As soon as the weather starts to warm up, I begin seeing many of my neighbours who have been hibernating all winter long. It seems that once the winter blanket of snow disappears, people are anxious to clean up their budding gardens. Working in the garden is somehow therapeutic, even if you are doing repetitive, never-ending tasks such as pulling weeds. Indeed, there is evidence that gardening decreases stress, anxiety, depression and improves the general quality of life. Gardening isn’t only positive for our physical and mental health, it also provides benefits for the natural environment as well.
People do talk about the benefits of trees. Once their trunks are more than 15cm around, they become part of the lungs of the planet, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. They also provide shade for our homes that can cut summer cooling needs, decrease the risk of flooding and erosion and capture particulates and pollutants from the local air. But there are benefits of planting gardens that extend beyond trees.
The most basic and traditional ground cover in Ontario is grass, which can offset carbon emissions, but often don’t because of how we maintain it. Powered lawn care, water and herbicides are used since it isn’t a competitive plant.
Another option, of course, is to plant a veggie patch. These are not only a carbon sink, but also help to offset some of the food miles that would otherwise get food to you. After all, about 8 per cent of our carbon footprint comes from our food.
Even with the best of intentions, gardens can work against sustainability. So I wanted to outline the ways in which we can work against our own efforts. One of the more obvious places to start is with the application of synthetic fertilizers. Fertilizers are often based on carbon-intensive petrochemicals. Peat is a popular amendment that should be included because it is an effective carbon sink and the mining of it far exceeds the rate at which it’s renewed. But there is a sustainable alternative, the largest source of offsets come from diverting food waste to landfills.
While the largest contributor to greenhouse gases from gardens can come from plant detritus, done properly, composting can be beneficial for our gardens. If compost is left to sit, it creates methane which is a large contributor to greenhouse gases. But if provided oxygen, or if the gases are captured and used for heat, it can result in a sustainable alternative to fertilizers.
Actually, if you compare fertilizer use with compost, compost comes out on top. Fertilizers only feed plants (and may not be optimally balanced for your plants) whereas compost actually amends the soil to make it healthier, thereby improving the overall health of plants. It also improves the soil structure which will increase water retention and will hold nutrients, while also adding beneficial microorganisms that ward of diseases, thereby cutting the need for other chemicals.
Other ways that you can ensure the sustainability of your garden include using mulch to conserve water, growing plants that are appropriate for your region, and crop rotation to limit pests and other related issues. Additionally, ‘low till’ planting, in which digging is minimized, can also ensure that you limit the loss of quality through oxidation.
Like with everything related to climate change, there isn’t a simple answer, but generally speaking, gardening is not only good for our physical and mental health, but is also good for our planet’s health. While I sit here under the cooling shade of the sweet-smelling lilac tree, I can’t imagine a better way to fuel creativity.
Stacey Danckert is the co-director of Waterloo Region Environment Network (WREN).