We gardeners are a powerful and influential group. It may be difficult to think of yourself as being part of something much bigger while you’re starting tomatoes from seed or building a raised garden bed, but check out these statistics:
As of 2009, U.S.Census data reported that there were 43 million households in the U.S. who had food gardens. Assuming 2.5 persons live in the average household, that’s about 100 million people who live in a home with a food garden. We spend $2.5 billion on gardening supplies, and each home with a food garden reaps a savings of about $530 on their food bill. That means we gardeners are a pretty powerful economic block. As a group, we speak loudly with our credit cards and checkbooks.
But in spite of those numbers, for many of us, gardening is a solitary pursuit. While we 43 million spend afternoons, evenings, and summer holidays growing our food and tending our flower beds, there is little we do collectively – at least consciously. Even though I write this blog, belong to gardening organizations, subscribe to gardening publications and speak with fellow gardeners via email and facebook comments almost daily, when I stick my hands in the dirt, it’s a solo enterprise. The work is mine, the results are mine (and my family’s) and the knowledge gleaned from my successes and failures is mine. No one’s watching, and there is no immediate feedback.
Perhaps the disconnect is cultural. To my grandparents, immigrants from Wales and Ireland, gardening was the natural order of things – it was just what you did. They settled in a small house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and grew food in a community garden near the grade school. At home they grew flowers. My mother and her three siblings grew up with fresh, in-season produce on the table most nights, even though it was the height of the first depression. When my parents built a house in the suburbs in the 1950’s, a garden was an automatic for the backyard (and guess who took care of it from the time he could hoist a shovel?). And of course, my mother’s siblings also had food gardens wherever they lived. Much of what we learned about growing food and flowers was wisdom passed down from parent to child, a beautiful tradition.
What can we gardeners achieve as a group?
You may believe that one gardener’s actions – yours – can’t amount to a hill of beans. But they can when we have the same philosophy, perform the same tasks and buy (or not buy) the same products. Our decisions about how to treat our soil, how to grow our food, and what inputs to use in our gardens and landscapes can send a loud message.
We gardeners are environmentalists by default. Can anyone who grows their own food, who has to consider the air, soil, light, water, local wildlife, and the vagaries of weather, not have respect for the natural world? As individual gardeners we don’t have the same local impact as a farmer working 150 acres, but collectively, we gardeners work millions of acres. That is an immense environmental impact.
We gardeners have the power to improve our local soil and water. The inputs you choose or don’t choose, and the sustainable methods you garden by, preserve the soil food web and improves water quality. This is an important counter balance to detrimental farming and landscaping practices which create massive fertilizer and pesticide runoff, soil erosion, and a host of other problems.
We gardeners have a great store of collective knowledge and the duty to share it with our families, neighbors, friends, and the wider community. Write it down, start a garden journal. The insights you gain in your garden may be no big deal to you, but they may be a revelation to children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews.
We gardeners have the power to change what products are sold at garden centers. Organic inputs are finally filtering into the big box stores. Read the labels. Educate yourself. Know the source of the ingredients. What you spend your money on determines whether a product thrives or dies.
We gardeners can have a positive impact on climate change by planting more trees and shrubs to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. We can increase local wildlife habitat by using native plants in our gardens. And we can cultivate our lawns without synthetic fertilizers, whose manufacture burns tons of fossil fuels.
We gardeners can dilute the polluted food supply by sharing our organically-grown food with friends and neighbors. If our garden is well-planned, we can virtually ignore the produce aisle at our local market in summer and fall. We can be evangelists for health – of our soil, our food, our bodies, our planet.
We gardeners, speaking and acting as one, can make a seismic difference in our communities, our towns, and the world.