How Gardening Can Help Save the Planet
There's nothing like a garden fresh tomato, am I right? Eating something so fresh, warmed by the sun, grown by your own hands, with incredible flavor. Nothing else can really compare. Or if you're not a tomato fan, how about a carrot? Or strawberries?
There are so many reasons to love home grown produce, flavor not the least among them. But have you considered the good gardening does for the planet? Maybe you have. When I started growing fruits and vegetables a few years ago, the idea that gardening could help the planet was a vague notion that crossed my mind, overshadowed by fantasies of giant zucchini, sweet blueberries, and endless summer salads.
But it's amazing what can happen when you dig your fingers into the earth, and spend some quality time tending plants, the microbiome of the soil, and ultimately the soil itself. Garden fantasies take on a bit more nuance. It's not just that I've grown a delicious carrot. It's not just that I can nourish myself and my family with that carrot. It's not just that I've produced something meaningful with my hands.
The garden reminds us that we are part of an ecosystem.
One which we have undoubtedly abused, but one we can also repair. I did some of that work right in my own (front) yard. I watched as a previously lifeless monoculture of grass gave way to the growth of radishes, squash, and peas. I felt the soil transform from dense clay you could fire in a kiln to a rich soil full of nutrients and living things. I tasted what flavors could be found in the "weeds," and I also got a taste of what gardening could do for the planet.
That first year was a magical experience, and one that I've happily repeated. But, you may be wondering, what can a garden actually do to help save the planet? Well, friend, I'm happy to tell you!
1. Gardening Reduces Packaging.
Okay, so I started with an easy one. No green beans coming of the garden are wrapped in packaging, plastic or otherwise. And that's great! Packaging is a major source of plastic, and it's often not even recyclable (or downcyclable, but we'll talk about that another time). Plastic packaging is also one of the most difficult plastics to avoid! If you want to eat some raspberries, good luck finding any that aren't in a plastic clamshell. Celery? Always comes in a plastic bag. But growing your own--even if you don't grow enough raspberries and celery to sustain yourself--makes a dent in the system.
As a note, if you buy bagged compost, mulch, or other soil amendments, those are likely to come in plastic. But consider that the raspberries in the store are not only kept in plastic clamshell containers, but are also shipped on large pallets that have many layers of plastic to keep the produce from falling, bruising, or otherwise spoiling before being distributed. They're likely to be grown with pesticides or herbicides that also come in plastic packaging. There is a lot of behind the scenes plastic that the consumer never encounters, but all of that is circumvented by growing your own.
2. Gardening Reduces the Use of Chemicals.
Most home gardeners I know grow their foods without the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides. The same cannot be said of mainstream agriculture in the United States. At all. In fact, the United States uses over 1 billion tons of chemical pesticides every year.
Why does this matter? Industrial agriculture chemicals seep into our water table, flow into our waterways causing algae bloom and "dead zones" where fish and other marine life die, poison our declining pollinator populations, subject our wildlife and our farming families to harmful carcinogens, and spur the evolution of "super weeds" that are resistant to industrial chemicals and wreak havoc on our food systems.
Even if you were to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides in your home garden, it would be applied on an as-needed basis. That's a far cry from the industrial practice of bathing whole fields with chemicals.
3. Gardening Supports Pollinators.
Everyone wants to save the bees! And the easiest way to do that is by gardening. The more grass monoculture we turn into flowers, shrubs, and trees, the better for the pollinators (bees included). It gives them food, water, and shelter. Industrial agriculture can't do that. Sure, bees can gorge themselves on the almond or the apple blossoms, but what happens when that short season ends? The bees are left with a food desert. As a result, beekeepers regularly transport their hives from farm to farm, which is difficult on the hives. Many don't survive. A much more sustainable approach would be to grow polycultures, and that can begin with you, in your own garden!
4. Gardening Creates Resilient Food Systems.
A lot of people started gardening during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with good reason. Pandemics, natural disasters, wars--these can rock our worlds, and our ability to feed ourselves. Supply lines can be disrupted. Whole crops can be destroyed. Industry can come to a standstill.
The solution to a fragile food system is redundancy. When a variety of foods are grown by many people around the globe for both global and local consumption, no one disaster can completely upend the system. And resiliency is strongest when it is local. Changing climate may make it impossible to transport tomatoes from one country to another, but if you or your neighbor is growing tomatoes then you can still make salsa.
5. Gardening Reduces Transportation Miles.
Pretty straightforward! If the transportation of a radish is from your garden to your kitchen, that's a lot of fuel saved!
6. Gardening Cools Our Cities.
Urban and suburban areas often suffer from heat. Areas with a lack of vegetation are often called "heat islands" because their temperatures are higher than the surrounding landscape. Planting gardens, and especially trees, is an effective way to counteract this.
Of course, trees have the obvious advantage of providing shade. But trees and other plants have the added benefit of providing evapotranspiration. This is when plants take in water through their roots and move it up to their leaves, where it is released into the atmosphere. When plants emit water in this way, it has a cooling effect. And when you plant enough trees together, it even decreases the likelihood of drought!
7. Gardening Creates Community.
When we spend time in our gardens, we are spending time in our communities. We see each other, ask how each other's seedlings are doing, water each other's gardens when we're out of town. We are forming ties that a supermarket never can. Gardening nourishes our bodies and our souls, by granting us the gift of giving. We give our excess zucchini and tomatoes to our neighbors; we give advice and experience to the new gardeners we know; we give our time and our energy to cooperatives and community gardens; we give plant divisions and seeds and tools to our neighbors.
A community of gardeners is a community of caretakers. And when we care for both our planet and our neighbors...we're in a pretty good place to start saving the world.