The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Carbon sinks on the homestead


While we refer to our "lawn" only in parentheses since the grass is full of dandelions, clover, and whatnot and never gets fertilized (except with the chicken tractor), I do occasionally feel guilty about the grassy areas.  Granted, on our farm, grassy garden aisles make sense, but most like-minded people think all lawns are evil.  However, as I mowed Thursday, I started wondering whether the carbon dioxide coming from our mower might not be offset by the carbon being sequestered in the soil as grass blades and roots turn into humus.

Sure enough, independent scientists (in addition to the lawn-care "scientists" you might expect to feel this way) report that lawns do act as carbon sinks.  A minimal input lawn like ours that only gets mowed with no other treatment sequesters about 147 pounds of carbon per lawn per year (after you subtract out the carbon released by the mower).  The abstract I read didn't mention lawn size, but I'm assuming they're using the American average of a fifth of an acre, which matches up with another study that reports each acre of lawn sequesters a net of 760 pounds of carbon per year.

Of course, cover crops will put the puny carbon sequestration powers of a lawn to shame.  Sorghum-sudangrass will pump a massive 10,565 pounds of carbon per acre into the soil, and oilseed radishes don't do so bad either at 3,200 pounds of carbon per acre.  In fact, a 120-year-old northeastern woodland only clocks in around the carbon sequestration powers of oilseed radishes, and you can still grow tomatoes in the oilseed-radish ground during the summer.

Which is all a very long way of saying --- if you're considering making a patio or leaving that area as lawn, go for the lawn.  But if you really want to sequester carbon fast, plant some cover crops.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I'm mowing about 2 acres of what I euphemistically call "lawn" and despite the trees and blackberry brambles Mother Nature has kindly decided to provide, the mowing of the blasted area is more a headache than anything else. Unfortunately, I can't leave it because to get from point A to point B requires going through what I call "tick heaven" and since I really really really don't want to get Lyme Disease... A former coworker has it and she goes through trauma every month getting the antibiotics which screws up her system. Unfortunately, left untreated, Lyme disease can migrate up to the brain. So I guess I'll continue to mow the "lawn". Actually what I have is former cow pasture that's been left to weeds like Johnson grass and crap uh... crab grass. The good thing is that after mowing, I usually try to pick the chopped grass up and use it as mulch in the garden beds. Definitely keeps the weeds and other grasses out especially if you pack it down. I now noticed that white clover has suddenly made an appearance and seems to be pushing out the other grasses. White clover is good. It only gets to be about 4 inches tall. Much better than 6.5 or 7 feet of Johnson grass.
Comment by Nayan Sat Aug 30 17:20:02 2014
BTW, I love the pic of you in the sunflower field! Can I use that as the basis of a painting??
Comment by Nayan Sun Aug 31 11:42:35 2014
Nayan --- Sure, you're very welcome to use any of our images as the base of a painting. Interestingly enough, the only other person who ever did that (or at least told us about it) painted sunflowers too.
Comment by anna Sun Aug 31 13:05:01 2014
The biosphere doesn't really "sequester" any carbon. Any it removes from the atmosphere is only temporarily sequestered: the plant will die and the carbon quickly returned to the atmosphere. Even a tree only sequesters carbon for about 100 yrs- a mere heartbeat in geological time. Even the removal of so much land from production by civilization is virtually immeasurable compared to the total photosynthetic surface of the planet. And remember that all photosynthesis would cease if co2 levels fall below 160ppm. Our current 390ppm is dangerously close to that, considering the average level over the history of the planet is more like 1000ppm.
Comment by doc Sun Aug 31 14:09:58 2014
WOW! She's good! Much better than me.
Comment by Nayan Sun Aug 31 22:53:06 2014

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