My vegetable garden surprises me every year and every year I incorporate more sustainable gardening practices. I love to watch the seedlings I plant grow and produce things I can eat. In fact, one year I had so many cucumbers I learned how to make pickles. Sometimes I get volunteers—last year it was tomatoes that planted themselves. Nature is amazing, but things don’t always go my way. Sometimes plants don’t grow or thrive and that’s when I need help–there are only so many times I can Google my way out of the mistakes I’ve made in the garden.
Toni Farmer is not afraid of making mistakes in the garden and is willing to pass on what she has learned. With 30 years of gardening experience and a Masters of Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, Toni is the person to ask about sustainably growing fruits and vegetables in your backyard. Toni is an expert in sustainable gardening practices. She believes in backyard gardening, but also in policy change for global results. Toni is our Softly Superhero of the month and we asked her about sustainability and the impact she has made on the environment. More importantly, she gave us her top 7 tips for sustainable gardening.
Toni, how did you become an eco-warrior, and what’s your secret to staying motivated?
I believed climate change was an issue for years, but it was going to grad school at the University of Pennsylvania that really helped me understand the big picture and how much of a crisis we are facing. Honestly, I often came home from class feeling pretty depressed about the issue, but I am routinely encouraged by all the brave and committed people in my field that are working to solve these problems.
How do you think your work is going to change the world for the better?
My work focuses mainly on how climate change is impacting our global food supply. Drought, floods, heatwaves, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and increased pest pressure are all making it harder and harder to grow food. At the same time, our population is increasing, so we have more mouths to feed. Currently, almost 800 million people are food insecure in the world. I believe backyard gardens are not the answer, but they are a very good tool in the tool box to help families supplement their food supply. Backyard gardens help eliminate food waste and allow people to eat locally while also eliminating chemicals like pesticides from their diets.
How do you measure your environmental impact?
I am always looking for ways to be more sustainable. I try not to purchase new items and to reuse or up-cycle whenever possible. I love my local refill market to reduce waste. As much as I am a fan of individual strategies to reduce our carbon footprint, I believe it will be good policy that gets us out of this mess. Federal and state polity that offers a carrot – incentive to install solar or purchase an EV – and a stick – penalties for wasteful and unsustainable production/consumption will be the way we make real change. Remember the fog in LA in the 80s and the acid rain in the 90s? Good policy addressed those issues and we fixed them. Even the ozone is healing. We have the research and the technology to fix the climate change issue, we just need good policy to enact and enforce the solutions.
What’s the most out-of-the-box idea you’ve had for promoting sustainability, and did you try it out yet?
I love out-of-the-box thinking, but for the last few years I have just focused on the educational part of my platform. How can I communicate the how-to’s of gardening to a population who no longer has any idea how to grow food or even where their food comes from? I use videos and daily Q&A on Facebook to communicate to a wide variety of people of all ages who are just getting started. I hosted a garden festival in 2021 that I’d love to do again that drew families and individuals to my personal garden for lectures and tips. It was really fun! I also created a garden journal to help gardeners keep track of what worked from one year to the next.
To bring the garden into your kitchen, check out this video from Toni Farmer about making quick pepper pickles.
What’s the craziest obstacle you’ve had to overcome on your sustainability journey, and how did you tackle it?
I think being brave enough to challenge people who don’t believe that climate change is man-made, but also wise and kind in the way I communicate that information so people won’t be defensive. It feels crazy to me when someone says, “hey it’s really cold today so climate change must be a lie.” Or “there is nothing I can do about it.” The biggest challenge is changing minds and encouraging action. On a personal level with gardening, there is still so much single use plastic and I am always looking for ways to reduce what I bring home from the garden center.
If you could have any superpower to help you make the world a more sustainable place, what would it be?
I would wave my magic wand and allow food to grow everywhere, like the Garden of Eden without pesticides or other synthetic inputs. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Fresh organic produce everywhere!
Fresh organic food for everyone to have nutritious meals does sound amazing! You might not get the Garden of Eden, but you can get a good start by following these sustainable gardening tips from Toni Farmer.
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A sustainable backyard garden may not solve climate change, but it can make you happier and healthier.