Is your garden limited to only being important for your family? Or are there garden benefits that extend to the larger environment outside your property?
So you have a garden or at least a balcony garden. If you are lucky like me you have enough space for growing vegetables, have a few fruit trees and grow flowers for beauty and scent. Maybe also a greenhouse to start your seeds and grow heat-loving vegetables like I have. Or maybe you literally have one container of flowers or lettuce sitting on your balcony or just on a sunny windowsill.
You might also have tried to make your garden or balcony a more tranquil retreat for your family. Maybe you are still in the process as I am or maybe you haven’t even started yet. And you are finding inspiration and ideas to do that from this blog and other inspiring sources.
There is more to it though than just having a hobby, feeding your immediate family and relaxing in a chair with a book on a warm summer afternoon.
You can have an impact that extends past the boundaries of your property. Past your fence line and the gates that lead out into your front garden and then the real world, where you relinquish almost all control over the environment.
Here are five ways your garden and what you grow in it affects the world in a positive manner. Sounds almost too good to be true, but you’ll see that it really does.
Less fossil fuel impact
You just need to grow one head of crisp lettuce, pick one ripe red tomato off the vine or pick a small handful of fresh, juicy raspberries. You have already reduced the demand on the global food network of producers, wholesalers, shippers and grocery stores. Maybe by just a little bit but every little bit helps.
It is amazing how many resources go into getting that watermelon or that bunch of grapes to you in the dead of winter. Or even fresh greens such as lettuce or spinach. My experience is here in the northern part of North America (Canada and the northern US states), where most of our winter produce is coming from California or Mexico.
The amount of fossil fuel alone that gets burned is incredible. That not only pollutes but it also contributes to CO2 levels. For the average produce expect it to have travelled 1200 Kilometers or more. It often has to be picked unripe in order for it to survive the handling it gets and the long distances it has to travel so it is not the healthiest nor nutritious produce.
Going out into your garden to pick something for dinner is low impact. Your food is as fresh as it can be. Very little fossil fuels if any were used to grow that food and you are not burning any to harvest it. And it is healthier and more nutrient rich than the food that has travelled for days to get to you.
If you can’t grow everything yourself then consider farmer’s markets or a CSA (Community Support Agriculture) box program. Buy enough that you can preserve it to have later in winter when local produce is hard to find.
If you remember anything from your biology classes in high school, plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce oxygen (O2) by a process called photosynthesis. Humans and animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2 so plants complement our physiology so well, we really can’t survive without them.
If you grow lots of foliage in your garden or on a balcony, you contribute to healthier air simply by providing this photosynthesis machine.
There are certain plants that also clean the air, literally capturing toxins and negative ions and processing them to make them inert. This is mainly seen in houseplants, but any plant cleans the air as it photosynthesizes, including those you find in your garden and in your backyard.
Plants also have a cooling effect on the air. The moment we pave over paradise (remember the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell?) to create parking lots, shopping centres and even driveways and patios on our own properties, we lose surface area that could grow plants. Removing plants from our environment means less oxygen is produced and more importantly CO2 is not sequestered. And CO2 levels are rising, regardless of what you believe is causing them.
Gardening can be stressful in some cases. I won’t sugar coat it as I’ve experienced it numerous times. And everyone has unique gardening problems based on where they live and what they grow.
However with the right attitude gardening can also be relaxing, meditative and good exercise. Finding solutions to those problems is fun and rewarding. You may be tired at the end of a long working day but the satisfaction of having accomplished something in the garden is worth every aching joint, the blisters from holding pruners for several hours straight or the dirt that is ground into your skin’s pores and stuck under your fingernails.
Don’t be surprised if the next day at work you are more relaxed, less easily stressed and eager to share your experiences with colleagues. You may actually help to spread the word about how great gardening is and how awesome it is to have a tranquil garden! And perhaps share some of your harvest with your co-workers. When they taste the freshness and great flavour, you might just inspire them to give gardening a go themselves.
