There are few things more satisfying than plucking a perfectly ripened tomato from the vine, rich and warm from the summer sunshine, and biting into it. It's a simple pleasure that can be enjoyed anywhere, from a small planter on an apartment balcony to a lavish backyard garden. However, it's worth noting that vegetable gardens aren't just a private pleasure. They're also a powerfully eco-friendly activity.
When rain falls from the sky, one of two things can happen to it. It can wash away into storm drains and ditches as runoff or wastewater, eventually carrying a load of silt, organic materials, fertilizer and other contaminants into waterways. On the other hand, it might also "infiltrate," or filter through the soil, to nourish plants and replenish the ground water supply. Rooftops, driveways, patios and lawns don't allow much water to infiltrate. However, the loose, crumbly soil of a well-worked garden absorbs water like a sponge, especially if it's well composted. This limits runoff, and maintains water quality (see References 1).
The next time you're in the supermarket, take a look at where the produce comes from. Depending on the time of year and where you live, much of the produce you eat might have traveled thousands of miles to get to your local grocer. An international study performed in 2006 (see References 2) estimated that the production and distribution of food and beverages accounted for 20 to 30 percent of a modern industrial nation's total carbon emissions. Every vegetable garden, and every homeowner growing vegetables instead buying them, helps reduce that number.
If you live in a city, your green thumb can make an even larger impact. The high density of pavement and rooftops in urban areas can create "heat islands," places where the sun's energy becomes concentrated. This creates an increased demand for cooling and air conditioning, which is a drain on energy and the environment. Backyard, balcony and rooftop gardens, as well as community gardens in formerly shaded areas, can all help provide cooling by reducing the number of unshaded heat-reflecting areas exposed to the sun (see References 3).
For years, doctors and nutritionists have stressed the importance of fruit and vegetables in a healthy diet (see References 6). Many studies have shown that those who grow vegetables and fruit in their own gardens are more likely to eat them regularly, contributing to a healthier lifestyle (see References 7). Gardening is also a useful form of regular, low-impact exercise suitable for all ages and levels of physical ability (see References 7). An increase in vegetable gardening, then, would tend to improve public health and reduce the need for resource-intensive hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
- Michigan Department of Environmental Quality: Using Organic Matter in the Garden
- European Commission Joint Research Centre: Environmental Impact of Products
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: What Is an Urban Heat Island?
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Green Roofs
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Trees and Vegetation
- USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 Edition: Executive Summary
- USDA Economic Research Service: Local Food Systems Concepts, Impacts, and Issues
- Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images