Wildlife & Nature

Cultivating Change: Growing Awareness Impacts Gardening Practices

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Master gardeners Diane Jones, left, and Linday Robinson volunteer at the University of Rhode Island’s soil testing kiosk. (Courtesy photo)

KINGSTON, R.I. — After decades of clipping, spraying and controlling home landscapes to conform to a European aesthetic, American gardeners are starting to adopt more sustainable approaches.

In Rhode Island, evidence of this growing trend, and an increased interest in gardening in general, can be found in the University of Rhode Island’s Master Gardener Program, which trains volunteers to serve as Cooperative Extension educators.

One of the first in the nation, the program is now in its 45th year and has trained thousands of gardeners. In the past two years, it has become more popular than ever, since the COVID-19 lockdown kept Rhode Islanders at home and people became more interested in their own landscapes.

The 12-week Master Gardener “Core Training” program, which costs $475, can accommodate about 150 students, but this year, 225 people applied to the program — a 20 percent increase over 2021 and the greatest number of applicants ever.

Program leader Vanessa Venturini attributes the new interest in gardening to several factors, which include people spending more time at home, the fragility of the food chain, higher food prices, and a greater awareness of the environment and climate change.

“I think interest has risen over the past two years as we’ve been forced to stay at home and seeing the fragility of our supply system and especially when it comes to that reality of rising food prices, so people are a lot more interested in sustainability and growing their own food and building up their own practices in general,” she said. “I hope, and do see so far, that it’s a trend that’s here to stay … I think that’s really indicative of the overall trend they’ve seen across the whole U.S., of more people spending time in their gardens and growing food.”

The program’s recent switch to online training, Venturini said, has made it accessible to more people, and as a result, the demographics of the students have become more diverse.

“That’s been another huge focus, is making sure that we’re not just reaching the same audiences, but how can all Rhode Islanders benefit from the information in the programs that we have,” she said. “We’ve taken a whole new look at social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, and one big area is access, and realizing they can take the course online opened the door to people who weren’t able or willing to drive down to URI in the evening for the courses in the past.”

And there’s another important change: Younger people are discovering gardening, and bringing with them a greater concern for the environment.

“I think gardeners themselves are more interested in what they can do for the environment and how their work as gardening volunteers can contribute to the overall community,” Venturini said.

The concept of a connection between home landscapes and surrounding ecosystems has been underscored in recent years by scientists like entomologist Douglas Tallamy, author of several seminal books on the subject, including “Bringing Nature Home” and “Nature’s Best Hope.”

Georgia-based garden writer Joe Lamp’l, who reaches millions of people with a popular gardening podcast, a gardening academy and the PBS television show “Growing a Greener World,” believes that Tallamy and others have had a profound influence on how people perceive and manage their gardens.

“Now, we’re talking about leave the detritus, and hold off on your cutback, and leave the leaves and think about no-till gardening — gosh, in the last few years, some of these terms have really become kind of mainstream, whereas before, you really rarely heard of them, if at all,” Lamp’l said.

In Rhode Island, the connection between certain home gardening practices and their effects on the ecosystem is undeniable, such as excess applications of lawn fertilizer contributing to problems in both fresh and salt waters.

Algae blooms and the resulting oxygen depletion, or hypoxia, are becoming more common in coastal waters and salt ponds in the summer, when water temperatures rise. In fresh water, the warm weather proliferation of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue green algae, renders many ponds toxic.

Lamp’l, a garden communicator for 30 years, said many gardeners have not yet made the connection between what they do on their own properties and the impact that might have on the ecosystem.

“They’re just trying to have a nice yard and trim bushes and edge driveways and they’re doing what they want to do to make that happen, and they don’t understand the unintended consequences of some of the things they do, like ‘What can I spray on this to kill it?’ Well, there’s a number of things, but here’s the residual impact of that,” he said.

Lamp’l also noted, however, that the general level of environmental awareness among his gardening academy students is growing.

“It’s amazing how in tune they are with wanting to grow their own food and some of the reasons they take the course is to learn how to do that better or learn how to do it in a more environmentally responsible way,” he said.

Venturini said the growing awareness of the connection between home gardens and the health of the environment is also a factor in attracting more younger students to the program.

“It feels like things are a lot more urgent now in terms of climate change and what we can do in our own yards to make sure that we’re creating carbon sinks … actually helping with biodiversity and reducing water quality problems, even from the practices that we do in our gardens,” she said.

Lamp’l said he was encouraged to see a more diverse group of gardeners taking his courses, which focus on organic gardening practices.

“It’s so encouraging for me to see a much younger class of people, of all demographics, investing in their education toward gardening and self-sufficiency and that just makes me so happy,” he said.

Like the record enrollment in the Master Gardener Core Training, Lamp’l said his gardening academy had also experienced a bump in enrollment when the pandemic lockdown began.

“This time of year, last year, when everybody was still locked down and people had cabin fever and they really wanted to look into gardening, we had so many students — and it stuck,” he said. “That’s the other thing. It wasn’t a fad. Maybe for some people it was, but at least the people we are in touch with and see come and go, they really don’t go.”

Editor’s note: Cynthia Drummond will next explore the trend of converting lawns to meadows.

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