Gardening is great for the environment, right?

Why your plants may have a more negative impact than you expected, and how to fix it.

Alex Hureau
6 min readNov 14, 2020
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Domestic gardens are great. Whether you grow plants in the back garden of your home or on the window bench of your apartment, there are countless benefits to adding plants to your everyday life. They look good and help brighten up any living space. They can feed you and be used for aromatic purposes. They can even help boost your productivity levels. As you may have deduced from the title of this article, however, we’re not here to go over all the benefits of gardening, but rather to see how we can lessen some of the environmental impacts it may have, and perhaps even transform some of these into net positives. From the soil used when replanting to the water usage, there are some pitfalls that are not immediately obvious when making decisions regarding our plants. So, let’s have a look at some pitfalls that should be avoided, why they’re unsustainable, and some good alternatives.

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Sometimes also called turf, peat is the name given to the partially decomposed layer of organic matter, mostly from plants, that can be found on the soil surface in certain areas where decomposition is notoriously slow. Peatlands are highly effective at trapping CO2. While covering only 3% of the planet’s surface, it’s estimated that 15% to 30% of the planet’s carbon is currently trapped in the form of peat. In fact, globally, they store more carbon than all the forests combined. While decomposing matter does emit CO2, the rate at which it happens in bogs (another name for swamp) is so slow that they manage to capture more carbon than they emit. However, with a growth of only 0.5mm to 0.6mm per year, it can take thousands of years to accumulate a meter or two. Since the only thing keeping the CO2 trapped is the fact that it takes even longer than that to decompose, the best thing to do with bogs is to leave them alone. Suffice to say, with climate change knocking on the door, peatlands should be preserved as much as possible.

Of course, we burn peat for heat and use it for growing plants in places where it will rapidly decompose. An estimated 25% of global peatlands have already been destroyed, and, even though there is a clear understanding of the negative impacts of peat extraction, very little has been done to protect them. In fact, a quick trip to your local gardening store will probably reveal that many soils are advertised as containing some peat. With few people being aware of the destructive impact of removing peat from its environment, why wouldn’t they buy this very efficient soil for their plants?

Fortunately, peat is in no way a requirement for gardening and can be avoided easily by looking at which soil you purchase. Your plants may require a bit more care, but peat is certainly not needed when it comes to gardening at home.

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Pesticides and fertilizers

An entire debate can be had about pesticide and fertilizer use in agriculture, but we’re not going to get into today, as industrial farming is an entirely different topic than home gardening. That being said, both are available for purchase for home users, so there is a discussion to be had on this topic. There is no denying that pesticides, especially when used poorly, can have a devastating impact on the local environment. Not only that, but pesticide poisoning is potentially responsible for the death of thousands each year, mainly due to excessive and inappropriate use. There is a reason the list of instructions is so long when you purchase some at your local gardening store. The same goes for fertilizers, which tend to leak into local waterways and cause havoc.

Thankfully, crop maximization and the threat of hunger are not usually major concerns when gardening at home. Furthermore, there are some alternatives that are readily available and easy to implement in the setting of your home. Composting is a well-known one, so we won’t go over it too much, but suffice to say that it’s a good way to use your leftover organics. Companion planting, however, is not sufficiently talked about.

Companion planting is the idea of combining different plants that are mutually beneficial for one another. For instance, planting fragrant herbs next to your other plants helps repel insects that may be looking to feast on your garden. Similarly, if you’re looking to increase the amount of nitrogen in your soil, planting beans can be an easy solution that also happens to provide something you can eat afterwards. There are numerous lists that can help you find out which companion plants fit well together, and it will also help make your garden more diverse and interesting.

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Invasive species and foreign plants

During the age of sail, it was common for ships to use rocks or soil as ballast to counteract the effect of the wind and keep the ship upright, unlike a certain Swedish vessel. This soil often contained insects and seeds. Purple Loosestrife, a plant species native to Europe, made its way to North America in such a way in the early 19th century. Highly successful in its new environment, it proceeded to spread rapidly thanks to the fact that a single plant can produce up to 2.7 million seeds per year. Still around today, it does what invasive plant species typically do — make it difficult for other plants to grow, endanger fragile ecosystems, and be a general nuisance, in this case by regularly clogging canals and making farming more difficult.

Today, we no longer travel by wooden boats taking weeks to cross the oceans, but instead, we can buy invasive species in our local garden centers. Why plant a local species when you can choose one from abroad that will rapidly expand and kill off local ones? Decorating your home with a climbing vine that grows a few meters a week means it can rapidly spread and kill other plants by covering their source of light. Even on a balcony, seeds from invasive plants can fly off into your neighbourhood and rapidly outcompete local plants.

Every region has plants that are native to it — for good reasons. They have evolved to live in symbiosis with other inhabitants of the ecosystem, and without encroaching too much on other plants to the point of unbalancing the local flora. Maybe next time you’re looking to buy a plant it would be worth considering a local one. Bonus points if you find one in a plant-sharing group, as then you’ll be sure to avoid the impact of mass cultivation, as well as the risk of introducing a new invasive plant.

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Green doesn’t mean sustainable

Perhaps ironically, making your environment greener doesn’t mean it’s becoming more sustainable. There are countless more ways in which we can make it even less so. High water consumption, plastic use, constantly buying new seeds, the list of things that can reduce the benefits of home gardening are countless. At the same time, there are countless resources, from books, to websites, to web series, the options are out there. Domestic gardens are great, let’s make them even greater.