Environmentally Conscientious and Sustainable Gardening Practices for Public Spaces

Photo from D Acres educational permaculture farm in NH (September 2018)

An Introductory Overview

Why bother with environmentally conscientious and sustainable gardening practices?

“Ecological gardens meld the best features of wildlife gardens, edible landscapes, and conventional flower and vegetable gardens, but they go beyond simply adding these styles together... These gardens are grounded in relatively new concepts such as permaculture and ecological design, but they use time-tested techniques honed to perfection by indigenous people, restoration ecologists, organic farmers, and cutting edge landscape designers. They combine low environmental impact, low maintenance, and high yields with elegant aesthetics” (Hemenway, 2009).

Humans all over the world have an impact on the planet, which we can clearly see now with the effects of global climate change, and all of the catastrophic events that have been happening with increasing frequency through the past few years. A growing population means that we are continuing to contribute to the stresses on the environment created by urbanization and agriculture. These contributions are diminishing the effect of ecological functions throughout the land. Ecosystem services are the combined ecological functions that natural resources perform, such as wetlands filtering water and storing carbon, or forests providing habitat, storing carbon, and producing oxygen. Humans have disrupted many ecosystems with urbanization and agriculture and, in turn, put stress on those environments and diminished the productivity of the services they provide. We build in wetlands and floodplains, fragment habitat, pollute water resources with stormwater runoff, erode the soils and their health, and exacerbate issues by creating impermeable surfaces and heat islands. This article will propose how ecologically minded gardening practices for public spaces way be able to alleviate some of the aforementioned stresses.

Many of these issues are far too large for us to tackle on our own, and it can feel overwhelming to learn about the immense impact humans have had on the world. We can, however, have a positive impact locally. Growing our own food can reduce demand on industrialized agricultural operations and decrease stresses on the lands they inhabit. Creating and nurturing green spaces in your community creates a place for carbon sequestration, social networking, community building, and self reliance. “...By helping people reconnect to natural systems, community gardening might help expand awareness of environmental issues in general and encourage civic participation to take positive actions” (Okvat et al., 2011). There are so many other benefits, many of which we will explore here.

Why is growing in public spaces important?

Access to food is an important concept- not everyone has access to fresh/local food where they live. Areas that don’t have any farms or food gardens for miles and miles are called “food deserts,” and are considered a major contributor to obesity and other chronic health issues (USDA, 2012).

The visibility of “agriculture” is similar to the topic of food deserts. The majority of people who purchase and eat the food out of the grocery store or supermarket don't know what agriculture really looks like. An extreme example of our lack of connection is when you bring produce home: you wouldn’t eat anything before washing it right? Because like your mom always said... You don’t know where it’s been. In their article “Food and green space in cities: A resilience lens on gardens and urban environmental movements”, Barthel et al. (2015) suggested that “local and tacit knowledge related to agriculture is disappearing from metropolitan landscapes, creating an ‘extinction of experience’ of human–nature interaction and a collective ‘forgetting’ of how to grow food.” They support this claim by listing examples of how compression and urbanisation have some benefits, but also lead to the loss of urban green space and of important practical knowledge related to food production. These actions significantly increase the potential for urban food shortages in times of major crises. The authors also identify the social mechanisms and practices which knowledge of food production can be cultivated and sustained, and urban green areas preserved and restructured as food production sites.

Food has an extensive relationship with culture and the history associated with different geographic regions. Different areas with a strong religious presence have various communal activities related to farming, harvesting, and sharing foods. Also, the growing practices necessary in certain climates and biogeographical regions can create a sense of identity for the communities there. For example, New England has a rich apple orchard history, and apple picking in heirloom fields is often a family activity in the fall. This is vastly different from the cattle ranching history of the western states, where growing up on farms with cows and drought tolerant plants is much more common. “Food has always been at the center of cultural experience, the way we express our connection to the land and to one another” (Blume et al., 2011). When we take that connection away, we are removing a huge factor contributing to the “sense of place” an area has.

“Getting in touch with the sow-till-harvest cadence of life is the most satisfying act we know. And growing food is central to the path of stepping toward sustainability-it lowers our carbon footprint, grows us great food, and locates us in place, connected to other people and the complex reality of our human needs. Growing soil, sequestering carbon, providing habitat, sharing with our neighbors, and increasing the health and nutrition of our food supply is a win-win situation on every level: personal, cultural, and political.” (Blume et al., 2011)

Who can grow? Where?

Anyone interested in growing their own food or creating a beautiful space with a special connection to nature can take the steps to start gardening! There are many places and creative ways to successfully start gardening with your community.

Community gardens: “Community gardens are plots of land used for growing food by people from different families, typically urban-dwellers with limited access to their own land. Distinct from top-down efforts by government organizations to create green spaces such as botanical gardens, community gardens are bottom-up, community-based, collaborative efforts to grow food” (Okvat et al., 2011). A place for neighbors to get to know each other, get together, share ideas, and support each other. Community gardens are run in a variety of ways including lottery, annual fee, first come first serve, etc. If there isn’t already a community garden in your town or city, reach out to the municipality or a local landowner to see if unused land and empty lots can be donated, leased, or designated for a community garden (Blume et al., 2011).

