As the nation grappled with severe food shortages in the World War II years, then-Prime Minister John Curtin urged Australians to “Dig for Victory”. No, we weren’t looking for a war-ending silver bullet down in the mud – it was a call-to-action to roll up our sleeves, pull up our lawns and start growing veggies with battle-like determination.
The idea was quickly picked up by the press, industry and community groups, and it wasn’t long before gardens sprung up in front yards and neighbourhood plots around the nation. These so-called ‘victory gardens’ gave everyday Aussies the feeling that they were contributing to the war effort on the home front, in a meaningful way: raising money and morale, taking pressure off under-staffed agricultural systems, and putting food on the table of struggling families.
While we might not be at war today, we are facing some serious collective challenges. Just think back over the past 24 months here in Australia – we’ve weathered catastrophic bushfires, floods, the COVID-19 pandemic, the fractious state of the global economy, worsening climate change, and the mental health crisis… just to name a few!
And these challenges are taking a significant toll. Not just on the environment, but us as people. You might have heard the term “eco-anxiety” raised, referring to the relatively-new mental health condition of being severely distressed about the state of the planet. It’s something that’s on the rise particularly among our younger generations – and is reportedly getting worse.
But while our eco anxiety is generally worsening as climate inaction persists, what we do know is that it can be eased on the individual level when we start taking positive environmental action.
One such activity, which is just about universally accessible, is gardening.
The return of the victory garden
Around the world, the victory garden is making a post-war comeback as a way for everyday people, community groups, organisations and even governments to take positive action to lighten our environmental footprint. And we’re not just talking backyard veggies anymore.
Growing a climate victory garden is a call to arms to plant out and green up every spare patch of land we have at our disposal – people’s private gardens, window boxes, balconies and terraces; vertical building walls, rooftops, lobbies and courtyards; and public verges, sidewalks, river banks, schools, playgrounds, churchyards and public lands. And the beauty of it is that anyone can do it.
If you’re thinking, “Yeah, plants are nice – but is a bit of pottering really going to change anything?”, you might be surprised that plants can save us from just about everything from creative blocks to climate change. Here’s why gardening – no matter how big or small – is sooo worth the effort.
Environmentally, plants build critical topsoil and sequester carbon. Topsoil is the all-important, uppermost layer of soil that all plants – including our food – grow in, and which has been in a state of severe erosion and degradation worldwide for decades now, thanks to processes and practices like urbanisation and deforestation. Planting trees and plants literally puts life back into the ground, which in turn, provides the organic structures for more life to grow and flourish, forming even more soil. And so by tending to a garden, you’re giving the cycle the opportunity to go on. And on. And on.
In addition, anytime you plant into bare ground and build life into topsoil (i.e. by growing any of these seven layers of plant material), you have the added environmental benefit of sequestering carbon: drawing carbon down from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, accumulating biomass, and finally building carbon into the soil organic matter. And this ability of plants and trees to soak in carbon isn’t inconsequential; land-based carbon sinks – i.e. forests and bushlands – play a critical role in keeping our greenhouse gas balance in check, absorbing around a quarter of all our global emissions (Project Drawdown).
Socially, victory gardening can bring the community together at a time when we’re more disconnected than ever before. It’s a chance to get outside in the fresh air and meet new people, foster connections, learn new skills, and share resources.
On an individual level, there’s a growing mountain of evidence that shows gardening is extremely beneficial to our mental and physical health as it:
- heightens our ability to concentrate and restore us from fatigue
- increases our ability to retain information
- boosts productivity
- Significantly drops reported rates of depression, anxiety, and anger
- Benefits our cardiovascular and metabolic function
We can reap these benefits with as little as 30 minutes of gardening a day, according to researchers (Soda, Gaston & Yamaura 2017).
And finally, gardening is a huge win economically. The proven mental and physical benefits of gardening leads to workers taking less sick leave and putting less strain on our health care systems. And when we garden using the nature-based principles of permaculture, then we grow an abundance of healthy, local produce. Having an abundance of food locally available means people can more easily afford a better quality of life.
