Friends With the Earth?

To cut carbon emissions and help stabilise our climate, gardeners must see gardening as a force for environmental good. We should start by turning lawns into food gardens.

By John Walker. Published in The Garden, November 2008.

When it comes to facing environmental challenges, reducing carbon footprints, and tackling human-induced climate change, we gardeners are a force to be reckoned with. But I’m weary of being told that gardening is the greenest of green activities. This kind of spin may go down well at gardening-industry conferences, but it is simply not true; many gardening activities and products are a pale shade of green.

Almost every climate-related discussion around garden­ing, as climate change begins to reshape conditions on our planet, seems to focus on adaptation; if I hear one more celebrity gardener babbling about the joys of growing olives, on the premise that we’ll soon be ‘enjoying’ a Medi­ter­ranean-style climate, I’ll scream. Rather than climatic ball-gazing, I want to do something now to help put the brakes on global warming. I want to take positive action to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) – the main man-made greenhouse gas.

We need to ‘power-down’ our gardens. The CO2 liberated by heating a glasshouse or propagator to germinate tomatoes in February, and the petrol used to run a lawn-mower or drive to the garden centre, all help stoke global warming. Add in the energy used to manufacture, package, promote and transport fertilisers, pesticides, weedkillers – ‘garden stuff’ in general – and it is clear that gardens can have a sizeable carbon footprint. The fanciful idea that, simply by ‘growing things’, we can cancel out gardening-generated CO2 is greenwash. But growing is what we’re about, and there is one activity that, along with cutting emissions, is guaranteed to benefit both planet and people everywhere: growing your own food.

Reap unforeseen yields

Growing food brings interwoven environmental and social benefits. We immediately decouple from a long, energy-intensive food supply chain; food travels yards, not miles; packaging is zero, cutting demand for the raw materials and energy it requires; and car trips to buy food are reduced. Eating food at its nutritional peak maintains health, so we are less prone to needing energy-intensive medical care. Little wonder, then, that research from Garden Organic (entitled ‘How green is your footprint?’) shows that gardeners who grow organically have a carbon footprint a third less than the national average, achieved in part by growing their own food.

My new, ‘food’ garden is at the heart of my attempt to live more lightly on the earth – yet its benefits reach far beyond my garden gate. By growing food I am helping to reduce the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere, by reducing the energy-intensiveness of the food I eat. I get a buzz from knowing that my efforts to become more self-reliant, more food-independent, can help reduce the impact of climate change on life-supporting food gardens around the globe. By growing food, I am cultivating resilience. But how I grow it matters almost as much as the food itself.

Garden Organic’s research was conducted among those tending vibrant, ecologically-balanced and productive gardens without the props of synthetic fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and the like – all derived from a long chain of energy-intensive, carbon-emitting processes. As an organic gardener, I see nature as ally not adversary. To unleash our collective force, we all need to start gardening in this way. Climate change is too pressing for us to endlessly resuscitate the ‘organic vs chemical’ debate; we need to compost the potty notion that gardening and the environment are separate issues.

Going beyond ‘organic’

But if you’re still wary about going organic, or puzzled about the connection between organic gardening and ‘organic’ holidays, beer, crisps, lifestyles… (the list is endless), try my approach. I have decided to move my gardening and thinking beyond ‘organic’, while retaining and building on its basic tenets. By recasting myself as an ‘earth-friendly’ gardener, I can not only cut free from the morass of misconceptions besieging the word ‘organic’, but also bring a sharper, more critical, focus to everything I do. Many organic gardeners still mow lawns and heat greenhouses. Earth-friendly gardeners, who have adopted more joined-up thinking, will have retired their green­house heater, and transformed lawns into carbon-cutting, climate-stabilising food gardens.

“By recasting myself as an ‘earth-friendly’ gardener, I can bring a sharper, more critical focus to all that I do”

We gardeners are in pole position to take real and positive action to alleviate some of the environmental pressures our planet faces. Growing food is central to that. But we must cast a critical eye across all of our gardening activities and ask this: are we, and our gardens, truly friends with the earth?

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