published: August 2019

Garden Guru: Why does your garden matter?

by Matie Belle Lakish

Sometimes, especially during mosquito season when going outside and doing anything can be a literal pain, we might ask, “Is growing a garden really worth it?” I decided to look at it from a global and societal perspective. What difference would it make if we all grew more of our food locally or ate food grown within a short distance of our homes?

A new research study released in July found that, “One of the biggest challenges to reducing hunger and undernutrition around the world is to produce foods that provide not only enough calories but also make enough necessary nutrients widely available. New research finds that, over the next 30 years, climate change and increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) could significantly reduce the availability of critical nutrients such as protein, iron, and zinc, compared to a future without it. The total impacts of climate change shocks and elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are estimated to reduce growth in global per capita nutrient availability of protein, iron, and zinc by 19.5%, 14.4%, and 14.6%, respectively.” The study, released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and study co-author Timothy Sulser, notes that people residing in global communities that rely heavily on plant foods, which also tend to be areas with more poverty, will be the most impacted.

Global warming will have numerous other impacts, not just to the nutrition of foods, but also to availability, as soils dry up and aquifers become depleted. Soil organisms will be impacted, and pollinators will become more stressed. For instance, another recent study shows that bumblebees are in serious decline as their normal geographic range narrows. They are critical pollinators for blueberries and other North American crops. So, what can we do locally to both improve our own nutrition and help relieve global stress?

An obvious benefit to eating locally is reducing the need to use fossil fuels to transport our food. We are fortunate to live in an agricultural area that produces some significant sources of carbohydrates (potatoes, barley, wheat), protein (meat, eggs, seeds, some fish), and even some oils (canola, hemp), as well as the fresh vegetables that we can grow in our gardens. While we aren’t likely to harvest any mangoes locally, we can get peaches, apples, and cherries grown within a couple of hundred miles. Olathe sweet corn and Rocky Ford cantaloupes are grown in Colorado, as well. If we use our freezing and canning skills, we can enjoy these foods year-round. Compared to buying grapes from Chile, or salad greens from California or Florida, these choices can save lots of transportation energy. You can learn more about locally available foods at valleyrootsfoodhub.com.

But growing gardens also does more for our health. Foods grown organically in soils we enhance with compost and manures provide more nutrients. Freshly harvested vegetables are higher in Vitamin C and other critical nutrients than food stored and shipped from far away. Flavor is also higher in locally grown food.

Our gardens can also impact our local climate. Studies have shown that even house plants can help clean air and improve oxygen levels. If we grow plants that can use the CO2 in the air to create new plant cells, thus storing carbon and releasing oxygen, then we have made some small contribution to better global health. If we plant trees and shrubs that store carbon long term, we have done even more. We have to use caution and balance our impacts, however. To create a garden in my Chalet I lot, I cut a few small trees. I believe I have replaced their carbon storage with my fruit trees, but I cannot be sure.

Trees could be our saviors on a global scale. According to a recent article in Science News, by Susan Milius, “Planting trees on 0.9 billion hectares of land could trap about two-thirds the amount of carbon dioxide released by human activities since the start of the Industrial Revolution, a new study finds. The planet has that much tree-friendly land available for use. Without knocking down cities or taking over farms or natural grasslands, reforested pieces could add up to new tree cover totaling just about the area of the United States, researchers report in the July 5 Science.

“The benefit of tree planting will shrivel if people wait, the researchers warn. Earth’s climate could change enough by 2050 to shrink the places trees can grow by some 223 million hectares if the world keeps emitting greenhouse gases as it does now, the analysis suggests.”

The meat industry has recently been blamed for a lot of global warming effects, but a recent HUFFPOST LIFE article shows another side that some of our local ranchers have also been saying: It is the process of raising those cattle that causes the problem. Most cattle are raised in feedlots and fed grains that are produced with a lot of chemicals. In fact, it is “synthetic fertilizers, agrochemicals, and gasoline-powered farm equipment, which account for 45% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Carefully managed pastures can actually sequester a lot of carbon and contribute positively to the oxygen balance.

If there is any generalization that we can make about the climate crisis, it is that complexity rules. However, returning to humanity’s roots of living smaller, with fewer chemicals, planting more trees, and growing more of our own food are steps that may buy our children a bit more time to solve the biggest problems.