Down the Garden Path to Billions of Dollars of Free Public Services
by Wayne Roberts — Podcast episode 045 guest 

Each of North America’s 50 million home gardeners has a personal reason for loving the time they spend doing gardening. The most common reason is that people savor the connectedness to their own homegrown food that’s cheaper, tastier and more meaningful than food from a store. 

That seems very individualistic. But what few people know is that home gardens improve the lives of everyone in their community – even those who don’t so much as set foot in a garden, do a stitch of work, or take one bite of homegrown food. 

By my count, every backyard food garden creates at least 30 free benefits for everyone else in the community. If we multiply 30 good deeds times 50 million home gardens across North America, that adds up to about 1.5 billion benefits for North America’s public health, environmental services, public education, neighborhood improvement and social well-being. 

I’m including some immeasurable “soft” benefits, such as the beauty and fragrance of plants enjoyed by neighbors as they walk by a garden. 

But I’m mostly talking about “hard benefits” -- sometimes with a direct and immediate cash value in terms of savings of public monies, and sometimes with long-term financial value added to community health and well-being, public education and environmental services. 

Until I finish the series, I won’t put a hard value on all the immediate and long-term financial benefits of home gardening. But I guarantee the final number will be in many billions of dollars. You won’t be surprised at that estimate when you check out the small sample of five benefits presented here under one theme alone.

How does your garden grow, indeed!!! Cockle shells and some billions of dollars you don’t have to shell out. 

Rich public benefits from home gardening are easily achievable right now to local governments, boards of education, public utilities and a range of public service agencies. They can invest modestly immediately, and more significantly once they see the high and fast returns on investment. 

Economists have special ways of describing the process I’m trying to promote. The formal term for contributions to the public good which come from individual or company activities is “positive externality” – the opposite of pollution, which is classed as a “negative externality.” Because of positive externalities, gardening has the same kind of impact on public health, public education, social well-being and environmental services as a rising tide that lifts all boats. 

The economists also have a term for the services that are provided by Mother Nature, or by nature when tweaked by gardeners. They’re called “ecosystem services” or “environmental services.” Wild pollinators make possible a billion dollar fruit industry. That’s an example of regulating services. Porous soils in garden beds absorb enough rainfall to save billions in damage from sewage system backups as a result of storm water. That’s a case of supporting services. There are also cultural services (beautiful areas for hikes or holidays, for example), and provisioning services, such as honey from wild bees or berries from wild bushes. 

Government policy experts have a special name for activities that produce a raft of benefits all over the place – “multi-functionality.” Home gardens have both positive externalities and multi-functional benefits, in spades.

Economists also have a name for missed opportunities caused by neglect of opportunities staring us in the face, hidden in plain sight. It’s named opportunity cost

When you look at the list of benefits below, I’d like you to imagine the cost of ignoring opportunities to work with gardeners to optimize the public returns on home gardens. I also ask you to imagine what some green thumbs in public services could do to grow and harvest some wonderful benefits. 

This full series of presentations will present opportunities for over 30 public goods produced by home gardens. In this first presentation, I look at five benefits that avoid local taxpayer expenses while improving the quantity and quality of environmental services for all of today’s and tomorrow’s community members.

You’ll be amazed at how easy and rewarding it is to do the right thing. 

Save Local Taxpayer Money with Free Environmental Services

If local governments, school boards and other public agencies were part of a joint venture with food gardeners, they would tap into a “virtuous circle” (opposite of the more common “vicious circle”) of benefits that come with sizeable savings for taxpayers, while improving public health, child and adult education, and environmental services.

A logical place to begin, if only because of the huge amounts of savings to be quickly gained, is with composting of food and yard waste.

From Nature’s point of view, composting is one of the most useful and pollution-free tools ever invented for preventing organic waste and recirculating organic resources to create rich soil. From a city government administration’s point of view, composting is one of the lowest-cost and effective tools of waste and resource management. From the point of view of the people living in a city, composting adds a new skill to the population and a new way of creating employment that wasn’t there before; it turns material that used to be wasted into an economic asset. 

