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Circular Gardening

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about circular economies. It’s a concept that challenges our current “take + make + waste” linear economy and turns it into a circular “take + make + use + reuse + remake + recycle” economy – designed to reduce or eliminate waste altogether.

The concept isn’t new. Indigenous nations around the world have subsisted this way for tens of thousands of years. Only recently since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century have we started to greatly introduce waste into our model of economics like never before.

Taking a look around at the state of the planet is a reason why we should all be thinking circular.

Why Think Circular?

1. Nine Planetary Thresholds

I watched a valuable documentary on Netflix called Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet narrated by Sir David Attenborough and starring Swedish scientist Dr. Johan Rockström. In this film, they discuss nine planetary thresholds that we are approaching, have recently crossed, or have dramatically crossed.

These tipping points are climate, forest loss, soil nutrients, biodiversity, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, ocean acidification, fresh water, air pollution, and novel entities (other pollutants). In four of these, we have already crossed far into the danger zone: climate, forest loss, nutrients, and biodiversity.

The main message of the film was that these nine thresholds are what we, as humans, have within our power of control to change and are the most important levers we can move to either continue toward ecosystem collapse or return to a more stable planet.

2. United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs)

In addition to these ecological thresholds, I’m also interested in the social, political, economic, and environmental goals outlined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 urgent calls to action are being asked of humanity in order to reduce poverty, inequalities, climate change, and improve overall quality of life around the world.

While several goals relate to what we can do at home when it comes to sustainability and food production, there is one target under the goal of “Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns” that stands out for me personally. Target 12.8 states: “By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.”

This is something that stands out to me as requiring a shift in how we view and interact with nature and our gardens in our own backyards.

3. Systems Thinking

With so many large and complex world issues at hand, another concept that I’ve been exploring lately is systems thinking. Systems thinking helps us to look beyond singular issues and solutions to more system-wide issues and solutions. The article “Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking” by Leyla Acaroglu explains a few ways we can reshape the way we look at tackling problems.

Acaroglu states that “Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected. We talk about interconnectedness not in a spiritual way, but in a biological sciences way. Essentially, everything is reliant upon something else for survival. Humans need food, air, and water to sustain our bodies, and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Everything needs something else, often a complex array of other things, to survive.”

For me, thinking of large world problems leaves me in a frozen state of disarray and helplessness. I know I can’t tackle all of the world’s problems but I can make choices in my small zone of control. I also hope that those choices can lead to positive change not just for myself but for my family, friends, children, and community. To me, that’s a win and when we make positive changes, we radiate that into the world which helps to lift others up.

Why Circular Gardening?

I deeply believe that in order for every one of us to feel like we are able to take action toward the nine planetary boundaries, UNSDGs, and make positive changes, we need to start small and we need to start local.

Awareness of the bigger picture is valuable but if you are like me and freeze at the thought of too many complex issues to tackle, I hope that the following gives you some hope that your actions matter. Systems thinking might just get us there and starting on this small, personal scale is a way to begin building this awareness.

Let’s take a look now at how we practice gardening

I believe that living a lifestyle that is in harmony with nature (UNSDG 12.8) in the context of our own backyard garden includes three major concepts:

  • Reducing linear thinking and consumption patterns
  • Recognizing interconnectedness
  • Fostering curiosity and observation

Let’s explore these now through some examples:

Reducing Linear Thinking and Consumption Patterns

When I think of linear gardening I think of this process:

  • Take: We take resources from the Earth (peat, soil, nutrients, minerals, wood, paper, etc.) or create synthetic materials such as plastics.
  • Make: We use these materials and resources to make pots, potting soil, fertilizers, seed packages, and to grow plants.
  • Waste: When we are finished with these materials and resources, they become waste in the form of unrecyclable plastic nursery pots, we don’t compost the natural materials, or we throw them in the garbage.

You may or may not identify with the above process. I certainly do. I’m not perfect and I don’t believe anyone is, but I do know that I have the ability and need to change my practices. If you see waste in your own gardening practices, please read on.

As humans, it’s hard to see how our individual actions affect “the whole” system. In the film Breaking Boundaries, Attenborough states: “There is one… transformation that is vital. It would bring us back towards the safe zone within all our planet’s boundaries. Imagine a world without waste – with nothing to throw away. Our waste is created by design. When we make products, we rarely build in the means to recover the raw materials. If we turn that linear system into a circular one, designing products so that the raw materials can all be recovered, our use of resources could be infinite… Eliminating waste would bring us closer to the safe zone for climate, biodiversity, and especially nutrients, novel entities, and air pollution.”

