Waking up to the perfectly manicured and maintained gardens on Vassar’s campus every single day is a great privilege, one that students often take for granted. The amount of time, money, and resources spent maintaining the landscapes on this campus may seem prodigal but actually produce copious social and environmental benefits.
The truth is that among college campuses, Vassar is uncommon. While there are certainly other examples of colleges with impressive landscaping, Vassar’s campus also doubles as an arboretum and contains a farm and ecological preserve. On the other hand, some of the largest and most heavily-populated colleges in the United States are located in cities, where it is difficult to make spaces for natural beauty.
This trend reflects a nationwide phenomenon. For years, the art of horticulture has been on the decline. Between 1997 and 2017, the number of postsecondary institutions in the United States that offered degrees in horticulture declined by 43 percent (American Society of Horticultural Science, 2019). Between 2006 and 2009, the wholesale value of U.S. floriculture products decreased by four percent, reversing previous trends (USDA, 2010). Even more frightening is the pace at which urbanization continues to increase. Our World in Data projects that by 2050, 68 percent of the world will live in urban areas, as opposed to 54 percent in 2016 (Our World in Data, 2016). This, coupled with the rapidly expanding world population, means that very soon there will be limited green spaces in many parts of the world. To keep up with the ever-growing demand for resources and habitation means that in a lot of areas in the world, people will sacrifice natural spaces.
While the root causes of overpopulation and housing shortages are harder to address, it is easier to revive interest in horticulture. First, hobby gardening must make a comeback. Hobby gardening remains fairly uncommon in the United States. About 25 percent of households in the United States have gardens (Greenpal, 2021). Although this number is fairly small, hobby gardening has steadily increased since the early 2000s. While this is a promising trend, the majority of people in the United States still remain garden-less. Much of this is not their fault; maintaining gardens in urban spaces or communities of high population density is incredibly difficult. Moreover, in an increasingly demanding professional world, it is difficult to make room for a hobby as time-intensive as gardening. It’s doubly hard when considering how expensive and inaccessible gardening can sometimes be. To begin with, land is expensive, and buying land that does not serve an immediate purpose may seem like a poor investment to those who are unable to afford it.
These reasons are partially why indoor gardening has boomed in recent years. Fueled by the pandemic, a time in which many people searched for hobbies, people turned to houseplants (NPR, 2021). Indoor gardening is substantially easier than outdoor gardening, as the latter is more variable due to environmental difficulties. An increase in indoor gardening is a great first step, but we must also incorporate outdoor gardening in order to reap the full benefits.
The benefits in question are numerous, but the environmental effects of outdoor gardening seem most promising. While it is hard to discern the positive benefits of just one garden, enough gardens together could help combat climate change. Plants are very important sources of oxygen, and natural eliminators of carbon dioxide. While the scale of gardening is much smaller than oxygen production by forests, gardening is a great, relatively simple way to inch the needle closer to a healthier environment. This can even be possible in confined urban areas, where vertical gardens can be implemented to improve air quality (American Public Gardens Association, 2018).
Beyond this benefit, gardening can also substantially help reduce societal inequities in food insecurity, food deserts and air pollution. Trees and gardens are increasingly becoming a luxury only affluent Americans can enjoy. Neighborhoods with a majority of people living in poverty tend to have, on average, 25 percent less tree canopy than neighborhoods with a minority of people living in poverty (New York Times, 2021). In cities, where this phenomenon is most apparent and where space considerations and soil quality tend to prevent the upkeep of gardens, community gardens are a great way to provide more equitable living conditions. Access to nutritious food is integral to living a healthy life, and having locally grown food in urban centers reduces the amount of emissions that are produced in the transportation of produce (Green Leaf Communities, 2013). While it is hard to negate the overwhelming effects of air pollution in cities, setting aside precious green space can help work towards a cleaner, healthier environment.
Additionally, caring for plants can provide significant mental health benefits. One of the reasons gardening, both indoors and outdoors, boomed during the pandemic was because of the calming, peaceful nature of the hobby in a time of crisis (NPR, 2021). “The satisfaction of doing something active that can also help you feed your family and calm you through anxious times may be why so many of us felt drawn to our gardens big and small during the first wave of the coronavirus disease outbreak” (Better Homes and Gardens, 2021). Physical contact with soil has been scientifically shown to produce mental health benefits. Certain microbes in soil have been known to boost serotonin production in the brain, which can help combat depression and improve mental health (Medical News Today, 2007).
While the art and science of horticulture have seen a decline long-term in the United States, in recent years, hobby gardening at least has begun to make a slow comeback. This newfound love and appreciation for gardening must be fostered and made more easily accessible. Gardening and horticulture help to combat climate change and environmental issues, aid in bridging the gap between the affluent and the impoverished, beautify spaces, and improve mental health. Putting emphasis on continuing to revive hobby gardening as an art will help to improve society in many spaces, and create a better global environment.