Sustainability has been one of the major buzzwords of the past few years, as phrases related to climate change (or, variously, climate crisis or climate emergency) have increasingly been on our collective radar, with some even selected as the Word of the Year in 2019.
Interest in mitigating the human impact on our natural world has skyrocketed in since the mid-1960s, with a significant bump in the early 90s—which, as we’ve mentioned before, was the heyday of concern about the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, and saving both the rainforest and the oceans.
Sustainability is, and should be, about determining the actions we can take to be more in sync with the natural world: not just what impacts the earth least but taking a proactive role to protect the planet and its resources.
You might notice that this post is more serious than some others. We’re passionate about the environment—you need to be if you want to save the bees—and we want you to see sustainability as more than just a buzzword.
So, what is sustainability?
Sustainability as a concept didn’t start with Europeans. Indigenous peoples have had intelligent and creative ideas about natural resource management long before industrialized societies recognized these traditional methods.
The most prevalent definition of sustainability today comes from the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Report, which defines it as “design, construction, operations and maintenance practices that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, sustainability isn’t merely about resources, but about considering the interplay between ecological, economic, and social factors. (This is also known as the systems theory of sustainability, which just means that any complex topic should be considered in the context of all the many factors that influence it.)
These three dimensions of sustainability illustrate how interconnected everything is. The ecological side of sustainability is the one you are probably most familiar with: resource management, land use, biodiversity, consumption, energy, pollution of our atmosphere and our oceans, toxic substances, and waste. Much of what we talk about when we talk about sustainability fits into one of these categories. But scientists and theorists, like those that work for the UN, are increasingly encouraging us to think about the economic and social implications of sustainability.
The economic dimension asks us to understand that approximately half of the world’s economy is directly dependent on the health of the planet. Economic sustainability initiatives also think about things like so-called “green jobs,” how to support economic growth without sacrificing the environment, and how to structure economics to support natural resources. Finally, the social dimension of sustainability considers things like the relationship of poverty to the natural world, the environmental impacts of population growth and density, the psychological impact of development and nature on humans, and the intersection between the earth and peace, war, justice, and society.
Heavy topics, we know.
But this planet we live on is the home that we all share, and humanity’s dependence upon it creates an inherent fragility that has potential impacts on nearly every aspect of human life.
Every one of these factors have an entire field of study dedicated to it, scientists and researchers and experts who specialize in it, and reams of papers, studies, and books published on it. Some are increasingly making the argument that it is corporations and businesses, rather than individual consumers, who have the greatest ability to impact the environment through green initiatives. With all of these factors to consider, it is so easy for each of us to feel overwhelmed or disheartened.
But we try to remember that governments and corporations aren’t soulless automatons—they are simply groups of people working together to achieve specific goals. The more individuals change, the more governments and corporations will change. And it’s like they say: every little bit really does help.
For example, gardening at home reduces the demands on massive-scale agriculture, which (like any major industry) is generally focused more on profits than sustainability. Simply growing some of your own food in your backyard encourages the ag industry to do things a little differently—imagine that snowballing into radical change and you’ll see the value of making even small changes.
Now that you’ve got a crash course on sustainability under your belt, let’s talk about why you might want to choose sustainable gardening as your “small change” for next season.
But first, let’s define sustainable gardening.
Turns out, there isn’t a consensus on what exactly falls under the umbrella of sustainable gardening. Still, there are a few principles that are generally agreed upon: use of native plants; use of freely available, renewable resources to support growth; growing at least some of the food you consume; respecting and replenishing soil.
Benefit 1: It increases biodiversity.
We’ve talked about biodiversity before, but it bears repeating: biodiversity is essential for combating climate change and for the future of the surviving species on the planet. In simple terms, biodiversity is the key to adaptability. Complex systems in nature manage change better—perhaps because something that impacts one part of the system can be addressed by other parts of the system. Or, put a different way, a complex system is more than the sum of its parts—but it needs all of those parts to function. Sustainable gardening serves biodiversity with its emphasis on native plants, which provide natural habitat and nourishment to thousands of native animal species. Plus, reduction in the use of fertilizer and pesticides keep the native environment in balance.
