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Domesticated nature: Motivations for gardening and perceptions of environmental impact

Key Message

The benefits that gardeners get and the ways they use their yards reflect a value for experiencing nature, and the yard is a significant source of satisfaction as well as social approval.


Clayton, S. (2007). Domesticated nature: Motivations for gardening and perceptions of environmental impact. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27(3), 215-224.


Gardening is a popular pastime in the United States, worth investigating because of its potential for important effects on the individual as well as on the ecosystem. The present study was designed to investigate motivations for gardening and their relationship to attitudes toward nature and to gardening practices. Understanding such motivations may inform attempts to promote more sustainable gardening practices. One hundred twenty-six visitors to a garden center completed a survey about benefits from gardening, uses of their yard and concerns underlying their gardening practices. Results suggested that appreciation for nature was a significant motivation for gardening, but that social concerns and uses were also important. Both nature uses and social uses of the yard were associated with satisfaction. In general, respondents did not make a strong connection between their own private yards and the natural environment. Using the yard to appreciate nature, though, was associated with ecological considerations and concerns. A concern with practical issues like cost and ease of maintenance was negatively correlated with using the yard to appreciate nature, and was unconnected with satisfaction. Implications for encouraging sustainable gardening practices are discussed.

Gardening is an important activity for many Americans. A 2003 survey by the National Gardening Association found that 78%, or 84 million, of US households participate in some do-it-yourself lawn and garden activities (Butterfield, 2006). It is one of the principal ways in which they experience nature. Yet the gardening and yard care practices of homeowners can have a significant negative impact on the natural environment (Steinberg, 2006). Such practices include planting invasive non-native species, which can have harmful effects on the local ecosystem; heavy use of water, which can be in short supply; and the application of toxic chemicals, which can have a negative effect both locally and farther afield (National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, 2006). For example, 74% of US households used industrial pesticides and fertilizers in 2001, approximately 16 million kg annually (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). Thirty-seven percent of species listed as endangered are at risk from the use of pesticides (Robbins, Polderman, & Birkenholtz, 2001). Homeowners are more likely to overuse pesticides than are professionals (Pimentel, 1991). It is estimated that 7 million birds die each year due to lawn pesticides (National Audubon Society, 2006). Alternatives are available. A number of initiatives exist to encourage home gardeners, even in urban settings, to adopt practices that make their gardens more hospitable to native wildlife. Such practices include using native species of plants, reducing pesticide use, and installing ecologically diverse landscapes that provide food and shelter for wildlife. The Audubon Society has its Audubon at Home program; the National Wildlife Federation (2006) will certify yards through its Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Horticultural Society is conducting a Wild About Gardens campaign with the Wildlife Trusts (Winterman, 2005).

3.1. Participants and procedure
People visiting a private nursery and garden center were approached in the parking lot or on the grounds and asked to complete a survey about their attitudes toward gardening. Those completing the survey were entered into a raffle for a $50 gift certificate from the garden center. The surveyor remained nearby in order to answer any questions. Surveying was conducted for several hours a day over 4 consecutive summer days. Precise statistics about response rate were not recorded but approximately one-third of those approached agreed to participate. All surveys were anonymous. One hundred and twenty-six surveys were completed, 100 by women, 22 by men, and 4 with sex unspecified.


A substantial literature examines the importance of place attachment, which can be defined as a sense of identity or connection as well as dependency to a physical environment. Place attachment is typically (though not always; see Manzo, 2005) conceptualized in terms of residential settings. A garden attached to a residence can provide the significance to identity often associated with the home as well as the significance and benefits associated with the natural environment (cf. Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Wilson, 1984).

Based on interviews with people about places that were important to them, Gustafson (2001) found three broad (and overlapping) themes that provided the basis for meaning: Self, others, and environment. With respect to a garden, the self-related factors can be found in things like activities in the garden as well as self-identification as a gardener. Factors related to others can include the social relationships facilitated by gardening as well as the social implications of being associated with an attractive place. Environmental meaning comes from the physical features of the garden and from its symbolic significance.

The benefits of gardening were rated from most to least important as follows: Spending time outdoors, observing nature, relaxation, controlling the appearance of the garden, working with my hands, novelty (e.g. trying out new plants), producing food or herbs, demonstrating my effort, and demonstrating my gardening expertise. A repeated-measures ANOVA showed that there was a significant difference among the means for the nine benefits (F[8, 936] ¼ 16.05, po.001, Z2 ¼ .36). Post-hoc comparisons were calculated to see which means differed significantly from each other; significant differences are indicated with subscripts in Table 1. Broadly, spending time outdoors, observing nature, and relaxation were rated as significantly more important than all other benefits. Demonstrating expertise, demonstrating effort, and producing food or herbs were rated as significantly less important than other benefits.

The ways in which people use their yard were as follows, from most to least important: A place of beauty, a place to observe nature, a place to socialize with friends, a place for recreation, a place to promote biodiversity.

The set of motivations identified as most important in the present research centered on an appreciation of nature. The benefits that gardeners get and the ways they use their yards reflect a value for experiencing nature, and the yard is a significant source of satisfaction as well as social approval. This is similar to the findings of Kaplan and Kaplan (1989). In a survey of over 4000 members of the American Horticultural Society, they found that sensory benefits (colors, smells, beauty), peacefulness and tranquility, and fascination with nature were rated as the most important benefits of gardening. As in the present study, these benefits outranked novelty, producing tangible benefits, control, and achieving a neat and tidy appearance.

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| © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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