School gardens: these are a great way for students to have the opportunity to connect to nature and learn some practical skills. Themed gardens (butterfly garden, rain garden, salad garden, etc), ecology lessons, culinary lessons, and having fun in the dirt are all great benefits to creating space for children to grow outside. In their article “Community gardens as contexts for science, stewardship, and civic action learning”, Krasny and Tidball (2009) described how content is best delivered to youth through interactive learning such as in an educational gardening setting. The authors use evidence from the youth program Garden Mosaics, as well as interviews, surveys, and other artifacts to support their claims about learning techniques and the impacts of community gardening in education. Another resource, “Community gardens as a platform for education for sustainability”, by Linda Corkery (2004) “examine[ed] how community gardens represent a valuable platform for non-formal education for sustainability.” She did this by looking at different case studies and articles that list the outcomes of community gardening as achieving: the reclamation of public urban spaces, environmental education, community enterprise, social and cultural expression, restorative or therapeutic qualities, and social/environmental sustainability. Corkery highlighted the connection between research and education for sustainability that evolved out of an examination of the role of community gardens in fostering community development and neighborhood improvement.

Guerrilla gardening: when push comes to shove, and you can not get access to land for gardening, you can always take the socially defiant route- guerrilla gardening. Squatting your garden in a public space may seem risky, but it can be a simple as making a seed ball and hucking it over a fence so that the community can see wildflowers blooming in the yard of that abandoned house down the street, or planting some flowers (maybe even edibles) by the side of the road downtown. In their article, “Sustainability through intervention: a case study of guerrilla gardening in Kingston, Ontario”, Crane et al. (2013) made a case for guerrilla gardening as an example of sustainability in action and as a powerful pathway towards producing engaging and sustainable communities.Through participatory action research methods, and 16 semi-structured interviews and researcher logs, they developed two case studies to support their claims. Their purpose was to present a deeper understanding of guerrilla gardening and an analysis of the relationship between space and sustainability, as well as lay the groundwork for how interventions, like guerrilla gardening, open up unexpected and non-normative possibilities for conceptualizing sustainability.

Explanation of practices

There are so many ways to implement sustainable practices in your garden, and they will all look different and be specific to the site and it’s requirements. Below we will explore a few different practices to implement for different needs.

Retaining storm water on site:

  • Swales are a human made landform with the express purpose of sinking rainwater into the ground and reducing erosion and runoff. These are a larger scale tool, and can implemented on personal properties as well as public tracts of land.
  • Rain gardens are gardens that are specifically designed to reduce stormwater runoff and sink more rainwater into the ground. This can be done by creating a design that channels water away from impermeable surfaces and infrastructure and by choosing plants that do well with flood events and retaining water by their roots. These gardens are a great opportunity to provide pollinator habitat and filter pollutants from runoff into the soil.
  • Permeable surfaces are an alternative to traditional paved driveways, parking lots, and paths that use either an alternative material or alternative composition in the asphalt mix to create a surface that rainwater can penetrate and percolate down to the ground. A simple way to have a sturdy surface and prevent impermeable surfaces is to use bricks or pavers that do not have any sort of mortar in between them.
  • Rainwater capture can be done in a variety of creative ways. Using diverters and downspouts channeled into a cistern or another collection barrel to collect rain coming off of a rooftop is a great way to make sure that the water is not going to waste. If this isn’t illegal in your state (be sure to check your local laws), the water can be used later in your garden during a drier spell.

Companion planting is a “technique that pairs different plants with one another depending on their mutual benefits” (Blume et al., 2011). This works on multiple levels, from planting according to chemical needs (ex: planting nitrogen fixers with nitrogen users), physical space above or below ground (ex: taproots vs. bulbs, trees planted with shrubs, herbaceous non-woody plants, and smaller groundcovers), and even with blooming time (ex: making sure there are always pollinator friendly plants flowering in your garden). Another technique, rotating annuals, is a good practice to have to avoid over extraction of a certain nutrient. This is similar to “crop rotation”, but at a smaller scale.

Perennials are a more permanent alternative to annual plantings. Perennial plants do not need to be planted every year like annuals do and have many benefits beyond their permanence. In Gaia’s Garden, Hemenway describes the benefits of perennials as thus: “They eliminate seed-starting, tilling, and the opportunity for weeds that tilling brings. That's slashes three chores up a list at one stroke. Perennials need less water and fertilizer than annuals. Their deep root systems tap into pockets of moisture and nutrients that annuals just can't reach. Also, because they are year-round plants, perennials offer dependable habitat to wildlife and beneficial insects.”

Soils with high organic matter stay well aerated, so you do not have to till. Repeated tilling breaks up soil structure and compacts soil below where the blades reach. This creates a lasting harmful effect where plants cannot access water past a certain depth, have trouble forming symbiotic relationships, and there are less over all nutrients available (Hemenway, 2009). If you or other gardeners are looking to suppress weeds, a less destructive method you could look to try is sheet mulching. Just like it sounds, sheet mulching is a system of layering mulch with compost and cardboard to suppress unwanted plants and prep the soil of an area for planting. Blume et al. (2011) outline their favorite “recipe” in their book Urban Homesteading, as 2-3 layers of cardboard over damp soil, covered by 3-5 inches of compost and 8-12 inches of tree mulch as a top layer. After one full rainy season the soil should be ready for planting, so it is recommended that this is done in the fall.

So what is compost? As Hemenway (2009) states, “...compost, the rich, hummus-y end product of decomposition, is made by piling surplus organic matter into a mound or bin and letting it rot.” Anyone can compost their food scraps and yard waste to create organic matter as a soil amendment for their garden. There is a science to it however, and there are numerous resources available that explain the different ways to compost, as well as how to maximize its nutritious value for your plants.

If you don’t have space to garden, rooftop gardens are a way to maximize space, protect infrastructure, and reduce heat island effect. Rooftop gardens can be a source of food for pollinators in an otherwise barren land, and can be a supplemental source of fresh food for you and your community. If your building or structure can handle the layers of soil and vegetation, and you have limited ground space, building a rooftop garden could be an option for you.

An important thing to remember when you are caring for your garden, is that it is very easy to over fertilize if you are using inorganics or store bought products. Supplemental nitrogen and phosphorus products do usually have dosage recommendations on their label, but these are not region specific or plant specific.That means that even though they are telling you how much to use, they have no idea where you are, what conditions your garden and plants are growing in, or what your specific plants need. As a result, many people and organizations over fertilize and end up causing local pollution problems such as the eutrophication of local water resources, and are even contributing to grander pollution issues such as coastal dead zones. So, if you can produce your own soil amendments, like compost, it can be much safer for you and the environment.

Other aspects of sustainable gardening practices can have an indirect impact, but are important nonetheless. Using second hand tools or borrowing what you need is a low cost way to get the job done and cut back on the demand for the raw resources tools are made of. If this isn’t an option for you, look into companies that have a good reputation for building quality products, and have environmental issues in mind when conducting their everyday business (ie: sustainability plans, use recycled materials, fund environmental events, or donate to environmental causes). These products may be more expensive upfront, but will likely last longer than cheaper tools and cost less in the long run.

Simple steps for implementing gardens in public spaces:

  • Establish interest in the community (school, city/ town, or neighborhood).
  • Identify needs of the community and of the garden.
  • Identify space that you can grow in.
  • Contact and get permission from the local authority or property owner to start your garden.
  • Create a garden plan that meets your needs and works with the space. This includes larger plans like the garden design, and smaller details like where to source tools.

Can you do this?

One might read this article or others, and think to themselves that environmentally conscientious gardening practices are complicated, expensive, and too time consuming, but it is amazing what people can do when they pool their resources and work together. Nothing will happen overnight, it will take small steps and practice-but they can be done.

Besides all of the environmental benefits, implementing gardens in public spaces can be a great community builder. Whether it is done as a teaching mechanism at a school, or as a community garden that is just for the good of the town, some of the most satisfying outcomes that can be achieved by helping support ecosystem services, growing food, and beautifying grey spaces.

Resources (Citations and further reading)

Barthel, S., Parker, J., & Ernstson, H. (2015). Food and green space in cities: A resilience lens on gardens and urban environmental movements. Urban studies, 52(7), 1321-1338.

Becker, S. L., & von der Wall, G. (2018). Tracing regime influence on urban community gardening: How resource dependence causes barriers to garden longer term sustainability. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 35, 82-90.

Blume, K. R. & Kaplan, R., (2011). Urban homesteading: Heirloom skills for sustainable living. New York: Skyhorse Pub.

Corkery, L. (2004). Community gardens as a platform for education for sustainability. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 20(1), 69-75.

Crane, A., Viswanathan, L., & Whitelaw, G. (2013). Sustainability through intervention: a case study of guerrilla gardening in Kingston, Ontario. Local Environment, 18(1), 71-90.

Dutko, Paula, Michele Ver Ploeg, and Tracey Farrigan. Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts, ERR-140, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, August 2012.

Guitart, D. A., Byrne, J. A., & Pickering, C. M. (2015). Greener growing: assessing the influence of gardening practices on the ecological viability of community gardens in South East Queensland, Australia. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 58(2), 189-212.

Hemenway, T. (2009). Gaias Garden. White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Krasny, M. E., & Tidball, K. G. (2009). Community gardens as contexts for science, stewardship, and civic action learning. Cities and the Environment (CATE), 2(1), 8.

Okvat, H. A., & Zautra, A. J. (2011). Community gardening: A parsimonious path to individual, community, and environmental resilience. American journal of community psychology, 47(3-4), 374-387