Let’s look at this from the viewpoint of our gardening consumption patterns:

Seeds: Beginning with seeds, sometimes we buy them online and they are shipped from hundreds of kilometers away, sometimes we purchase them at a local store (still shipped from hundreds of kilometers away), sometimes we obtain them locally through friends, family, or exchanges, and sometimes we save seeds from our own gardens each year.

Pots: Next come the containers that we grow our plants in. Some of us purchase plants from nurseries and garden centres. These come in plastic nursery pots. Some of us reuse existing pots, recycled plastic or cardboard food containers, use poly grow bags, or we make our own pots from cardboard, newspaper, or other materials.

Growing Media: If gardening in pots, you’ll need some kind of growing media. This may be peat, coconut coir, rockwool, compost, garden soil, or maybe recycled paper. Some of us don’t grow in pots but rather plant seeds directly in our gardens outdoors. Some have in-ground plots of land, some have raised beds, some have modular designs or large permanent planters.

Nutrients: What types of nutrients do we use? Some of us use natural or organic nutrients like manure or worm castings, and some use chemicals like Miracle-Gro, some use soil mixes that contain nutrients, some use their own compost from their own backyards or compost purchased from the landfill or in bags. Some of us use mulch to cover our soil.

Water: Where does our water come from? Do we use tap water, ground water, lake water, rain water? Do we store or capture it anywhere? Does it come from city water in a garden hose?

Insects: How do we treat insects in our garden? Do we know which ones are eating our plants or which ones are eating the ones that eat our plants? How can we identify them? Are they “pests”, “beneficial”, “harmful”? Are we using cultural controls (planting the right plant in the right location, planting disease-resistant varieties), mechanical controls (hand-pulling weeds, picking off bugs, using netting or plastic covers), biological controls (observing how predators interact with prey naturally, encouraging pollinators), chemical controls (spraying insecticides or herbicides), or are we combining all of the above?

Harvest: How do we harvest our garden? Are we watching it regularly and harvesting at peak times? Are we waiting too long for the fruit to become overripe? Are we overplanting too much and end up with a surplus that doesn’t get fully used? Are we only planting what we are able to use? Are we preserving our food in ways that allow us to enjoy it year-round? Are we only eating it fresh? Are we throwing most of it out?

Post-Harvest: What are we doing with the plants after harvest? Are we composting them ourselves? Are we piling them in a heap? Stuffing them in brown yard waste bags and putting them to the curb? Leaving them in place over winter? Are we planting cover crops in the bare spots?

As you can see, there are many different ways that people garden, all with varying levels of waste, resource use, soil depletion, soil regeneration, attitudes toward insects, ways of harvesting, and more.

Recognizing Interconnectedness

Now that we’ve explored what linear gardening looks like and how this could translate into consumption patterns, let’s explore the concept of interconnectedness.

I turn to my treaty neighbours for their wisdom when it comes to interconnectedness as I very much value and appreciate their ways of knowing and being. I work in post-secondary education and found a great open text called “Pulling Together: A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services and Advisors” by Ian Cull et al. In this text, the authors write: “While there is great diversity among Indigenous Peoples, there are also some commonalities in Indigenous worldviews and ways of being. Indigenous worldviews see the whole person (physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual) as interconnected to land and in relationship to others (family, communities, nations). This is called a holistic or wholistic view.”

In addition to this concept of interconnectedness, I also love this passage from the First Nations Pedagogy website by June Kaminski:

“First Nations relationships fully embrace the notion that people and their families are strongly connected to the communities they live in, their ancestors and future descendants, the land they live on, and all of the plant, animal and other creatures that live upon it. They know they are stewards of the Earth and have traditionally lived in harmony with their environment for millennia. Their traditional practices boast amazing sustainability, ecological awareness and knowledge, and a strong scientific understanding of the earth, weather, cycles of the seasons, medicinal and food sources, marine foods and harvesting, and creating everything they need from nature’s bounty. Before colonization, these practices and systems worked perfectly and in harmony with the world around them. They left a very light footprint upon the earth.”

