Does Gardening Harm the Environment?

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Robert Pavlis

As gardeners we think that our hobby is good for the environment but a new study finds that it is more harmful to the environment than conventional agriculture. If we follow the science, it would be better for climate change if we stop growing our own food.

girl holding large tomato, in front of a desolate background
Does gardening harm the environment?, source: Depositphotos

Gardening is Terrible for Climate Change

I think most gardeners believe that producing food in their backyard is good for the environment. After all, the food does not have to be transported long distances to get to the table. We don’t use a lot of petroleum-based synthetic chemicals nor do we run large polluting equipment – right? Growing where you live should be good for the environment.

A study published in January 2024 looked at the life cycle carbon emissions of urban backyards (i.e. gardens) and compared that to traditional agriculture. What they found was that gardens produced much higher CO2 emissions than agriculture. “On average, the urban agriculture sites we studied were six times more carbon intensive per serving of fruit or vegetables than conventional farming.”

This study is important because it looked at all of the carbon effects and compared that to productivity. The researchers studied 73 sites across five countries in North America and Europe, including New York, London and Paris.

Growing Great Tomaotes, by Robert Pavlis

What Makes Gardening More Carbon Intensive?

The most common source of carbon emissions in gardens is from infrastructure. Everything from raised beds to sheds and even concrete pathways contribute to carbon emissions. These things need to be manufactured and transported around the country before they get to the store. Then gardener drives to get a small amount of material. From an energy perspective this is very inefficient when compared to infrastructure used in agriculture. Gardeners produce more carbon per pound of food produced than agriculture.

But the news is not all bad. Not all gardens produced higher emissions than agriculture. Out of the 73 sites measured, 17 had lower emissions, demonstrating that there are things gardeners can do to reduce their carbon footprint.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Food Print

There are things you can do to reduce your carbon foot print.

Drive Less

Gardeners make too many car trips to pick up a few items at a time. Make fewer trips and you can grow just as much food and produce less carbon waste.

Buy Less

I see so many gardening gadgets that you really don’t need. Buy the essential ones, buy better quality and take care of them so they last. Remember that every time you buy something, natural resources have to be mined or produced, the item has to be manufactured and then it’s shipped around the globe. And when we are done with it, it ends up in landfill.

Recycle: Materials, Food Waste and Water

Any item that can be reused is one that has a very low carbon foot print, because it only gets made once and shipped once. Even food waste can be composted and recycled so that you need to buy less fertilizer.

The study found that, “upcycling building materials could cut a site’s emissions 50% or more and careful compost management can cut greenhouse emissions by nearly 40%.”

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

We don’t usually think about recycling water but it can be very important. The runoff from your house normally goes to the street, where the city needs to collect and clean it. Then you take out the hose to water the garden using water that has been purified and piped around the city. What a waste. Try to keep all rain on your land so it infiltrates into the garden.

Rain gardens are a great way to recycle water.

Grow Carbon-intensive Crops

What? How can that help? The idea is to grow crops that have a high carbon footprint in traditional agriculture. In this way the higher carbon cost of gardening becomes more competitive and with some planning can you can produce them at a lower environmental cost than agriculture.

What are these intensive crops?

CO2 produced by growing various crops, source: The Conservation

Tomatoes are normally grown in energy intensive greenhouses and gardening can easily match or better their carbon footprint. Greenhouse tomatoes emit 8 times more CO2 than those that grow in the open. Crops like asparagus that spoil easily and require air transportation are also a good option.

FREE eBook: Growing Great Tomatoes

Garden For The Long Term

Since infrastructure is the big environmental cost of gardening it makes sense that gardens which are used for many years have an overall lower carbon footprint.

One of my person concerns are all the raised beds being built because new gardeners think they need them to grow food. Many will be used for a couple of years until the fad wears off and then they’ll sit and rot. In addition to being a poor use of money, it also harms the environment.

Vegetable Gardens are Not Sustainable

I hate the word sustainable and use it grudgingly because it is the word used by everyone else. Most so-called “sustainable things”, including gardening, are not sustainable. They all have a negative impact on the environment, either directly or indirectly.

The basic use of land to grow food means that natural land had to be converted. That fact alone makes it unsustainable.

Discussions about organic gardening and permaculture all sound very romantic, but none of these options make good use of land. The only way organic gardening can exist is by either making very inefficient use of land, or by bringing in resources produced on land somewhere else. Manure is a good example of this.

As gardeners we need to accept the fact that our hobby is not sustainable and that we contribute to global warming.

Should we be concerned?

Should We Stop Gardening?

So far in this post I have looked at one aspect of gardening – the effect on the environment. But that is not the only aspect that is important.

We are human. As humans we do things. What would we do if we stop gardening? Play golf? Travel more? Have other hobbies? It does not really matter, but whatever we do instead of gardening would also have an environmental impact, and many activities are worse.

Gardening is also exercise which keeps us healthy. It provides enjoyment – at least until we see the bindweed flower.

From an environmental perspective, the garden itself is worse than having a natural field, but it is better than a gold course or a concrete slab for basketball.

No, we should not stop gardening, but we can continue to move towards a more sustainable form of gardening. Use less fertilizer. Use less pesticide. Conserve water. Grow your own seedlings instead of importing them from clear across the country. Drive less. Buy less.

Many gardeners can reduce their gardening inputs by 50% and still have a very successful garden. I grow 3,000 plants and have very few inputs. I don’t fertilize. I rarely water. My lawn is completely dry and dormant in summer. I learn to live with pests or change plants. I don’t use water-wasting containers or tall raised beds. I don’t buy all the latest garden fads like, biochar, mycorrhizal fungi, compost starters etc. I even pee in the garden to save on toilet water and fertilizer.

Think before you buy your next garden gadget – do you really need it? Here is a list of items you should not buy.

Before you reach for that box of miracle pixie dust, check with this website, GardenMyths, to see if the product actually works. Lots of them don’t.

But continue gardening and don’t feel guilty about it.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

4 thoughts on “Does Gardening Harm the Environment?”

  1. I’ve been following your wonderful wisdom for a while now, and subscribe to your newsletter. Unfortunately there isn’t quite enough wisdom for me in the way your site works. There’s way too much analytics snooping going on when newsletter links are clicked on. I’m having to copy and paste the headline into a search engine to find the articles.

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  2. I think there are some assumtions made in the sturdy that is a bit twaeked to gain industrial farming. Most people buy a house that already have a garden, so by growing food instead if grass, you are not suppressing nature. And not all growers drive only to buy garden equipment. Its all good advice to not waste money and resources un uneccary gods, but that goes for all you do in life. People that don’t grow food also use resources on flowers and other plants, so why should it be worse to use.it on growing food? I wonder what the result would be for fruits and berrys that you plant once and harvest for decades without any machinery?

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