interested in a bit of a challenge, why not give Earligirl or Sweet 100 tomatoes a try?

Obviously this is a very basic list of tools, gardening gear and seeds, and you may need to borrow larger items to break the soil. It does, however, illustrate the point that the $100 carbon-dividend cheque can go a long way towards, or even meet, the very basic initial investment required for a first-year kitchen garden.
Statistics on the estimated yield from a small kitchen garden are hard to find and harder yet to interpret as plant varieties, site, and soil all play such an important role in how much each plant produces. There is a great deal to learn about vegetable gardening, not to mention preserving and freezing techniques to put your harvest to best use.
The good news is that today we have access to a plethora of books, websites and community gardening groups dedicated specifically to environmentally sustainable gardening techniques, and much of this is free for the asking. If you use these resources wisely, odds are that your garden will produce generously and the food you harvest will be healthy, will arrive at your table without CO2-emitting transportation, and won’t have to be purchased at the supermarket. That is the real return on your investment.
So, join the movement back to the kitchen garden and plant a seed of sustainability with your carbon dividend cheque. Nothing else costs so little and tastes so good!