Benefit 2: It’s less expensive.
Cost shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all of assessing sustainability’s value to our environment, but let’s be honest: most of us are at least somewhat careful with our budgets. What if you could save some cash in one of the areas that hits many of us hardest each month, our grocery bill? Fresh produce is shockingly expensive in the United States, and though most of us can’t hope to do much about why that’s the case, we can grow some of our favorites at home. Some folks prefer to grow what’s most expensive at the grocery store, whereas others grow what they know they’ll eat plenty of—and that’s a solid strategy, because have you seen the way zucchini and cucumber plants overproduce in a good year?
Of course, growing your own food can be done in less sustainable ways, too. To get the most bang from your buck, focus on native plants and the other basic principles of sustainability above. Native plants and responsible gardening—that is, paying attention to the quality of your soil and how various plants impact the chemical composition of soil—require less fertilizer, less pesticides, and often less water. Can you say cha-ching? Collecting rainwater, if that’s legal in your area, and reducing the need for grow lights will reduce your water and electricity bills.
Benefit 3: It's good for the planet.
Okay, that’s a pretty general statement. But there’s few systems that sustainable gardening doesn’t impact—and, more importantly, improve. Any form of gardening will help reduce air pollution, but sustainable gardening goes beyond the benefits of basic plant biology. For example, did you know that soil absorbs carbon? (We didn’t until we researched for this post!) It turns out that soil absorbs about one-quarter of our fossil fuel emissions per year—which is pretty significant. Responsible management of soil impacts how much carbon the soil is able to absorb and retain. Learning how to optimize your soil for carbon retention is something concrete we can all do to address climate change. Sustainable gardening also helps preserve our water systems by reducing the amount of fertilizer and other chemicals that leach into our watersheds.
Benefit 4: It's good for you.
Specifically, sustainable gardening gives you the benefits of interaction with nature without the potentially harmful side effects of traditional gardening—in this case, exposure to the chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides. Being in nature all by itself has proven to be one of the many factors that can have a positive impact on mental health. Gardening, like hiking or playing outdoor sports, combines the purely psychological benefits of fresh air and sunshine with the physical benefits that come from moving our bodies—incidentally, physical movement has also been shown to have psychological benefits. Mental health has also been linked to feeling a strong sense of purpose, feeling as if we are making a difference, and in feeling connected to nature. Actively working toward reducing the impact of climate change might just give you all three.
Benefit 5: It's good for your community.
One of the most surprising benefits of sustainable gardening—for your writer, at least—was reduction in noise pollution (*insert head exploding emoji here* amirite?). Gardening sustainably means less reliance on noisy machines like lawnmowers, electric clippers, and *shudder* leaf-blowers, the bane of those who like to sleep in on weekends. But also, plants are natural noise buffers. Interestingly, different types of foliage absorb or deflect different types of sound waves—and a diverse mix of plants (think different heights, widths, and foliage densities) will help block the most sound.
There are numerous other benefits of sustainable gardening and, if engaged in as a community it could provide massive localized benefits (remember our snowball analogy…). The Sustainable Sites Initiative’s Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks for sustainable agriculture—which is an excellent source if you really want a deep dive on this topic—lists several research-based local benefits of sustainable gardening. For example, did you know that regulating climate can be done on the micro level with thoughtful gardening practices? Or, consider this: most of us now live in areas that are increasingly impacted by severe weather, such as fires, droughts, hurricanes, and flooding. Creating and maintaining sustainable native landscape systems can help provide natural defenses against extreme weather events.
Finally, making sustainable gardening a community project can bring your community benefits that go beyond biology. Sustainable gardening initiatives will increase the beauty of your community, can ease economic stressors, and may even strengthen your community’s identity. Now that we understand there are social and economic benefits to sustainability, it seems clear that getting your friends, family, and neighbors on board and working together to save the planet can do more than that. It could give us back that sense of connection that so many of us are missing. It could give us not only a planet to live on, but the sorts of communities that make life so fulfilling. Sustainable gardening could be a stepping stone to bringing us back from the brink—in all the ways that matter.