It’s also been found that green, garden-rich suburbs mitigate the Urban Heat Islant Effect (it’s been found that suburbs and cities get literally hotter as they replace nature with concrete, pavement, roads and buildings), so are less reliant on running expensive (and greenhouse gas emitting) air conditioning systems for cooling. Green leafy suburbs have the added bonus of attracting a higher price tag on the sale of homes (Tabet 2021) – so a gardening hobby might just be key to adding value to your property!
Let’s get digging
There’s no better time to get started on a climate victory garden than now. On June 5th this year, the United Nations launched the Decade of Ecosystem Regeneration which is about preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of the world’s ecosystems. Our current cities and suburbs are a far cry from the way these ecosystems were organised in the past, so regenerating them requires awareness, commitment and action from both the everyday people who live in them, and decision makers who manage them.
It’s also the middle of winter which means it’s the perfect time to sort out your plans for a thriving spring garden. Whether you have a balcony, backyard, windowsill, verge or a broad-acre farm, you (yes, you!) can play a part in making the world better. Everyone has a part to play and a patch to plant – as Anne Marie Bonneau says, we don’t need a handful of people doing it perfectly – we need millions of people just doing something.
Here’s some of my top tips to planning your spring climate victory garden:
Make a realistic plan
So we’ve established that plants = good, but for a really successful growing venture, you need to think about what outcome you’d like to achieve; what’s manageable given your time, skills and support network; what spaces and resources you have at your disposal; and your patch.
For example, an achievable beginner garden could look like:
- Growing edibles on your windowsill for cooking, decorating, brewing and eating
- A safe, sensory outdoor garden for your kids to grow and play in
- Lush, colourful outdoor flower beds that attract local pollinators
- Backyard, front yard or sidewalk veggie patches for feeding your family (and the neighbours!)
- A tropical indoor jungle that cleans your indoor air, reduces stress and boosts your focus and creativity
Take stock of your patch’s ‘wild energies’
Wild energies are the natural forces that can either help or harm your garden, depending on how you harness them. Your best tools for assessing these energies are simple observation, chatting to locals, and a little desk research.
- Sun: take advantage of the sun’s seasonal movements to capture it in winter and exclude it in summer. SunCalc is a great tool to see how the sun travels over your home. Your local nursery or garden centre will be able to help you choose plants accordingly.
- Water: consider where rain falls, how it’s diverted, where your closest water source is, and how you currently use it. Consider how you can better capture, keep and retain water for the garden –for example, can you recycle grey water? Collect excess water used for showering or cooking? Schedule watering during the cooler parts of the day to slow down evaporation?
- Wind: notice where wind usually flows from, and design barriers such as hedges or fences to block damaging gusts. If possible, look for ways to direct wind towards a turbine, chime or across water for evaporating cooling.
- Foot traffic: note where people pass through the site. If your garden is high maintenance, consider a location that is somewhere you frequently pass – for example, grow salad greens along the path to your clothesline, or on a windowsill. Something that requires less maintenance, such as a tree, can be planted in less-trafficked areas.
- Wildlife: your garden will attract visitors, both good and less good. In outdoor garden in particular, consider including native flowering varieties that will attract local pollinators such as birds, bees and butterflies. You can keep the unwanted ones away by planting pest-repelling plants, or those that attract pest-controlling pollinators such as ladybugs. Check with your local nursery to find out more.
- Region: where you live will play an important part in what’s going to succeed in your garden. For example, consider if you live in a tropical area, a high rainfall area, close to the coast, or in an area that’s experiencing drought.
Talk to the experts
Taking the above into consideration, spend some time researching and chatting with some gardening experts to figure out which particular plants you should choose, and the most appropriate garden beds and pots to grow them in. This could be the horticulturalist at your local nursery, a green-thumbed grandparent, or diving into online resources – or all three!
From here, you can take all of that knowledge and draw up the perfect plan for your indoor or outdoor garden that’s smart, sustainable and has the best possible chance of thriving.
Belinda Bean | Collective Impact Strategist
*State Library of Queensland Australia (via ABC News, “Could COVID-19 spell the return of the ‘victory gardens’ of World War I and II?”, March 2020)