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Gardens make the world a better place

“With the advent of farming, our options increased, and our relationship with nature changed. We came to regard the wild world as something to tame, to subdue and use. We moved from being a part of nature to being apart from nature.”

— David Attenborough, “A Life on Our Planet,” 2020

I must admit that my early gardening perspective largely reflected notions of taming the wilderness about which David Attenborough writes in his book. When I was a kid helping my dad in our vegetable garden, I pretended we were pioneers, growing our food off the land and tending the farm animals (actually our dachshund, Gretchen, and two guinea pigs).

I helped my dad build raised beds on top of the Bermuda grass in our suburban backyard, but I imagined that Pa and I had carved our vegetable patch out of the wilderness, and we had to keep the garden “tame” by watering, weeding and pruning.

Even as a gardener with more experience, I retained the image of wresting my tomatoes and tulips from the reluctant earth. I believed it was the gardener’s job to cajole nature into producing what we wanted from our garden. It never occurred to me to think of my garden as a habitat, rather than just a growing space that I managed for my own use.

In recent years, however, my gardening perspective has changed as I have learned more about garden ecosystems and how they are connected to the surrounding environment, whether in the city, suburbs or rural areas. The trees, shrubs, grasses, herbaceous perennials and vegetable crops in my raised beds are all part of the intricate web of life that exists in my home landscape.

I’m not the master of this web of life, but I am a part of it as certainly as my yard is not an island but part of the neighborhood ecosystem, which is part of the Rogue Valley ecosystem, and so on. The land and bodies of water are all connected habitats even though humans have drawn property boundaries for our own purposes.

President Biden’s inaugural speech Wednesday appropriately focused on the importance of unity. He reminded us that Americans are all connected. Like our yards, Americans are not individual islands, and the United States is not separate from the rest of the world. It’s going to take a united effort within our country, and with other countries, to meet the formidable social and environmental challenges that lie ahead.

In his book, Attenborough notes that enacting legislation that addresses the fact that people and nature are interconnected will require building an economic system that moves away from perpetual growth and a singular focus on profits to one that also measures prosperity by the wellbeing of our planet and all of the people who inhabit it. He describes an alternate economic system called the Doughnut Model, developed by University of Oxford economist Kate Raworth.

The Doughnut Model consists of an outer ring that represents ecological boundaries humans must not surpass in order to maintain a safe, sustainable Earth. Components of the outer ring include climate change, ozone layer depletion, ocean acidification, air pollution, loss of biodiversity, land conversion, freshwater withdrawals and fertilizer use.

The inner ring of the Doughnut Model includes social factors that represent minimal requirements for human wellbeing: good housing, health care, clean water, food, access to energy sources, good education, livable income, political voice and social justice.

Some countries, such as New Zealand, Belgium and the Netherlands, are already updating their economic systems to reflect current understandings about human-nature interdependence. New Zealand’s “wellbeing” economic approach was initiated by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2019 to shift the nation’s priorities away from pure growth to better address social and environmental needs.

The Doughnut Model offers a useful compass for gardeners to practice “wellbeing economics” when making purchasing, planting and growing decisions. Do our gardens and gardening practices contribute to or help mitigate environmental concerns?

Gardens also play an important role in supporting human wellbeing. In relation to the Doughnut Model, they enhance our homes, provide food, help keep us mentally and physically healthy, and help us learn more about our connection to the natural world. In addition, the plants in our garden clean groundwater and are the foundation for all life by trapping energy through photosynthesis.

When we buy food, plants and seeds from local companies that value their workers, our purchases make a statement about our food politics and advocacy for social justice. When we grow a row of vegetables for the local food bank or share our extra produce with neighbors, we make connections by sharing the goodness of gardens and gardening.

I may be biased, but I believe gardeners have a special role in making the world a better place for all of us.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her blogs at www.literarygardener.com.