Sweat drips down my back as I work under a hot July sun. I carefully select only the reddest tomatoes that squish in protest against my probing fingers. I move down the row and harvest several varieties of lettuce and head inside to make lunch.
In between sips of cool lemonade, I munch on a crisp summer salad and reminisce about family traditions. My dad and I have planted a garden together for 15 years. Gardening taught me many lessons, and I plan to pass those on to my children when we plant our own.
Planting seedlings, composting and watering with a rainwater irrigation system all showed me the effects my behavior has on the harvested fruit or vegetable and the local environment of my backyard.
Gardening offers practical lessons in environmentalism, a combination of ideology and social movement that advocates environmental protection. According to the National Resources Defense Council, current environmental issues include stopping global warming, preventing pollution, ensuring safe water and fostering sustainable communities.
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These are problems that will need to be solved in the next century by the millennial generation and our children.
But how will solutions be found if nobody cares?
I have encountered numerous peers who tell me environmentalism is for hippies and tree-huggers and not worth their time. In fact, members of my own political party are the worst violators. A Gallup poll found worry over environmental issues decreased the most for participants who identified as conservative from 2000 to 2015.
I am not suggesting that planting a backyard garden will help solve current environmental issues, but finding solutions to these problems begins with a deep appreciation for our planet that is rooted in respect.
And that respect can be discovered in our backyards.
As a child, I never wondered how the tomatoes in the marinara sauce of my SpaghettiOs came to be or how the broccoli I was forced to eat sprouted as the flowering part of the plant. I never made the connection that Earth provides the necessary “ingredients” for food growth until I started a small kitchen garden with my dad.
One year our garden was anything but plentiful, complete with rows of stunted tomato plants and green bean vines that never climbed their trellis. I could not believe we would not have vegetables! My dad helped me brainstorm ideas about what went wrong. Since the plants were shorter and not withered, we decided to check the soil quality.
Trowel in one gloved hand and plastic sandwich bag in the other, I carefully scooped a small sample of dirt into the bag to be analyzed by our local community college. Our soil results came back low on major chemical components needed for growth, including nitrogen and phosphorus.
Why would the chemicals needed for plant growth run out if Earth had a seemingly endless supply?
My dad explained that the soil did not have an endless supply of nitrogen or phosphorus. He reminded me that we had planted for several years and that over time soil loses its nutrients. By gardening year after year and not restoring the soil, we depleted it of its food making “ingredients.”
I soon realized that our actions had direct effects on the environment.
We started a composting regime using leftover eggshells and vegetable and fruit scraps and were able to restore the health of the soil and the vitality of our garden. Not only did I learn that my actions could have negative consequences for the environment, but I learned that I could have a positive impact, too.
I would not have learned this valuable lesson if my family hobby had not introduced a respect for my home – my backyard and Earth.
The best way for children to begin to learn about their environmental impact is through a respect for the day-to-day places they experience, including schoolyards and backyards. Youth should experience growing a garden with their families or with classmates to establish that respect. I plan on instilling the virtue early on in my children through a humble, yet always teaching, vegetable garden.
Megan Dunton lives in Raleigh.