As someone who is non-Indigenous, I am working to unlearn, relearn, and adopt a more holistic worldview in my own life. I deeply believe this is the path forward if we are to address the planetary thresholds discussed in the Breaking Boundaries film as well as many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Fostering Curiosity and Observation

I believe the reason why many of us haven’t learned about alternatives to linear gardening or why we don’t recognize interconnectedness is because this is not how our current dominant, Eurocentric linear economic system works. Unless we have family, friends, Elders, neighbours, horticultural societies, networks, and communities that practice sustainable (what I am calling circular) gardening, we never learn about it or gain experience with it. The take + make + waste cycle continues until we become aware of the impact of our actions, learn about alternatives, and gain experience practicing in a new way.

So what does this alternative look like?

I am currently learning about this myself. There are many communities out there that already practice circular gardening, but to me, this is new. I did not grow up this way, nor have I been mentored in any way to this method. I am, however, looking to those who have practiced this method of love and care for Mother Earth for thousands of years – Indigenous cultures and communities.

I was introduced to some of these concepts by an Anishinaabe colleague of mine in our local college, Ghislaine Goudreau. She and I have been working together on a course that she is developing called Taking Care of Shkagamik-Kwe (Mother Earth). Together, we are learning about not just Anishinaabe culture, but the many cultures that have honoured this land for millenia before us. I am looking to these knowledge keepers to learn about traditional and ceremonial ways of being, doing, and knowing that give more back to the land than is taken. A true, reciprocal, relationship with the land. Borrowing and receiving. Regenerative. Circular.

Looking to this wisdom, I have learned that the alternatives to take + make + waste are numerous. We have a choice to make a change in our practices. We do not need to continue the destruction of Earth’s resources, but instead give back. By design, we choose to reciprocate this relationship with Mother Earth by giving back to our soil as a “thank you” for what it has given us so that new life can come from it in the future.

Many of us still practice gardening the way it has been practiced for hundreds of years but now with more chemicals and more waste.

I hope to shift this narrative to elevate the voices of those who have lived in a cycle with nature and don’t see themselves as separate from, but a part of it. Not a hierarchy with humans at the top but an interconnected ecosystem with humans a part of it. From a worldview of seeing insects as bad and dangerous to our gardens to a worldview of seeing insects as a part of our gardens, as a whole picture that shows they live here too, with us. It is fascinating what we see when we get up close.

There is a whole world of amazing life happening right in our own backyards. Developing this curiosity about the beautiful interconnectedness that exists in our home gardens and learning how to stop, look, and listen will do a lot to hone our observation skills and awareness of the ecosystem that exists right where we are.

Dr. Rockström from the film Breaking Boundaries states: “Mother Earth is under continuous diagnosis and continuous observation. The digitalization and the hyper-connectivity in the world of science and in the world of observation now means we’ve covered the whole planet with knowledge. What if we are now entering a new, unique geological epoch that is not only geophysically defined but also defined by the fact that we have a new consciousness embedded inside the planet?” This observation does not need to be purely scientific or driven by experts.

Every one of us can stop, look, listen, and just be in the presence of nature in our backyards.

Final Thoughts

Personally, I continue to struggle with the questions of:

  • Am I introducing more harm in my practices of using plastic pots, peat, city water?
  • Should I be monetizing garden plants, something Mother Earth provides us for free?
  • Am I introducing more harm by not yet collecting rainwater because I haven’t found the “perfect” way to do this yet?
  • Am I seeing the bigger picture or am I too focused on the details?
  • Can I move the needle just a little bit in my own areas where I live, work, and spend time to a more positive outcome?

While nobody is perfect, I do believe awareness is the very first step toward change. Many of us are likely happy to continue gardening in ways we’ve been taught, have always done, and have little desire to change. I believe anyone who gardens still has at least some connection to nature. This is a great start. I also believe that gardeners have a mindset that they care about where their food comes from and that they appreciate the beauty and joy that their garden brings to them. This is also a great start. I also believe that gardeners are willing to be some of the first to shift the ways in which we practice.

Each spring we make choices on what we will grow, how we will grow it, and what we will do with our harvests. From the small balcony gardens in pots to the large areas dedicated to a garden in our backyards. If we can move the needle just a little bit in our own practices, I believe we could then influence friends, family, neighbourhoods, communities, cities, provinces, and our country to do better; to live in harmony with nature, in ways we may not have been taught ourselves.

It starts with us, as small as we think we are. It’s not just our actions but our mindsets. We can make a difference with a shift to a more holistic, circular way of thinking.

Let’s work together on the many ways to achieve this.

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