Or maybe it is just that you interact with a shopkeeper or the barista at your favourite coffee place in a more positive manner. If you make their day, just think at how they treat their customers after you. It can have a huge ripple effect as more and more people indirectly benefit from your mood.
I am confident that if more people spend time gardening, the world would be a more peaceful place with more sharing and looking out for others. Gardeners are like that and I would like to see more of that approach to life taking hold and becoming popular.
I alluded to it above. The best thing you can do as a gardener is to share your knowledge, experiences, failures and enthusiasm with others. If they see what an impact it has on you, they might just start themselves. It could start a wave of new gardeners in your workplace or social circles.
Having a daughter (4+ years old) has opened my eyes to the potential for my garden to teach her (and other children that come to visit) where her food comes from and what it takes to grow it.
Children usually shy away from vegetables, especially certain kinds, as they see them as tasteless side dishes. I don’t blame any child being picky about eating carrots that don’t taste like carrots or tomatoes that don’t smell like anything. I don’t particular like them either, especially since I know how they should taste if grown with love and picked at their peak flavour.
My daughter this year is planting her first vegetable garden. I built a 2×3 cedar planter (see right) that we filled with compost and she has planted it with various seeds and seedlings. She is excited about it!
I can teach her what seeds are, where they come from, how we put them in soil, water them and watch them grow. Taking care of the plants once they get bigger by giving them fertilizer, checking for pests and keeping them watered, parallels what she needs to do for herself everyday (well, maybe not pests!).
And then she learns that harvesting is the reward for having worked hard and having been patient. Yes, gardening really does test one’s patience and children need to learn this valuable skill.
It is however not limited to children only. You might want to host a Lunch & Learn at your workplace to inspire or teach others how easy it is to grow your own vegetables and fruit. Or offer to do a talk at your local library or community centre. If you are not comfortable with public speaking, then just teach one-on-one to anyone that shows an interest in growing their own food.
Birds, butterflies, insects and other animals need plants to survive. In our urban environments where we are paving over almost everything, they have a harder time finding that lush oasis that provides them food, water and shelter. Not only are there not as many plants and trees, but we have also tainted the environment with our excessive use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fossil fuels.
Butterflies especially are an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem. No butterflies flying about means there are problems with the environment. And usually that means some kind of pollution or chemical imbalance.
Aphids eat our plants and in turn get eaten by ladybugs. Birds feed on worms that feed on organic matter in soil.
The food chain is so tightly integrated with one species depending on the other. Plants are a vital link in this chain. And when they are missing or the wrong kind, that has a cascading or ripple effect on everything else that depends on them.
We need to nurture a natural environment for these beneficial visitors to the garden. It means growing a wide variety of plants, providing water to drink and providing nesting sites.
Plants are amazing filters. I’ve already mentioned how they are able to extract toxins from the air and sequester them and change them into harmless compounds.
Plants can do the same with ground and storm water. All plants need water to survive and often they need to grow deep roots to access water further down. Water is taken up by the roots and moves through the cells of the plant. The plant uses whatever it finds in the water and transpires what is now clean water back into the atmosphere. Sounds like magic, doesn’t it?
Plants are often used to clean gray water (the water used for laundry, washing dishes, showers and baths). The right plants can do an amazing job of purifying the water.
Aquaponics is one alternative gardening system that uses plants to clean the water that fish pollute with their excrement. The plants take in the water and purify it before it is pumped back into the fish pond. It is an amazing process that shows how good plants are at cleaning water.
The world needs some TLC (tender loving care). Not only do we have environmental problems but also societal problems. I can’t say that having a garden will solve all those problems as they are bigger than that. However gardens can at least reduce some of these problems and make our world just a little bit better to live in. And you will feel good knowing you are contributing to the overall health of the world no matter how small that contribution might be.
I feel like I’ve only just touched on this topic. There are other ways I’m aware of that our gardens impact the world and there may be a second post covering those.
Can you think of any other ways your garden benefits the rest of the world? If you have been inspired by this post and don’t yet grow anything in your garden, consider starting today. It can be as simple as a container with some lettuce or flowers or a small raised bed where you can grow some broccoli or beans.
If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC