Original article:
Translated by Juliette Paemelaere

Several cities are implementing shared gardens within their territories, hoping this will enhance their citizens’ health, while contributing to their overall effort towards sustainable development. Yet, the exact impacts this practice has on gardeners remain unclear. To answer this question, INRAE researchers investigated on shared gardens in Montpellier. Their results, published on 26 November 2020 in BMC Public Health, are surprising. After one of practicing, the gardeners had not really changed their consumption habits and behaviors towards sustainability. These unexpected results encouraged the researchers to keep investigating to understand the dynamics at play.

Envision a scenario in which you can grow your own cabbages, carrots and strawberries not far from your house after work or on the weekend. This scenario is gaining popularity among French people, as 79% of them consider gardening as a source of pleasure (according to a 2019 study by UNEP*). More and more people are taking part in “shared gardens” associations. These gardens can be shared totally (all users work on the same parcel) or can include individual parcels. This growing social phenomenon has gathered attention worldwide, and conclusions from research show that people who enroll in shared gardens tend to consume more produces and increase their amount of physical activity, while proving healthier and developing more social bounds in general. However, a systematic literature review on the correlations between shared gardens and health, published on 17 May 2021 in Nutrition Reviews, highlights the limits of existing studies – more specifically, the review points out to their crosscut aspects which rules out any causality relationship. Does participating in a garden encourage healthier behaviors, or do these pre-existing behaviors motivate participation?

This is what INRAE Public Health & Nutrition researchers tried to understand. They followed 66 apprentice gardeners enrolled in shared gardens in Montpellier. For a year, their lifestyle has been compared to a sample of 66 non-practicing volunteers. The non-practicing cohort was a resembling social sample in terms of age, sex, income, household structure, etc. For their study, the researchers evaluated the three following dimensions of sustainability: health, environment and economy. At the end of the year, among the 66 new-gardeners, 16 had abandoned their gardening activities. The most active ones (56%) were going to the garden on a monthly basis. The scientists did not notice any effect of this activity on the households’ food practices (nutritional quality, environmental impact, cost). Neither did they observe any evolution in their physical activity, mental health or connection to nature. When looking at the scientific literature, one can wonder what are the reasons behind this trend.

To understand, the researchers undertook thorough interviews with several gardeners at the end of the study. The interviews showed that even though these people were beginner gardeners, they were already aware of their consumption habits and their environmental and health impacts. To be part of a garden was often considered an extra step in their pre-existing sustainable consumption approach. Many felt discouraged by their lack of knowledge in maintaining a vegetable garden, as well as limited by their active life constrains. These limitations caused them to reduce their personal investment in the practice.

This study shows the limits of shared gardens in France and invites to think about new and more adapted forms which could ease participation and appeal to other types of audiences.

*Union nationale des entreprises du paysage: National Union of Landscape Companies