That’s an example of the triple bottom line of home gardening – good for the environment, good for city finances and good for the economy.  

These Multi-Million Dollar Savings Deserve a Soiled Reputation

People often call composting “the twin sister of gardening.” Gardeners love the sweet aroma of compost, and love digging it into their garden, because it brings their soil to life, saves it from ever being referred to as dirt. Them’s fighting words, because dirt is dead soil that’s been trampled on, and soil has bounce that puts a spring in a gardener’s step.

The alchemy of compost turns wasted money on wasted food into millions of dollars worth of savings and public benefits, while cleaning and restoring basic elements of life -- air, water and soil. These gifts are made available to large populations, now and into the future.

Compost is a solution to a mess of problems.

Americans throw away well over $160 billion dollars worth of food a year, according to the US Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Defense Council. Canadians are said to waste $31 billion worth of food, almost half of which is tossed by households.  That’s the value of one heaping serving of waste. 

The costs of wasted food keep repeating themselves. One new landfill site in Toronto costs, replacing one filled too quickly with too much food waste, cost 250 million dollars. In the US, the estimated cost of dumping solid waste is about 50 dollars a ton. Taxes go up to keep up with the food tossed down a hole. 

Gardeners who compost can help eliminate much of that financial waste, while saving themselves a tidy sum of money by avoiding purchases of soil conditioners. 

What starts to happen proves the old saw about garbage being a resource in the wrong place. Put in the right place, a lot of wasted materials become regenerative – part of a different lifecycle that renews resources in a circular economy.

The amount of garbage that’s prevented by composting adds up more quickly than most people think – if all they think about is wasted food. The savings add up quickly because, as some excellent guides explain here and here, high-quality and quick-ready compost hungers for a ratio of 30 parts carbon materials (most available from tree leaves, yard waste, sawdust, woodchips, cardboard, brown paper bags and napkins, for example) for one part nitrogen (most available from grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, and animal manure, for instance). 

Compost happens, as the saying goes, and in practice, a happening compost pile has two parts carbon- rich materials (fallen leaves, for example) for one part nitrogen-rich materials (mowed grass clippings, for example). 

Composting enables gardeners to rescue much more material from general waste than food waste – roughly twice as much. That’s just one among many examples of how gardening doubles down when it comes to benefits! 

In economic terms, this means that the rate of return on investment from composting food is double the volume of food waste. Think of that when you pick up brown and bleach-free paper tissues, towels and serviettes as carbon-rich materials, and thereby rescue them from the garbage can and put them to work in your composter. 

You’ll know you’ve really communed with composting when you also toss in a host of mineral-rich items that are usually tossed in the garbage or down the drain. There are many studies to prove that all sorts of wasted odds and ends contribute big-time to mineral-rich soil – human and pet hair; the residual ashes (also here) left after a fire; clippings from fingernails and toenails. We are, after all, part of nature, and like the rest of Nature, proceed on life’s circular path from “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Every litter bit helps reduce the load that is declared so useless that it has to be hauled away for landfill. 

Imagine saving all the money on separate garbage truck trips to pick up each of those individual servings of wasted materials over the entire span of spring, summer and fall!

The amount of material that used to be picked up by garbage trucks just keeps piling up in a composter, where a thick layer of carbon materials is placed atop a thin layer of nitrogen materials. Over a few months, the waist-high pile of the mix is cooked down to a small pile of compost. Instead of costing money to dispose, this compost from waste materials is so worth saving that it’s commonly called “black gold.” 

That’s the power of food waste used in the backyard chemistry set! As the saying goes, waste is a verb, not a noun. We waste it, but it’s a resource, not waste! Gardeners who compost save everyone money, not just themselves.

The benefits don’t stop with avoiding garbage pickup and landfill costs. Landfill comes with its own list of negative externalities and these junkyard externalities can all be avoided. 

In a landfill, the damp food scraps seep down, picking up toxins from heavy metals and other materials tossed together in a landfill. The falling water eventually finds its way out in the bottom as toxic leachate, which enters the water table and water supply. 

