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Who Knew Recycling Could Be a Bad Thing?

According to one book, all those green clippings are just sucking up oxygen

October 10, 2002|ROBERT SMAUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's truly amazing what you can stuff into those green-waste recycling cans. I managed to put a driveway full of tree prunings into one last week after I used a step stool to get inside the can to mash down the leaves and branches. I felt like a magician pulling endless scarves or bunnies from a hat, only in reverse.

But now I learn that recycling green waste from the garden may be a bad idea, at least on the municipal level. "What!" you say.

According to author Douglas Kent in "A New Era of Gardening" (Garden Shed Productions; www. gardeningforoxgen.com), big-time composting, right along with burning fossil fuels, may be contributing to the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and the decrease in oxygen. The 103-page paperback was one of a number of new garden books I read during the dog days of late summer and early fall. It's become a bit of a tradition with me, saving much of my garden reading for August and September when it is too hot outside to do much around the yard.

Kent suggests that many common gardening practices hurt the environment, even if they do make our little piece of it more enjoyable. This Orange County garden landscaper points out that much of what we do while building and maintaining a garden adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and contributes to the so-called greenhouse effect, which causes global warming.

I had a hard time believing that my garden might be contributing to the poor health of the planet. Why, I compost, I use only organic products, I have an electric mower and a fairly quiet battery-operated electric blower. Half of my garden is drought-resistant, and there's barely any lawn. Trees help cool our house. Birds bathe in our bath. How could I be harming the environment?

Kent says that by burning fossil fuels, or that by using products that require the burning of fossil fuels, we are releasing carbon dioxide that has been trapped in those fuels for eons. Even the electricity for my mower must be generated, most often, by burning gas or coal.

At the same time, when we recycle on a big scale--by putting tree prunings into green cans--we are not burying any carbon dioxide, so more and more of the gas accumulates. Trees capture carbon dioxide and in order to compensate for all that we are releasing, he says, we need to bury some, in landfills.

That's an oversimplification, but you can read the book and take his energy audit in Chapter 4 yourself. You'll soon see if you are helping or hurting the environment with your gardening practices. I actually ended up faring fairly well.

Of the dozens of new gardening books, none was quite as controversial as Kent's, but here are a few I found intriguing or useful:

The whopping 705-page "California Master Gardener Handbook" (University of California; anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu) takes everything that the experts at the University of California Cooperative Extension know about gardening and crushes it between two covers. Edited by Dennis R. Pittenger, this 4-pound paperback is used as a text in the Master Gardener training program, so it is not casual reading. But it works as a voluminous reference for the home gardener, covering most garden topics from soils to poisonous plants.

There's information on soil preparation, weeds, watering, fertilizer, pests (of garden and home), even on garden design. There are pruning guidelines for confers, mowing times for ground covers and lists of plants that are resistant to oak root fungus.

There's a chart that tells the light requirement of indoor plants, and their most common problems. But it's particularly helpful on the subject of edible plants.

There's a big vegetable planting guide, the latest information on fruit trees, chapters on citrus and avocados, even a whole chapter on grapes and another on berries. There's a ton of information here. Other garden books should feel threatened.

"The Botanical Garden," by Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix (Firefly Books), is a two-volume tome that is handsomely photographed and quite fun to look through because it lists the 1,000 or so genera in evolutionary order, picturing each with several examples. Volume 1 lists trees and shrubs; Volume 2 lists perennials and annuals. The excellent photos of leaves and flowers make this a very useful reference, but it goes one step further. Using the latest DNA studies, the authors have listed the plants from earliest to most recent, starting with the primitive tree fern, ginkgo and araucaria, and ending with hyacinth, hosta and orchids, which are on the top rung of the evolutionary ladder.

Cycads are on one of the very bottom rungs--the reptiles of the plant world, as some have suggested. These extremely primitive plants have long fascinated gardeners in Southern California, and "The Cycads," by Loren M. Whitelock (Timber Press), provides a detailed look at these plants in the wild and in the garden, by a pioneering Southland collector. The book describes nearly 300 species from 11 genera.

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