Back to nature: how gardening can help combat climate change

People standing near a greenhouse

Allotments and community gardens are a great way to start gardening. Pic: João Jesus

There are a lot of things that people can do as individuals to help with climate change. One of the most fun and effective is starting to garden.

CO2 is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases. Everything from burning fossil fuels to breathing adds more to the atmosphere. Luckily, Earth has a natural defence against growing carbon levels – plants.

Humans take in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide, plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Deforestation has been one of the most damaging factors contributing to climate change because this natural defence is taken away.

A small but easy way to help is to make use of front and back gardens. A rare commodity in the city, it’s worth making full use of the space and planting some vegetables and wildflowers. Mixing the crops will help keep away pests and encourage pollinating bugs to visit.

And it doesn’t have to look perfect.

Kim Stoddard, editor of The Organic Way and author of The Climate Change Garden, said the current “gold standard of gardening” that values aesthetics over function is left over from Victorian standards of stately home gardens. She instead advocates for going back to nature.

Stoddard told EastLondonLines: “If you look back before to peasant gardening, that form of gardening was much more resilient. It was about working with nature rather than against it.”

One of the most important things you can do is allow in weeds like nettles and wildflowers, advises Stoddard. They keep pests away from your crop. Another tip is to worry less about planting in blocks or neat rows, as she says this makes it easy for unwanted pests to ruin your whole crop.

Air purification isn’t the only way gardening can help, though. Another great benefit is helping reduce your second-hand carbon footprint. The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs reports that more than half of food in the UK is imported from overseas. Transporting that food to Britain has a carbon cost.

Even spinach, explains Debbie Mitchener, a community gardener in Hackney, is a foreign species that must be imported. English spinach, or ‘true spinach’, has fallen out of fashion. She said that it would be easy to grow native spinach in a box on your windowsill or balcony, and contribute a little less to air pollution with every shop.

Pic: Alisha Pilkington

Living in London, very few people have access to private, dedicated green spaces. Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC reports that only 5.77 per cent of open space in London account for parks and gardens. But not having a garden doesn’t limit your options.

The classic answer to this is allotments. They’re easy to apply for, as most are run by your local council or can at least be found through them. You can join a waiting list easily, the problem here, of course, is the fact that you must wait. Lewisham Council report wait times between 2-10 years, Croydon Council 6-24 months and the Hackney Allotment Society has closed its waiting list.

So what’s the alternative? Well, Mitchener is an advocate for community gardening.

“If you are new to gardening and you want to learn, community growing is the best way to do that.”

She said that if you’re new to the gardening scene, joining in with your local community can be a great way to start. You’ll gain the experience of everyone’s years, and they often run free classes.

Community gardens can be a bit harder to track down, but Mitchener recommends checking social media for some local groups. Even if you can’t find one for your exact area, you shouldn’t be afraid to get in touch and see if they know of one.

“Reach out to a local one and ask ‘is there one near me’ because we do all know each other, it’s like a hidden network.”

Of course, it’s possible to stay even closer to home. With a balcony, windowsill, or even just a kitchen counter, it’s possible to grow an assortment of produce.

“Salad is one of the easiest things you can grow, and it’s really good for windowsill growing,” said Stoddard, continuing, “herbs are really, really good for attracting pollinating insects, so there’s the added benefit of actually encouraging wildlife in your area.”

Whether you have a whole garden or just a windowsill, there are plenty of options for growing. Pic: Alisha Pilkington

Attracting bugs may seem counter-intuitive, but they’re hugely important in the fight against climate change. Encouraging biodiversity in your area will actually help more plant growth through pollination.

Wherever your garden may be, you can take it a step further by composting. Reducing waste is hugely helpful to the environment beyond just the climate issue. You can also use old bottles and containers as planters.

Gardening also has the benefit of being good for your mental health, explained Stoddard.

“When you grow produce on your windowsill, it’s incredibly therapeutic and it’s powerful.”

It’s relaxing and rewarding to see something you’ve nurtured thrive and to then be able to reap the rewards. Not only that, but it’s a constant reminder that you’re doing your part in reducing the damage of climate change on our planet.

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