Meanwhile, above the water table, where solid waste is piled atop wasted food, the oxygen-starved food waste rots and gives off methane gas. This gas, akin to natural gas which could be captured to generate energy, causes 25 times more global warming emissions than the commonly-named culprit of global warming, carbon dioxide. 

For a community that wants to save money while protecting air and water quality, avoiding landfill of compostable materials is an ideal place to start. Two huge environmental problems can be avoided while slashing costs of disposing food and yard waste.

And there are still more solid public benefits to add. 

One relates to improved soil quality that comes from adding compost to the garden beds.

Adding compost can help revive soils which otherwise face dangerous rates of nutrient decline. 

Almost all North Americans get fewer nutrients from their food than their ancestors did. According to widely-cited articles (see here, here and here) by Texas biochemist Donald Davis, the quantity and quality of nutrients in 27 different fruits and vegetables dropped significantly between 1940 and 1991. 

Some of this decline was likely due to breeding programs for seeds that emphasized yield over nutrients. But much of the decline was likely due to exhaustion of soil nutrients from working the land too hard and creating conditions for erosion of rich topsoil. The life of soil communities -- especially the rich topsoil with its microbes, insects and creepy-crawlies – urgently needs to be revived. This can be done by adding compost and minerals. 

Overcoming the decline of food’s nutrients will likely threaten food security quite soon. It’s hard to manage overeating and obesity when smaller serving sizes no longer contain needed nutrients. It’s also hard to meet the food needs of a larger world population when more food is needed to maintain basic nutritional needs. 

Backyard gardens may well become restoration and regeneration zones where “less is more” because smaller plots can be managed more intensively, and with a sharp eye to compost quality and mineralization. That could well be a life-saving contribution of gardening to the general welfare.

Equally vital to the future is the role of composting and gardening in improving soil by increasing its organic carbon content. (See here and here.) 

Ecology and business analyst Paul Hawken has convinced many people that carbon can be drawn down from the atmosphere, where it causes global warming, and stored in soil, where it can add to fertility. That scenario turns compost-rich garden beds into life rafts.  

At the risk of sounding ridiculous: I ask this question: Do you think these kinds of money- and life-saving public benefits could convince local governments to provide free high-grade composters to gardeners, and then offer some hands-on training in their proper use as a resource management tool?

Let me go a bit further by talking about revisions to how city planners understand food gardens. 

Old-school city planners used to heap scorn on the idea of growing food in the city. Food gardens are far from the “best and highest use” of city land, they all used to insist until at least 2001, when I and others began calling for a turnaround in attitude. (see here, here and here) When space for a retail store rents out at 25 dollars a month, they’d ask, how can you justify growing a dollars worth of potatoes a season on a square foot of land? 

Well, given the hard costs and real dangers of picking up and dumping a ton of waste food and other materials in a regulation landfill, a few square feet devoted to black gold seems like a candidate for highest and best use. Given that food gardens have five kinds of benefits under this one tiny category of municipal savings, planners might reconsider their old attitudes.

Most jurisdictions have a planning or land use act that allows planners to modify regulations in return for community benefits. A developer might be allowed, for example, to build an extra story higher than the plans call for; in return the developer will donate money for a “community benefit” project, such as a childcare center. 

What if planners designated gardening and composting space as community benefits that could offset the developer’s benefit of adding another floor of apartments? That’s a small practical gain, but an ever bigger policy gain, because planners would buy into identifying garden-related measures as having community benefit. 

Imagine what could happen once this new mindset settled in!!

PART 1 SUMMARY: Benefit 1 is millions in avoided costs of landfilling a wide range of presently-wasted materials. Benefit 2 is avoidance of harm done by global warming emissions from organic materials at landfill sites. Benefit 3 is avoidance of water pollution from leaking organic materials at landfill sites. Benefit 4 addresses the steep decline of food security from soil depletion and reduced nutrients in foods. Benefit 5 comes from drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, where it leads to global warming, and storing it in garden soils, where it increases fertility. Benefit 6 is new jobs to convert once-wasted resources into valuable assets to increase fertility and the quality of food production.